Genetically Engineered Salmon: What’s Really at Steak
In April 2016, we posted about the lawsuit brought by environmental food and safety groups, along with fisherman trade associations, to reverse the FDA’s approval of a genetically engineered (GE) salmon. The complaint alleges that the FDA failed to evaluate how the GE salmon will impact the environment and that the farmed salmon will inevitably escape, “interbreed with wild endangered salmon, compete with them for food and space, or pass on infectious disease . . . .”
Last week, AquaBounty Technologies, Inc., the small bioengineering firm that develops the salmon, moved to intervene in the suit. AquaBounty argues that the FDA’s approval was valid. That approval came after decades of research and development and 20 years after AquaBounty’s predecessor, A/F Protein, Inc., first applied to begin the FDA approval process. Since then, the company has worked closely with the FDA throughout its “lengthy and comprehensive expert review” of the GE salmon. AquaBounty estimates that it spent $80 million to bring its product to market. It argues that “[n]o entity is more directly threatened by [Plaintiffs’ lawsuit] than AquaBounty.”
The battle lines over genetically modified foods have been drawn. AquaBounty’s intervention pits a boutique bioengineering firm against independent commercial fishermen. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations—advocacy groups for commercial fishermen. A bigger, better, faster-growing farmed salmon could put their constituents out of business, which, in turn, could harm local economies that depend on the wild salmon trade.
The threat to fishermen may be more pressing than any risk that AquaBounty’s GE salmon will escape and contaminate wild fish populations. According to AquaBounty CEO, Dr. Ronald L. Stotish, the company’s salmon are “produced in land-based, fully contained aquaculture systems…subject to multiple and redundant biological and physical containment controls….” And this lawsuit likely will determine AquaBounty’s survival.
Environmental and food safety concerns surrounding GE foods get a lot of attention. But there’s another story here: the struggle between fisherman and bioengineer for control of the salmon market. Certainly the battle over GE foods involves more than the environment and food safety; it’s also about small businesses trying to stay afloat in the ever-changing landscape of food technologies.