Genetically Engineered Seafood

Salmon populations on the U.S. East and West coasts have been devastated by dams, logging and bad forest management, overfishing, and industrial agriculture’s water demands. On the East Coast, Atlantic salmon — once inhabiting almost every river north of the Hudson — are now extinct in 84 percent of New England rivers (and in critical condition in the others).

Yet since salmon remains a popular and pervasive menu item, the seafood industry is taking extraordinary steps to maintain its availability for human consumption. Fish farms have proliferated to meet consumer demand — creating salmon with unhealthy fat levels, polluting the water around farms with chemicals, and spreading disease to wild salmon. And now a new danger looms: genetically engineered salmon.

In November 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an application by AquaBounty Technologies to allow genetically engineered seafood to be cultivated and sold to the public for the first time, without warning labels. The company’s GE salmon are created by splicing a growth-regulating gene from Pacific chinook salmon into Atlantic salmon, allowing the resulting “frankenfish” fish to grow to market weight in 16 months rather than three years.

These GE fish raise myriad conservation concerns. Some fish will inevitably escape their farms and mingle with endangered wild salmon — creating genetic problems in wild populations, outcompeting them for food, and affecting natural systems in other novel ways.

The FDA didn’t consult with wildlife experts before approving AquaBounty’s application, as the Endangered Species Act requires.

GE salmon would also adversely affect some American Indians, for whom wild salmon have historically played a critical cultural, religious and nutritional role; many tribes even hold recognized treaty rights to salmon harvests. If GE salmon weren’t allowed, Atlantic salmon might one day actually recover and flourish, allowing tribes to once again rely on this resource.

While the seafood industry argues that it is genetically engineering salmon just to meet public demand, there are many indicators that people would prefer sustainable food systems that don’t undermine the heath of wild animals.

DATA SUPPORTING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD

  • More than 2 million people submitted comments opposed to AquaBounty’s FDA approval due to environmental and public-health concerns.
  • In a 2013 New York Times poll, three-quarters of respondents said they wouldn’t eat GE salmon.
  • More than 60 supermarket chains totaling more than 9,500 stores nationwide — including Costco, Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — have made a commitment to not sell GE salmon.
  • According to a National Public Radio poll, 80 percent of Americans who regularly eat fish said it was “important” or “very important” that their seafood is sustainable, which was defined as still being plentiful for future generations and caught using methods that cause minimal harm to other marine animals. AquaBouty's GE salmon do not meet these criteria.
  • Surveys have shown that 92 percent of Americans want genetically engineered fish to be clearly labeled. And since the FDA didn’t require labeling of the GE salmon, AquaBounty has said it plans to misleadingly market the fish as “Atlantic salmon” to consumers.

Conservation and food-safety groups fear that the decision to allow AquaBouty's GE salmon into the marketplace could be the start of a dangerous trend of approving more genetically engineered seafood and other meat. So what can ethical eaters do to support a precautionary approach to protecting wild salmon and natural ecological systems?


SOLUTIONS

  • The FDA must revoke its approval of GE salmon. As we’ve described, AquaBounty's salmon was approved without full examination of its ecosystem impacts in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and without consulting with affected tribes.
  • The FDA must require labeling for genetically engineered foods to protect consumers’ right to know.
  • Supermarkets, restaurants, chefs and seafood companies should pledge not to sell GE salmon in order to show their commitment to sustainable seafood and marketplace transparency.
  • Consumers may choose to eat less seafood, instead eating more plant-based foods to create a clear demand for sustainable food good for people and the planet. (Accordingly, when consumers do choose to eat seafood, they may stick to fish lower on the food chain, caught with minimal harm to the environment.)

The Center will continue to fight GE salmon.

 

 

 

 

Atlantic salmon photo courtesy Flickr Commons/Thomas Bjørkan