GM Salmon Headed to Rivers and Stores Near You

GM Salmon

Story at-a-glance -

  • The FDA is considering approval of genetically modified (GM) salmon, which grows faster than conventional salmon
  • No other country has approved a GM animal intended to enter the food supply
  • Environmental and food-safety groups have raised alarms that the GM salmon could devastate the environment and pose unknown health risks

By Dr. Mercola

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been considering the approval of AquAdvantage genetically modified (GM) salmon since 1993. After reviewing the research, which reportedly came from the salmons' creator AquaBounty, the FDA concluded in 2012 that the fish was likely safe for human consumption and would not put the environment at risk.1

Three years and a public commentary later, the FDA has yet to make a final approval, and environmentalists and food-safety advocates alike have expressed serious concerns about unleashing GM food animals into the US – a decision no other country in the world has approved.

The GM salmon are engineered to grow about twice as fast as typical farm-raised salmon. This is achieved by inserting the DNA from two other fish, a growth-promoting gene from a Chinook salmon and a “promoter” gene from the eel-like ocean pout, which essentially keeps the growth hormone flowing 24/7, leading to eerily fast growth.

While a typical salmon might take up to 36 months to reach market size (and grow only in spurts during warm weather), AquaAdvantage GM salmon is ready for market in just 16 to 18 months.2

Since it grows so fast, it requires less food (by about 25 percent) over the course of its lifetime – and half of its feed is replaced with plants instead of fish, making them about 0.25 cents a pound cheaper to produce than conventional salmon.3 All of these "benefits" may come at a steep price, however, should one of these GM salmon escape into the wild…

What Would Happen if GM Salmon Make It into the Wild?

AquaBounty's GM salmon would be grown in tanks on land with additional filters, screens, and netting used to block any drains or pipes that could provide an outlet into nearby waterways.

And female eggs will be sterilized prior to leaving the facility, using a process that has a 99.8 percent sterilization rate (which means 0.2 percent are still fertile).4 Nonetheless, AquaBounty therefore claims any escape into the wild is "virtually impossible."5

But if history is any indicator of future of events, the GM salmon will one day find a way into the natural environment. We're already seeing the unintended consequences of GM crops popping up where they're not supposed to.

And "super weeds" and increasingly resistant pests are rapidly spreading and wreaking havoc across American farmland, while the human health concerns keep mounting.

When scientists take genetic modification even further, tinkering with genes in insects and animals, the consequences may be even steeper.

When a Purdue University computer model tracked the effects of releasing just 60 "Frankenfish" (GM salmon) into a population of 60,000, there was a complete extinction of the normal fish in just 40 fish generations…

George Leonard, writing for the National Geographic, also addressed the issue of escape potential with the following statement:6

"While this initial application to grow GE salmon is for land-based facilities, the prospect of even larger profits from growing GE salmon in the ocean will certainly create pressure for approval in these more environmentally risky [ocean pen] systems in the future.

The U.S. is poorly equipped to deal with this future scenario. In June 2011, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco released a National Aquaculture Policy to guide how marine aquaculture proceeds in our ocean waters. While the policy includes some strong environmental provisions, it does not categorically prohibit the growing of GE fish in the ocean. It should…

Congress should work to pass Senator Mark Begich's PEGASUS [Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States] Act or similar legislation that requires FDA to take the environmental risks seriously before approving GE fish. If Congress doesn't act soon, the nation's ocean may suffer from FDA's efforts to chart a course for GE salmon."

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GM Salmon Might Flourish in the Wild…

A new review published in the journal BioScience also reviewed 80 studies to determine what might happen if GM salmon were allowed to intermingle with nature.7

For starters, behavioral changes were noted, such as the fact that GM salmon eat more, linger near the water's surface, and tend to be loners. They have reduced immune function and, of course, they grow much faster than their wild counterparts.

The researchers were unable to determine whether the GM salmon would overtake wild salmon, but stressed not to discount the possibility too quickly. In the case of AquaBounty, one of their facilities, on Prince Edward Island, is located next to an estuary, while the Panama facility is near a river.

Some experts have stressed escapes to be an "unavoidable consequence" of fish farming.8 Study author Fredrik Sundström, an ecologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, told NPR:9

"Invasive species also didn't evolve in the environment where they are now invading, and they still are able to survive and flourish. We could argue along the same lines with the [genetically modified] fish."

AquaBounty Fined by Panama Government for Regulatory Failures

One of AquaBounty's biotech facilities is located in Panama, where regulators have fined the company for repeated regulatory and permit violations. A 2012 investigation into the facility revealed a failure to secure necessary permits, particularly regarding water usage and pollution, and the violations persisted into 2013.

