FDA Misses the Boat in Signaling Approval of Genetically Engineered Salmon

Transgenic vs non-transgenic salmon Copyrigh t© 2009, Barrett & MacKay Photo All rights reserved.

Just as I was getting ready to head out for my Christmas break yesterday, my email Inbox signals that the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released its recommendation to approve the first-ever, genetically-engineered animal for human consumption. For those who track the FDA, they know this isn’t unusual – the agency often makes controversial rulings right before the holidays, when decision makers, media and the public are trying to have some well-deserved downtime with their families. Today was a kind of an unwelcome, fishy Christmas surprise, nestled among the garland and mistletoe.

Make no mistake: GE salmon is controversial. Since September 2010, when this issue exploded on the national stage, there has been unprecedented pushback on plans to grow an engineered variant of farmed Atlantic salmon for the U.S. market. Over 400,000 public comments in opposition have been sent to the FDA. Forty members of Congress called for a full Environmental Impact Statement before approval was granted. Ocean Conservancy and our colleagues similarly called for a complete analysis – that asks and answers the full range of tough questions – before the government allows private industry to head off down a path of genetically-engineering our seafood supply. But with today’s release, the agency basically blew all of us off.

One might think that FDA’s 158-page analysis contains all the information we need to feel comfortable about GE fish in our seafood supply. It doesn’t. As their 5-page summary states, the agency intentionally narrowed the scope of the analysis and thus completely missed the boat. FDA makes clear that it is green lighting only one small facility in Canada and another in Panama to grow out this novel fish, which will then be sent to the U.S. for processing and sale. While Ocean Conservancy is deeply concerned that FDA has not undertaken a state-of-the-art risk assessment on this particular facility, it is the larger ramifications of this initial approval that have always been the more important issue. No viable business can be built on growing only a small number of fish in Panama. But if this initial approval paves the way for a massive expansion of GE fish farming, both here in the U.S. and around the world, then we have the makings of a real moneymaker – and potentially big environmental problems.

The global salmon farming industry is entirely based in the ocean, where floating cages fatten fish for market. The environmental impacts of net-pen salmon farming are well established, where escapes are commonplace and disease can be rampant when fish are overcrowded. While this initial application to grow GE salmon is for land-based facilities, the prospect of even larger profits from growing GE salmon in the ocean will certainly create pressure for approval in these more environmentally risky systems in the future.

The U.S. is poorly equipped to deal with this future scenario. In June 2011, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco released a National Aquaculture Policy to guide how marine aquaculture proceeds in our ocean waters. While the policy includes some strong environmental provisions, it does not categorically prohibit the growing of GE fish in the ocean. It should.

Given FDA’s action yesterday and NOAA’s failure to prohibit GE fish in its aquaculture policy, the time has come for Congress to intervene. Congress should work to pass Senator Mark Begich’s PEGASUS Act or similar legislation that requires FDA to take the environmental risks seriously before approving GE fish.

If Congress doesn’t act soon, the nation’s ocean may suffer from FDA’s efforts to chart a course for GE salmon.

Human Journey

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George Leonard is Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy. A long-time scuba diver, George knew he wanted to be a marine biologist at the age of 12 when he first watched Jacques Cousteau's TV special on the sleeping sharks of Yucatan in 1975. During his graduate work, he logged over 400 dives in 3 years, studying California's kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of a tropical rain forest.