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January 24th, 2013

GE Salmon: BIO’s Sacrificial Lamb?

Tim Schwab

If the Food and Drug Administration is going to take the unprecedented action of approving the first ever genetically engineered (GE) food animal, GE salmon, shouldn’t the agency should have a pretty good idea of what this fish can and can’t do?

AquaBounty Technologies, the makers of GE salmon, have managed to convince everyone that GE salmon can grow two times faster than non-GE salmon, which is supposed to revolutionize aquaculture.

Unfortunately, AquaBounty can’t prove any of this. And independent salmon growers and scientists have called these purported growth rates misleading.

The data AquaBounty submitted to the FDA indeed shows that GE salmon can grow faster than non-GE salmon—but only up to size of 100 grams, which is one-fortieth of the typical 4 kilogram market weight for Atlantic salmon. And this growth advantage only exists in comparison to what appears to be a particularly slow-growing non-GE salmon, which makes GE salmon’s growth rates look phenomenally fast.

Source: AquaBounty

Source: SalmoBreed

Infuriated with AquaBounty’s hype, and in response to a graph the company promoted on their website (top, right), the salmon industry has fought back, with one company, SalmoBreed, releasing the devastating graph (bottom, right), showing that GE salmon actually grow SLOWER than non-GE salmon. Compare these growth rates to AquaBounty’s public-relations graph at top, which compares GE salmon to an unidentified (but apparently slow-growing) “standard salmon.”

Salmon growers have spent decades selectively breeding salmon for faster growth rates (and a host of other commercially relevant characteristics, like disease resistance), coaxing fast growth rates out of farmed Atlantic salmon. A public-private research institute in Norway says that the years of breeding work have produced growth rates twice as fast as wild salmon, reaching market weight in as little as 20 months.

When challenged by these fast-growing non-GE fish, AquaBounty claims that “regulations” make it impossible to do a head-to-head comparison. That’s a convenient explanation for a company running a biotech operation that spans from Canada to Panama.

Even according to AquaBounty’s own growth-rate graph (at top) GE salmon do not reach a typical four kilogram market weight even close to twice as fast as the unidentified “standard salmon.” The AquaBounty graph shows that it takes a little more than 600 days for GE salmon to reach 4 kilos compared to a little more than 800 days for standard salmon. This isn’t even a 50 percent growth rate increase, much less the 100 percent increase that every news article attributes to GE salmon.

So, if GE salmon can’t actually grow fast—or offer any other obvious benefit—why exactly is the FDA spending precious resources trying to convince the public that is needs AquaBounty’s GE salmon, which introduces new risks to consumer health and the environment?

The answer is that the biotech industry has an enormous interest in seeing GE salmon approved through the FDA, regardless of whether it fails in the marketplace. Moving the first GE food animal successfully through the FDA’s weak approval process will guarantee that this friendly regulatory channel will be in place for biotech animals in the future.

In short, GE salmon is the sacrificial lamb. It seems likely to fail once it hits the marketplace, but it’s failure will still be a victory for BIO, the biotech trade group that spent around $8 million in 2011 lobbying on issues including GE salmon.

The FDA is not immune to industry pressure. Historically its policy makers on GE have come from a revolving door with the biotech industry. The Obama Administration also isn’t immune. Biotech companies and trade groups spent more than $550 million in the last decade lobbying congress and giving campaign contributions. 

The bigger question is what is going to happen to GE salmon when they are approved. Salmon growers have already expressed resistance to GE salmon and are going to be hard-pressed to find a reason to grow them, given their unimpressive growth rates and the comparatively larger production costs associated with biotechnology. More to the point, consumers have said they won’t eat GE salmon—another real-world dimension of GE salmon that the FDA will try to avoid by not requiring labeling on GE salmon.

It’s time that the FDA face the facts. The science simply isn’t there to support approval of GE salmon. The fish hasn’t demonstrated any benefits we need, while it potential risks to consumer health and the environment are well documented.

Let’s put the public interest ahead of the powerful biotech lobby.

Tell the FDA to stop GE salmon from hitting the market. 

One Comment on GE Salmon: BIO’s Sacrificial Lamb?

  1. William Germain says:

    Tim, thank you for your detailed account of what appears to be a highly-flawed approval process for GMO salmon at the FDA. I came to the F&WW website looking for recent coverage of this issue after reading a rather disturbing opinion piece by Emily Anthes in today’s NYT entitled “Don’t Be Afraid of Genetic Modification”. I was struck by how Emily Anthes’ account of AquaBounty, it’s development of the AquAdvantage product, and FDA approval conflicts with statements and reporting conducted by F&WW. In contrast to Anthes’ apparent cheerleading for the biotech industry, your work demonstrates a thoroughness commensurate to the importance of the GMO debate and its potential to impact human and environmental health. I would urge F&WW to submit a response to Anthes in the NYT to challenge her statements regarding the sufficiency of the FDA approval process as pertains to AquAdvantage salmon, expose the questionable claims and careless practices of AquaBounty, and urge a more careful consideration of transgenic food products prior to their being approved for human consumption.

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