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The Atlantic salmon doesn’t require tweaking.
That’s the opinion of a senior adviser with Nature Canada who is lauding a recent U.S. court ruling that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) violated core environmental laws when it approved the genetic modification of Atlantic salmon in Canada.
“The Atlantic salmon is called the king of fish and it doesn’t really need improving,” said Mark Butler, a Nature Canada adviser and the former policy director at Ecology Action Centre, the only Canadian plaintiff in the lawsuit against the FDA.
“That’s what nature does,” Butler said of modifying Atlantic salmon. “Evolutionary forces are exerting influences on species in the wild to be the best, fittest and most well-suited for their environment. Having a gene introduced from the outside that changes the genetic makeup of the salmon is not a good thing and it’s something that we don’t want. It wouldn’t be good for the recreational fishery and wouldn’t be good for the ecology.”
The genetically modified (GM) salmon is the first genetically modified food animal approved in the world. It is being produced by the U.S. company AquaBounty at an on-land facility in Rollo Bay, P.E.I., and in the U.S., at a plant in Indiana.
AquaBounty’s GM salmon is engineered to grow faster, using a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout. If GM salmon were to escape or are accidentally released into the environment, the new species could threaten wild populations by mating with endangered salmon species, out-competing them for scarce resources and habitat, and/or introducing new diseases.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the FDA ignored the serious environmental consequences of approving GM salmon and the full extent of plans to grow and commercialize the salmon in the U.S. and around the world, violating the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court also ruled that FDA’s unilateral decision that GM salmon could have no possible effect on highly-endangered, wild Atlantic salmon was wrong, violating the Endangered Species Act.
The court ordered the FDA to go back and examine the environmental consequences of an escape of GM salmon into the wild.
“They’ve been told to go back and do it again and do a better job and the outcome of it might be different than the first time when they said kind of like it’s all fine and no worries,” Butler said. “Hopefully, this time they’ll say what we’ve been saying all along, that is that there is a significant risk to wild salmon. The more projects that get approved the greater the risk will be.”
Butler said there is also hope that the incoming American Biden administration will be much more sensitive to environmental concerns and priorities than the Trump government was.
The judge in the California case used the description of “normal” and Butler said there is no way of knowing what could happen if the GM salmon were to escape captivity.
“You don’t want to do an experiment where you release them into the wild,” Butler said. “They contain genetic material from two other species to grow faster. Really, if they were to escape and breed with wild salmon we don’t know. Would they out-compete other salmon, would they take over and become the dominant genetic strain?
“There is potential that these animals could have gross abnormalities. They’ve been genetically programmed to grow faster which could cause unintended consequences. This trait has been selected for raising fish in captivity but it may be a liability in the wild.”
Butler said there are “pretty limited” benefits to the broader economy and broader society in introducing GM salmon to the store shelf.
“It’s great for AquaBounty. They patented this strain or this fish. They’d love to supply the world.
“Anything you can do with a GM fish, it is my contention because we don’t have access to the data on the growth rates, you can pretty much do with a non-GM fish.”
The court decision does not affect current production or sale of GM salmon.
“The remedy sought is that there wouldn’t be any further development until they’ve gone back and assessed the risk,” Butler said. “The judge didn’t order the company to stop development until a proper assessment had been done, which should have been what he said.
“We’re hoping obviously that the assessment will come back with a different answer and with different directions for the company.”
Butler said the decision will have little or no bearing in Canada, aside from the P.E.I. facility being part of the assessment. The GM salmon at the P.E.I. location could be ready for market early next year.
Butler said modification of animals in Canada falls under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which, according to a throne speech promise, is to be modernized by the federal Liberal government in 2021.
Butler said another issue is that GM salmon would not be labelled as such if it were on Canadian store shelves.
“People have different reasons for being concerned about genetically engineered organisms — ecological impacts, philosophical, religious reasons, to health,” Butler said. “For that reason, we think that there should be mandatory labelling at minimum.”
Butler also said AquaBounty has not adequately consulted with the Mi’kmaq community in Atlantic Canada.
“They (Mi’kmaq) have been relying on this fish, it’s been part of who they are for thousands of years so to have a company alter the genome, which is probably the most invasive thing you can do to a species, without engaging Mi’kmaq is not appropriate.”
AquaBounty has until Jan. 11 to launch an appeal of the court decision.