FDA ponders genetically engineered salmon
by Jodi Frediani
As California’s native salmon teeter on the brink of extinction, ocean-based salmon farms attempt to keep salmon on the menu. While doing nothing to further the survival of native fish, the farms are guilty of the exact opposite. Lice from farmed fish are infecting the natives, concentrated waste litters the ocean floor beneath pens where fish are stuffed like sardines in a can, and escapees are crossbreeding with native strains weakening their genetic suitability for survival. Farmed salmon are fed dye to give them the rosy pink color we expect, pesticides to rid them of lice, and antibiotics to keep them alive.* Their adverse impacts on the environment and human health are believed to be considerable.
But a potentially larger threat to native salmon and human health looms on the horizon: genetically engineered (or modified) salmon. Frankenfish, if you will. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is poised to approve a plan by AquaBounty Technologies to produce genetically engineered salmon that grow twice as fast as native salmon, so they can “feed the world.” These fish start as Atlantic Chinook with genes of Pacific Chinook and “ocean pout” spliced into their DNA.
As we are reminded, Monsanto and other bio-tech corporations did not start creating genetically-modified seeds to “save the world,” but to privatize genetic information. In other words, their goal was to corner the market and make fistfuls of money.
If the FDA approves the sale of GE salmon for human consumption, this will be a first for genetically-modified food animals and will open the floodwaters for other experimental creatures on our dinner plates. Little research on health effects to humans has been conducted, and the FDA may not even require labeling of these genetically altered (GMO) fish so consumers can decide for themselves.
The FDA is in receipt of studies conducted by AquaBounty, the company that wants to feed you GE salmon, which show the following: GMO salmon have higher allergenic potencies, they are more carcinogenic—producing 40% more of a hormone linked to prostate, breast, and colon cancers in humans—, have the lowest omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of any salmon, and may change the bacteria in our intestines.
The GE fish themselves show an increased frequency of skeletal malformations such as “humpback” spinal compression and jaw “erosion.” In comparative photos, they look like salmon on steroids, and, like all farmed fish, they eat lots of fish-meal from the oceans which further depletes ocean fish stocks.
Claims that these fish will save wild salmon by reducing pressure on wild fish simply don’t hold up, as loss of habitat is the greatest threat to native salmon. Farmed fish, whether GMO or not, simply allow us to continue ignoring the huge problem of habitat destruction and loss. Dams, water use, sediment, logging, urbanization of stream channels and riparian corridors all contribute to degraded freshwater habitat. Climate change is altering the oceans in ways we have yet to understand. Salmon need both streams and the ocean. These iconic fish are born in coastal fresh water streams and rivers, and migrate into the oceans for a significant portion of their lives. They then return to the stream of their birth to spawn and begin the cycle anew.
While GMO salmon would initially be raised in inland ponds, escape is still a possibility, as eggs would get distributed world-wide. The effects of cross breeding between these engineered fish and their wild brethren are completely unknown. Will we take the risk? According to Gregory Moyer, Regional Geneticist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The environmental impact of escaped GE salmon is of great concern.” “I do think the chance of escapement is huge,” says Deborah Burger, Manager, Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The FDA veterinary advisory committee, rather than the food advisory committee, will be making the final decision. In November, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) introduced legislation that would ban genetically engineered salmon if approved by the FDA. But the biotech industry has a lot riding on FDA approval and has lobbied long and hard, pouring lots of money into the midterm elections.