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December 16th, 2011

Will a Bad Week for AquaBounty and the FDA be Enough to Keep GE Salmon Off Our Plates?

Genetically Engineered SalmonBy Rich Bindell and Tim Schwab

Today marks one week to go before the holiday frenzy kicks into its highest gear. By next Friday, people will be so focused on holiday logistics that many consumers wouldn’t notice if the FDA green lighted AquaBounty Technology’s Genetically Engineered (GE) salmon, a scientific experiment they’ve been reviewing for close to two decades.

Although that will make for a nervous week around here, we are heartened by this past week’s latest round of criticism for GE salmon, as scientists lined up in the halls of Congress and on a National Public Radio debate to discredit a dodgy environmental risk-assessment of GE salmon. With so many concerns raised about its environmental impact, and given the FDA’s history of making controversial announcements right before a holiday, could this be the year the agency approves GE salmon?

When the FDA announced16 months ago that GE salmon was safe, many of us worried that regulatory approval was imminent. But in the intervening months, the agency has suffered slings and arrows from scientists and legislators alike, unhappy with the agency’s inadequate risk assessment of GE salmon, which, if approved, would be the first genetically engineered animal to enter the U.S. food supply.

In an NPR debate about the environmental consequences of GE salmon on December 9, Dartmouth Professor Anne Kapucinski, an expert on risk assessment for genetically engineered fish, highlighted major deficiencies in FDA’s environmental review, citing three major missing pieces: an uncertainty analysis, a quantitative failure-mode analysis and an analysis of the possible environmental impacts. Though the FDA did a cursory examination of the likelihood of GE salmon escaping, the agency did not examine the environmental consequences if salmon do escape.

These concerns were echoed at yesterday’s Senate hearing on “Environmental Risks of Genetically Engineered Fish,” called by Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK). The witness testimony included Dr. John Epifanio from the Illinois Natural History Survey; Ocean Conservancy Aquaculture Program Director Dr. George Leonard; journalist and author Paul Greenberg; and AquaBounty President and CEO Dr. Ron Stotish. Check out Eric Hoffman’s account of the hearing on his blog at Friends of the Earth.

Dr. John Epifanio testified that FDA lacked the expertise to evaluate the environmental risks of GE salmon, needed to offer more transparency in their risk-assessment and also complete a more comprehensive review. Senator Olympia Snowe’s suggestion that other federal agencies, like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S Fish Fish and Wildlife Service, be formally included in the regulatory approval was widely supported by all of the panelists.  All of the panelists, that is, except AquaBounty President Ron Stotish, who appeared exasperated as tried to fend off the onslaught of criticisms over the inadequate science used to assess the environmental impacts of GE salmon.

To wit, Senator Mark Begich asked Stotish about a recent $500,000 grant that AquaBounty received from the USDA to improve the company’s process for making fish sterile.  Begich asked, repeatedly, why the USDA seemed to feel that AquaBounty’s current process—which the company boasts as essentially eliminating the environmental impact of GE salmon because supposedly escaped fish would not be able to reproduce—needed improvement. It was a good question, and one that Stotish struggled to answer.

Author Paul Greenberg asked the trenchant question, later echoed by Senator Snowe, of what need the world had for GE salmon—in terms of food production, societal value or progress of science—and cited examples where selective breeding (not using genetic engineering techniques) had made major advances in salmon production, matching or surpassing the fast-growth rate claims of GE salmon.

Following the bruising AquaBounty suffered on the radio and in Congress, the company took yet another hit this week, as Food & Water Watch received news that AquaBounty’s egg production facility in Canada had tested positive for what appears to be a new strain of Salmon Anaemia virus in 2009. This virus can be deadly to salmon, and finding it in their facility calls into question the production practices of AquaBounty and the long-term viability of the company—and the GE salmon.

Indeed, it’s been a rough week and a rough year for AquaBounty, Stotish and the FDA. We hope that the FDA won’t close the year by rushing a final decision.  There’s certainly no shortage of reasons for them slow down and reassess the situation—major gaps in the risk assessment, deficiencies in the data, biased sampling—the list goes on and on.  Fortunately, scientists are now joining consumers in a chorus of criticism this holiday season, as we all sing out for more science, more transparency and more scrutiny.

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