By Tim Schwab
New research from Canada shows that genetically engineered (GE) salmon readily breed with a different species of fish: brown trout. This is a major finding, showing that escaped GE salmon could widely disseminate their genes into the ecosystem beyond native Atlantic salmon stocks.
It gets worse. The GE salmon-trout hybrids express “competitive dominance” over other fish in a simulated wild setting, substantially suppressing their growth.
What all this presents is an unambiguous environmental risk: escaped GE salmon may mate with other species of fish in whatever watershed they escape into, producing hyper-competitive hybrids that will outcompete native stocks for resources. The scientists behind the study prominently note that this issue needs to be “explicitly considered when assessing the environmental consequences should transgenic animals escape to nature.”
So, where is the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency regulating GE salmon, in this discussion? Characteristically silent, hiding from the science, and plowing ahead toward regulatory approval.
FDA hasn’t even surveyed the local watershed where GE salmon are supposed to be grown in Panama. That means we have no idea if brown trout exist in the watershed where GE salmon will be grown initially. It means we have no idea if other species of fish that could hybridize with escaped GE salmon exist there. This will probably be true of all future GE salmon production facilities, which will likely be in developing countries like Panama where there is extremely limited regulatory oversight.
When pressed on this issue by one of its own independent advisors in 2010, the FDA stated that it wasn’t its responsibility to consider the “local environment” where GE salmon will be grown. Is that really the approach that regulators should be taking?
AquaBounty, the company behind GE salmon, responded to the new study in its characteristically cavalier manner, saying, “there appears to be nothing of concern” with the study’s findings. The company says that the hyper-competitive trout-salmon hybrids will be sterile and, hence, of “little ecological threat.” But the hybrids will still have a major environmental impact on native stocks during their lifetime, suppressing growth of native stocks, even if it is true that they are sterile and cannot reproduce.
AquaBounty uses the sterility talking point an awful lot, disseminating the myth that GE salmon also pose no environmental threat because they are sterile. Even FDA openly acknowledges that up to five percent of GE salmon in production will be fertile. So when millions of these fish enter commercial production, this translates into tens of thousands of fertile GE salmon. If any of these fish, fertile or sterile, escape—because of a power outage, a bad storm, a simple employee mistake or theft—we need to understand what the environmental risks are.
The only way to do this is through independent, scientific review, which, increasingly, seems impossible at FDA. Luckily, there are a number of pieces of federal legislation being considered that would require the FDA to meaningfully consult outside expertise in its risk assessment of GE salmon. Tell your member of Congress to stop the approval of GE salmon now.