Last month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) caved to industry pressure and approved what may end up being the most meaningless “innovation” of the 21st century, the world’s first genetically engineered food animal. The so-called AquAdvantage salmon has been widely rejected by consumers, supermarkets and even salmon growers, who see no benefits in this fish, but clear risks.
With no market or appetite for this fish, could the GMO salmon be dead-on-arrival? Literally speaking, the fish must be dead on arrival to American shores. That’s because U.S. regulators have not yet declared it safe to produce in the United States. It’s fine to produce it in countries like Panama, regulators say, but not yet domestically, so no live GMO salmon are allowed in the United States.
Seem odd? Like a double-standard even?
While the FDA has given the green light on safety, a different regulator, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has reservations. In 2011, Fish & Wildlife “strongly recommend[ed]” a much more comprehensive risk assessment (called an environmental impact statement) be conducted, and AquaBounty can’t begin domestic production without this go-ahead. This call for more and better environmental risk assessment has been echoed by some members of the FDA’s own advisory committee as well as leading academic researchers.
The FDA ignored these recommendations and issued its approval based on a very narrow, weak assessment of risks to the environment.
Safe Enough for Panama, But Not U.S.?
So, where does this leave FDA’s approval of GMO salmon? Until Fish & Wildlife gives a green light, salmon production will take place in foreign facilities, beginning in what The Guardian calls a “rundown shed” (definitely watch the video) in the highlands of Panama, a rudimentary facility that seems ripe for fish escapes.
Shortly after the Panamanian facility opened in 2008, a bad storm caused a major mechanical breakdown that led to “lost” salmon. Food & Water Watch publicized this information in 2012; FDA did not document the details of this major biosecurity breach until 2015 and appears to have been totally in the dark.
Just last year, Food & Water Watch helped uncover other problems in Panama about which FDA appears to have been, once again, in the dark. Turns out AquaBounty had to pay nearly $10,000 in fines to Panamanian regulators for environmental violations.
Those are just a couple of the many problems that have popped up in recent years, as we’ve learned again and again that what AquaBounty tells the FDA or tells investors or tells the public tends to be far from complete.
FDA Continues to Ignore Environmental Risks
Even as independent sources repeatedly show AquaBounty’s safety and benefit assertions to be misleading, the FDA continues to abide by its trust-but-never-verify approach. The agency has based its regulatory approval almost entirely on promises and data furnished by AquaBounty, not independent science or rigorous investigation.
AquaBounty’s fast-and-loose operations combined with FDA’s hands-off review process raises the risk of the worst-case scenario, an escape of GMO salmon. Once this happens, there is no possibility of retrieving them, and the environmental effects could be significant.
We do know that FDA has virtually no resources to monitor AquaBounty’s commercial operations, which grow fish and eggs at “in-land” facilities in remote locations in Canada and Panama. That will continue to be the case as the company expands production to countries like Chile, a country with a very large salmon industry that grows fish in a different model – big pens dropped in the ocean, which routinely allow fish escapes into the ocean.
Will AquaBounty start growing GMO salmon in this escape-prone model? Most scientists (and even the FDA) – agree that this is a bad idea. But common sense and sound science have never been a big part of the GMO salmon production plan. Consider this: the company’s current production model involves shipping GMO salmon eggs from Canada to Panama, then shipping salmon fillets from Panama to the United States – a bizarre, expensive, far-flung production scenario that hasn’t stopped AquaBounty from claiming that GMO salmon will reduce transportation costs associated with salmon farming.
No matter where or how AquaBounty produces GMO salmon, accidents will continue to happen. And the FDA will continue to be in the dark. Its approval of GMO salmon defies sound science, common sense and the will of the people, who have loudly, and repeatedly, said they don’t want this fish.
Tell President Obama and Congress that FDA’s weak regulatory approval of the world’s first GMO food animal was a mistake.