In spite of the enormous risk that it would pose to human health and imperiled wild salmon populations, the Obama administration is moving forward on its approval of the AquaBounty corporation’s genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon for human consumption.
Food&Water Watch and a coalition of consumer, environmental, fishing and animal welfare groups on September 9 sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insisting that it discontinue its controversial and largely secretive approval process for AquaBounty GE salmon.
“The FDA has purposefully kept critical information from the public surrounding what could soon become the first genetically engineered food animal to hit the market,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food&Water Watch. “Consumers have a right to know that the FDA lacks the means to assess this fish as a genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption. If this product was approved, the resulting consumer health impact could be disastrous.”
Hunter also said consumers should be aware that the FDA has “purposefully scheduled” public hearings to limit public participation, beginning them on a Sunday in a remote location (Rockville, Md.) and creating a complicated registration process for the largely unpublicized events.
In addition, the agency, which has been studying this bizarre “franken-salmon” for nearly a decade, released an insufficient amount of information on the matter barely two weeks before the public hearings are set to begin on September 19, according to Hunter. Even worse, the data released was of studies performed by AquaBounty, the company with a vested interest in selling its own product!
“We ask that the agency reject AquaBounty’s application for genetically engineered salmon,” said Hunter. “In addition, we demand that any hearings on the topic be held in a central location and that the public have adequate time to review the very real human health, animal health, and ecological risks this product would generate.”
AquaBounty first applied for approval of the GE fish in 2001, but the Bush Administration delayed its approval until it left office. “Ironically, the Obama Administration, who came to office promising a more environmentally sound and transparent process, is using the Bush Administration-developed framework for the approval of genetically engineered animals,” according to the Center for Food Safety. “This process uses the fiction that the genetically engineered salmon is, in effect, an animal ‘drug.'”
On August 27, a coalition of 31 consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups, along with commercial and recreational fisheries associations and food retailers, submitted a joint statement criticizing an FDA announcement that it will potentially approve the long-shelved AquAdvantage transgenic salmon as the first genetically engineered (GE) animal intended for human consumption.
AquaBounty Technologies developed the GE Atlantic salmon under consideration by artificially combining growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon, chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout (Zoarces americanus).
“This modification causes continuous production of growth-hormone year-round, creating a fish the company claims grows to full size at twice the normal rate of non-GE farmed salmon,” according to the groups. “This could allow factory fish farms to crowd fish and still get high production rates despite the stressful conditions found there.”
Every year millions of Atlantic salmon, grown now in Europe, Maine, British Columbia and Chile, escape from open-water net pens, outcompeting wild populations for resources and straining ecosystems. “We believe any approval of GE salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations, many of which have already suffered severe declines related to salmon farms and other man-made impacts,” said Marianne Cufone, director of Food & Water Watch’s fish program.
The groups believe that if the FDA opens this door, GE fish will likely join the millions of salmon that currently escape from open ocean pens operated by aquaculture coporations every year. Fish farms always have a certain amount of fish escape, through human error, weather, and attacks by sea lions and other predators that damage the pens.
On the average, 15 percent of farmed fish escape into the wild. For example, 170,000 one-year-old salmon escaped from aquaculture facilities in in Machias Bay, Maine, during a winter storm in December 2000, according to an editorial in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law. Approval of GE salmon could be the last blow to wild salmon stocks and in turn the thousands of men and women who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.
Both Pacific and Atlantic Coast salmon populations are imperiled now by loss of habitat, pollution, water diversions and dams. Commercial and recreational fishing for chinook salmon was closed in 2008 and 2009 in California and southern Oregon ocean waters, due to the collapse of Central Valley salmon stocks spurred by record water exports from the California Delta to corporate agribusiness and southern California water agencies.
“Approving genetically engineered salmon is a sharp contradiction to the agreements the United States has signed at the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) where transgenic salmonids are considered a serious threat to wild salmon,” said Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and accredited observer at the NASCO, an international organization, established by an inter-governmental Convention in 1984. The organization’s objective is to “conserve, restore, enhance and rationally manage Atlantic salmon through international cooperation taking account of the best available scientific information.”
Escaped GE salmon can pose an additional threat – genetic pollution resulting from what scientists call the “Trojan gene” effect.” Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noted that a release of just sixty GE salmon into a wild population of 60,000 would lead to the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 generations.
