(Beyond Pesticides, June 17, 2011) The U.S. House of Representatives this week approved a measure that would bar the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from allowing genetically engineered (GE) salmon to be freely bought and sold. The measure was added as an amendment to the 2012 agriculture and food safety funding bill by U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK). Representative Young introduced the amendment out of concern that the altered species would compete with the wild salmon in the Pacific waters off of his state and cause economic losses for Alaskan fishermen. Technically speaking, the amendment would not actually legally prohibit the approval of the animal, but rather simply bars the agency from spending any money in order to approve the application for the controversial fish.
The vote, which took place on Wednesday, allowed the measure to be amended to the original appropriations bill, which still remains under consideration by the House. The full package must still be approved by a full House vote and sent to the Senate. There has been no indication from Senators on which way the upper chamber will vote on the measure.
Whichever way the issue turns, it will be highly significant for future regulation of GE technologies. If the House’s bill is approved with the Young amendment intact, it would mark the first time that legislators have stepped in to require stronger regulations regarding a GE product. If the bill is not approved and the engineered fish is allowed to enter the marketplace, it would be the first time that a genetically altered animal was approved for human consumption. Even the preliminary approval of the amendment by the Republican-controlled chamber represents a major step by Congress, showing willingness for precaution in the face of new technologies which could have unpredictable environmental and economic consequences.
The trade name for the GE salmon is AquaAdvantage and it was developed by the Massachusetts-based biotechnology firm AquaBounty. The company has invested $50 million over 14 years to develop AquaAdvantage Fish. AquaAdvantage Salmon, unlike conventional salmon, grows year round and reaches market weight in 18 months instead of the 36 months it takes for natural salmon. The shorter life span also means that the AquaAdvantage fish would consume 25% less food over its lifetime, resulting in lower costs to producers. The variety was developed by inserting part of a gene from an Ocean Pout, an eel-like fish, into the growth gene of a Chinook salmon. The blended genetic material is then injected into the fertilized egg of a North Atlantic salmon. According to AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish, the engineered salmon is identical to conventional salmon in taste, color and protein. AquaBounty is also developing AquAdvantage trout and tilapia.
Many are concerned about the potential for genetically engineered animals to cross breed with wild animals, resulting in genes escaping into the wild. The use of genetically engineered crops has led to several engineered genes escaping into the wild, creating so-called superweeds. To prevent genes from escaping into wild populations, AquaBounty has said it would create sterile fish and require producers to raise salmon in inland tanks, as opposed to ocean pens where most farmed salmon are raised. However, sterilization can occasionally fail and AquaBounty may sell to producers overseas who are not bound by U.S. regulations.
Many strongly oppose genetic engineering of any foodstuff, over threats genetically modified organisms pose to human health and the environment, but the idea of a genetically engineered animal brings even greater trepidation. The main trade association of U.S. seafood producers, the National Fisheries Institute, has come out in support of genetically engineered fish. Several other aquaculture groups, however, have voiced opposition. Jorgen Christiansen of Oslo based Marine Harvest, the world’s largest farmed salmon producer, opposes the altered salmon over concerns consumers would be reluctant to buy genetically engineered fish. The International Salmon Farmers Association is also in opposition. Many consumer advocates are concerned, because there is currently no regulation that would require the genetically engineered fish to be labeled as such.
Beyond Pesticides has long pushed for stronger regulations reflecting a precautionary approach toward GE technologies. Several challenges are currently being litigated against federal regulators regarding lax regulatory review of GE products and their potential for contamination of the natural environment as well as traditionally-bred cultivated species. Congressman Young’s attempt to ensure that Alaskan fisherman do not suffer economic distress due to competition or contamination from the GE salmon mirrors a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding its recent approval of GE alfalfa charging that the agency did not take the concerns of organic farmers into account and the economic losses that could result if their crops were contaminated.
For more information on GE technology, visit Beyond Pesticides’ program page.