It's not much of a surprise that the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first genetically modified salmon to be sold for human consumption earlier this week. The approval process has been going on for two decades, according to Scientific American, but the outcome seemed so certain that two years ago, several major grocery store chains — including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Aldi and Target — pledged they would not carry GE-salmon.
What the proponents of GMO salmon say
This particular type of genetically modified salmon is known as AquAdvantage salmon and was engineered by AquaBounty Technologies of Maynard, Massachusetts. It has been modified to have higher levels of a growth hormone than natural salmon. It can grow to full size in 18 months instead of the typical three years it takes non-GMO salmon to grow.
The benefit of this salmon, say proponents, is that "the fish require smaller amounts of food and other resources per kilogram of harvested fish, and that the modified salmon could ease pressure caused by heavy fishing of wild populations."
What the opponents of GMO salmon say
Others aren't so optimistic about this new fish, which will not be labeled as a GMO, leaving consumers in the dark.
In a release, Food & Water Watch called the approval unfortunate and said the "historic decision disregards the vast majority of consumers, many independent scientists, numerous members of Congress and growers around the world, who have voiced strong opposition."
The organization points to AquaBounty's poor environmental record and concerns that this record "greatly raises the stakes for an environmentally damaging escape of GMO salmon." GMO salmon have the ability to breed with other types of fish, and Canadian researchers found that they readily do so. The FDA has not considered what could happen if GMO salmon breed with other salmon or other types of fish, Food & Water Watch claims.
The Center for Food Safety, which is filing a lawsuit against the FDA, had this to say about this issue:
Imagine a world where GE salmon take over our oceans, rivers, and streams. These fast-growing manufactured fish would outcompete and wipe-out our treasured native salmon. Salmon fishing communities would be devastated and our marine environment would be forever altered. With today's FDA approval, this scenario, could soon be a reality.
“The fallout from this decision will have enormous impact on the environment," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. "Center for Food Safety has no choice but to file suit to stop the introduction of this dangerous contaminant. The FDA has neglected its responsibility to protect the public.”
What consumers can do about GMO salmon
What can you do about this?
Food & Water has a petition to President Obama to stop GMO salmon. The group is asking the president to revoke the FDA's approval of genetically modified salmon. You can also join the Center For Food Safety's fight by donating to help fund its lawsuit.
You should also read the comments on the FDA's website about its approval of the GMO salmon, particularly when it comes to how these fish will be raised. Interestingly, GMO salmon are not allowed to be raised in the United States.
The AquAdvantage Salmon may be raised only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama. The approval does not allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be bred or raised in the United States. In fact, under this approval, no other facilities or locations, in the United States or elsewhere, are authorized for breeding or raising AquAdvantage Salmon that are intended for marketing as food to U.S. consumers.
For now, most fish is labeled with its country of origin, so avoiding salmon from Canada or Panama could help consumers avoid the unlabeled GMO salmon. However, the World Trade Organization is challenging the United States' Country of Origin Labeling so there's no guarantee that any fish will be labeled by country of origin in the future.
There may be another way to avoid the GMO salmon in the grocery store, though. The list of several major grocery stores that I mentioned above has grown significantly in the past two years. According to the Campaign for GE Seafood, nearly 60 major food retailers have taken the pledge to not sell GMO salmon. They've created a handy infographic indicating which ones, and they are actively petitioning Costco to join the list.
Grocery stores and others that have pledged to not sell GMO salmon. (Photo: Friends of Earth