GM Salmon Leap of Doubt
The salmon is engineered to grow twice as quickly as a conventional Atlantic salmon. It has been given genes from a Chinook salmon and a cold water eel, which allows it to grow all year round, not just when water conditions are favourable.
Ron Stotish of Aqua Bounty, the company which created the fish, reckons the salmon is the most researched product in the history of fish. The FDA has ruled that it is ‘substantially equivalent’ to normal salmon and therefore poses no health risk even though there have been no independent long term studies.
Back up studies "sloppy, misleading and woefully inadequate".
However, Michael Hansen, senior scientist for the US Consumers Union, says research behind the salmon has been "sloppy, misleading and woefully inadequate".
In two of the studies submitted in support of Aqua Bounty’s application very small sample sizes were used, severely limiting scientific credibility. One study used only 12 fish and another, looking at possible allergic reactions in humans, involved only 6 fish.
Nonetheless, according to the FDA, there is "no biologically relevant difference" between the GMO fish and regular Atlantic salmon. Of course consumers will have no possibility of demonstrating their disagreement with this conclusion – unless they avoid Salmon completely - because GM products are not labelled in the US.
"Consideration of this gene-spliced salmon needs to move beyond the closed doors of the FDA and into the daylight where the public can weigh in whether this risky development is desired," says Alaska Senator Mark Begich.
Federal Agencies in conflict
The risk to wild salmon, the wider ecosystem and even farmed salmon on this side of the Atlantic has created a wide range of criticism and some from an unexpected source - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – which is far from convinced by Aqua Bounty’s research and disputes the FDA’s conclusion that GM salmon poses no “significant” risk to the environment.
“Although AquaBounty claims their fish are sterile, that sterilization process is not 100 percent. There is the possibility that some of these fish could escape and reproductively interact with wild native salmon,” according to James Geiger, an assistant regional director for fisheries in the wildlife service’s Northeast region. “Any potential offspring could reduce the biological and ecological fitness of the native wild salmon.”
Shelly Burgess, spokeswoman for the FDA, said the agency’s preliminary findings, are based on the “extremely low likelihood that AquAdvantage salmon…could escape into or survive in an ocean or waterway and interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon” because they are subject to strict containment measures.
The salmon eggs are produced in Canada’s Prince Edward Island and then taken to Panama highlands, where the salmon are raised in inland tanks. But the FWS’s Geiger insists that “any potential escape, no matter how little,” has the potential to harm endangered wild salmon populations.
A leap too far
There is now an open 60-day public consultation period before the FDA approval is confirmed and US environmental and consumer groups are urging as many people as possible to write in and express their concerns.
The FDA spokesperson maintains that they are “being particularly cautious as the salmon are the first transgenic animal to reach this point in the approval process.”
Consumers, farmers and environmental groups concerned that this salmon may open the flood gates for other GM animals to be developed and brought to market will welcome this cautious approach.
Although trusting an agency which has been resolutely pro-GM and tries to sneak out its decision under cover of the Christmas holiday might be a leap too far.