AquaBounty officials have claimed that they will only raise their fish in land-based facilities. However, the groups said most salmon farmers in the real world ply their trade in low-lying coastal areas and competing corporations will no doubt race to produce GE fish in crowded open ocean facilities already.
“We all know there is a great appetite for salmon, but the solution is not to ‘farm’ genetically engineered versions to put more on our dinner tables; the solution is to work to bring our wild salmon populations back,” said Jonathan Rosenfield, PhD, a Conservation Biologist and President of the SalmonAID Foundation, a 28-member coalition of commercial, tribal, and sportfishing interests, conservation organizations and chefs (http://www.salmonaid.org). “The approval of these transgenic fish will only exacerbate the problems facing our wild fisheries.”
The Obama administration’s campaign to approve the first genetically engineered fish for human consumption is no surprise, when you consider the influence that Monsanto, AquaBounty and other bio-tech corporations have over the FDA. Obama appointed Michael R. Taylor, J.D., as Deputy Commissioner for Foods under the FDA in January. Taylor is a former top executive, lawyer and lobbyist with biotech giant Monsanto.
“During his former stint in the FDA during the Clinton administration, Taylor helped write the rules to allow BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) into the American food system and our children’s milk,” according to WeAreGreen.tv.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also has a reputation as a shill for agribusiness biotech giants including Monsanto, who support the proliferation of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn.
The Drive to Privatize the Public Trust
The push by the FDA to approve genetically engineered salmon occurs in the larger context of the Obama and Schwarzenegger administration’s drive to privatize public trust resources.
Jane Lubchenko, the Under Secretary for Ocean and Atmosphere under the Obama Administration and the former Vice Chair of the Board of Environmental Defense, is promoting a “catch shares” policy in U.S. coastal waters that privatizes ocean fish resources and concentrates fisheries into fewer, wealthier hands. Food and Water Watch, fishing organizations and grassroots environmental groups are opposing the “catch shares” program.
“A catch share, also known as an individual fishing quota, is a transferable voucher that gives individuals or businesses the right to a fixed percentage of the total authorized catch of a particular species,” according to Food and Watch Watch. “Fishery management systems based on catch shares turn a public resource into private property and have lead to socioeconomic and environmental problems. Contrary to arguments by catch share proponents – namely large commercial fishing interests – this management system has exacerbated unsustainable fishing practices.”
In a similar vein, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has privatized ocean management in California waters under his widely-contested Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative. Since 2004, a private corporation, the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, has funded this initiative to create and implement so-called “marine protected areas” In California ocean waters. The MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Forces that oversee the initiative are dominated by oil industry, real estate, marine development and other private interests that have conflicts of interests in the outcome of the process.
These “marine protected areas” do nothing to protect the ocean from oil drilling, oil spills, water pollution, wave energy projects, corporate aquaculture and other human uses of the ocean other than fishing and gathering. Tribal members, fishermen and environmentalists point out that these “marine protected areas” would do nothing to prevent a disaster like the Deep Water Horizon or Exxon Valdez oil spills while they serve to greenwash the abysmal environmental legacy of Governor Schwarzenegger.
In fact, opposition to the MLPA on the North Coast has mushroomed into the largest political movement since the Redwood Summer of 1990. Over 300 members of 50 Indian Tribes, fishermen, environmentalists and immigrant seafood industry workers peacefully took over an MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force meeting in Fort Bragg on July 21 to protest the violation of tribal gathering and fishing rights and corporate greenwashing that has taken place during Schwarzenegger’s fast-track drive to create fake “marine protected areas.”
Everybody who cares about our oceans and fisheries should oppose the drive to privatize, whether it is the Obama administration’s push to approve genetically engineered salmon and force the fishing industry to adopt catch shares or the Schwarzenegger regime’s fast-track MLPA process.
Act Now to Stop the Approval of GE Salmon!
For more information and to send an email opposing the approval of genetically engineered salmon, go to http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org. or http://action.foodandwaterwatch.org/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=4693
Please also visit the Center for Food Safety to send a letter to the FDA urging them to oppose the approval of AquaBounty’s GE salmon.
Also, please sign CREDO’s petition by going to http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/food_gmosalmon_fda/?r_by=11045-301340-RBoUXVx&rc=confemail
Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as “The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen.”