Panamanian authorities noted that the violations were significant enough to levy "almost the maximum fine allowable against the company."10 Not to mention, the violations raise even more concerns regarding the approval of GM salmon. George Kimbrell, a senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, noted:11

"This decision is also even further proof that FDA is dangerously out of touch with the facts on the ground, advancing AquaBounty's application based on its promises, not reality."

Dana Perls, a food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth added:12

"The FDA is going forward with its review based on the premise that this facility will be in compliance with regulations, yet now we're seeing it's not… It is increasingly clear that there is inadequate regulation: the FDA is trying to shoehorn this new genetically engineered animal into a completely ill-fitting regulatory process."

While the company has permission to test and develop the GM salmon, they are not able to sell it. As a result, about 62 tons of the GM fish have already been dumped in Panamanian landfills…13 There was also a report of at least one other biosecurity lapse, in which mechanical failures related to a storm resulted in "lost" salmon.14

Costco Remains Silent on Issue of Selling GM Salmon

The FDA's decision on AquAdvantage salmon will set the tone for the additional GM species currently in the pipelines. If the GM salmon is approved, it will pave the way for the about 35 other GM species under development right now, and one day make GM cows, chicken, and pigs commonplace in supermarkets… at least in those willing to sell them.

It's no secret that the US public is not wild about the idea of eating GM animals (although is already inundated with GM corn and soy).

About three-quarters of Americans have stated they would not eat GM fish, although to date there are no federal labeling requirements for any GM food (so you'd have no way of knowing if your fish was GM or not).15

To date, about 65 US supermarkets, including Target, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Safeway, and Kroger, have pledged not to sell the fish even if it's approved (once approved, the fish would take about two years to reach the market).16 Costco, however, which is one of the largest retailers of salmon in the US, is not among them.

A campaign lead by Friends of the Earth and allies has since succeeded in collecting 300,000 signatures asking the food giant not to sell GM salmon. The groups hand delivered the signatures to Costco's headquarters in June 2015. Danielle Friedman, organizing director of the Community Alliance for Global Justice, said:17

"By delivering these signatures directly to Costco's front door, it is our hope that they will no longer be able to ignore the risks posed by genetically modified salmon and make the pledge."

Environmental Groups Call on FDA to End GM Salmon Review, Citing New Risks

Friends of the Earth, Food & Water Watch, and other environmental groups called on the FDA to end its ongoing review of GM salmon earlier this year. The notion was prompted by a 400-page draft risk assessment from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which revealed a number of concerning findings regarding GM salmon:18

  • GM salmon are more susceptible to the disease-causing bacteria Aeromonas salmonicida, which suggests unique animal health problems and environmental concerns
  • Have demonstrated diminished growth rates in AquaBounty's commercial facilities, casting doubts over any potential "benefits"
  • Have displayed questionable performance, including inconsistent growth rates, which suggests "the growth-hormone gene construct inserted in the fish is not operating in a predictable manner, raising questions about the durability, safety, and commercial viability of GM salmon"19

Dana Perls added:20

"Major grocery chains, consumers, and salmon producers are all rejecting genetically engineered salmon… This new assessment adds to the body of science showing that this genetically engineered fish doesn't offer any benefit to aquaculture, has unique health problems and presents environmental risks. Why is the FDA continuing to spend scarce tax-payer dollars reviewing this fish that offers all risk and no reward?"

Take Action Against Transgenic Food Fraud

It's important to recognize that not labeling transgenic food is fraud. As an example, salmon spliced with an eel-like creature is no longer the salmon you would expect when seeing "salmon" written on a label. Not disclosing this fact is fraud because it is counter to a consumer's expectation. The burden should not be placed on the traditional salmon fishermen to get their nature-provided fish certified as GMO-free; the burden of truthful declaration of what the product actually is should be placed on the patent holder and producer of these transgenic organisms.

The same logic should apply to crops. Research has shown that there are significant compositional differences between GM soybeans and non-GM varieties, for example.21 Contrary to industry claims, the study found that they also differ in terms of nutritional quality, with organic soybeans having the healthiest nutritional profile. According to the authors, "This study rejects that genetically modified soy is "substantially equivalent" to non-GM soybeans."

For close to 20 years the American public has been exposed to these largely experimental, untested foods. The FDA claims GMOs can be presumed safe, and that there was an "overwhelming scientific consensus" backing up their decision to categorize GMOs as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) back in 1992. Yet the evidence shows that is a bold-faced lie. Steven Druker reveals this and much more in his book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public.

Scientists have also taken a firm and public stand against this oft-repeated lie. On January 24, a statement signed by 300 scientists, researchers, physicians and scholars was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, unequivocally asserting that there isnoscientific consensus on the safety of GMOs.22

If you want to get involved, The Center for Food Safety has created a petition asking the FDA not to approve GM salmon and, if the FDA insists on approving these genetically modified fish, to require the fish to be labeled. I urge you to sign it. Food & Water Watch has also created a petition asking members of congress to stop the approval of GM salmon.