Faked Alaska: Is genetically modified salmon coming soon to a table near you?
After six months of relative media silence, GMO salmon are back. Since last fall, AquaBounty Technologies, the breeders of the fish — which is not to be confused with radioactive tuna — have been in a kind of regulatory limbo, awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Then this week, several GMO salmon stories popped up in the media, and, taken together, they suggest it might be time to take another look at the salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered animal raised for commercial consumption if it’s approved.
The fish, which is branded AquAdvantage, has been altered with a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from a deepwater eel-like fish called an ocean pout. The latter allows the fish to grow during the cold months and reach market size twice as fast as other salmon.
A short article on Seafood Source reported that although AquaBounty continues to hemorrhage money (they reported a net loss of $2.7 million in 2011), CEO Ron Stotish is confident that approval is right around the corner.
“We now await the publication of the FDA’s Environmental Assessment, which the FDA commissioner has indicated will be very soon,” he told Seafood Source. Once that assessment is published, he added, “We expect to receive final approval … within the subsequent few months.”
Of course, for several days last week, after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced an amendment to the U.S. Senate trying to slow down the process, it looked like approval might not come so easily. The “Frankenfish amendment” would have required the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to do its own assessment of the potential ecological and socioeconomic impacts of GMO salmon.
That’s not a bad idea, since, as Matt Tinning, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network pointed out in a press release, “the FDA has no expertise in safeguarding the health of marine ecosystems or the well-being of fishing communities.”
Although the AquAdvantage salmon are supposed to be bred to be sterile and approval is only for on-land fish farming within the U.S., neither fact is guaranteed. As Clare Leschin-Hoar wrote for Grist last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered AquaBounty a half-million-dollar grant to put the finishing touches on their sterilization techniques (read: they still don’t have them locked down) and the fish will likely be grown out in Panama and Canada — far from the FDA rules.
Murkowski addresses a whole range of concerns — from the lack of proposed labeling for consumers, to the possibility of the fish’s escape and takeover of Alaska fisheries, to potential competition for Alaska’s giant seafood industry — in this video of her statement on the Senate floor. Unfortunately, the Senate rejected the amendment 46 to 50 shortly after it was announced.
But even if Murkowski’s amendment had managed to slow down the approval process, that might have simply meant that another country would beat us to the punch in approving the first genetically engineered animal.
While opponents would cheer the company’s demise, some scientists and biotechnology executives say that if transgenic animals cannot win approval in the United States, then the nation will lose its lead in animal biotechnology as work moves elsewhere. Scientists in China, in particular, are trying to develop livestock that is resistant to mad cow and foot and mouth diseases, sheep with high yields of wool, and pigs and cows with healthy omega 3 fatty acids in their meat.
In October, an article in Talking Points Memo about AquAdvantage salmon suggested a similar reality. “As many as 16 applications for transgenic fish may be under review throughout the world, mostly in Asia, although none are known to be yet approved,” it read.
And the Times’ profile of Bendukidze is an important piece of the puzzle in itself.
AquaBounty’s largest shareholder (with 48 percent ownership) is also the former economics minister of the nation of Georgia and a “corporate raider” with ties to the oil industry. According to the article, Bendukidze invested in aquaculture as a way to diversify his portfolio, and sees genetic engineering as merely a means to reduce feed costs and increase profit (by growing more fish faster).
Should salmon farming come to be dominated by the AquAdvantage fish, farmers could become dependent on a single company for their stock, just as soy, corn, and wheat farmers must now rely on large multinationals like Monsanto to provide seed for their fields year in and year out. AquaBounty will literally own salmon farming. [my emphasis]
And he’s right. While it certainly appears that the same power- and profit-hungry magnates who have for generations sent ships out into the sea to mercilessly raid it for wild seafood are now doing much the same with aquaculture, there is something different about the way this new kind of ownership is shaping the food supply. And you don’t have to be concerned by the idea of genetic engineering itself (although many of us are) to see the chilling effects such ownership will have — in the U.S. and abroad.