Photo via PixiBay user tpsdave.
Last November, Environment Canada set what some see as a rather unsettling global precedent by allowing genetically modified, all-female salmon eggs to be manufactured on a commercial scale in Canada—at a time when every other country in the world is reluctant to cosign genetically modified animals for human consumption. The architect of this new fishy species is AquaBounty, an American bioengineering company that’s aiming to put genetically altered Atlantic salmon on store shelves worldwide, and besides the obvious Jurassic Park parallel (where an environment of all-female, laboratory-created beasts devolved into violent chaos) various agencies are concerned about this “frankenfish” development.
These fish, called AquAdvantage by their creators, are part Atlantic salmon, part Chinook salmon, and part eelpout, which are, apparently, an eel-like species. These human-made fish grow at twice the speed as regular Atlantic salmon, and are being touted as an environmental revolution to the seafood industry.
The life cycle of a GM fish starts at Bay Fortune, PEI. AquaBounty fertilizes the salmon eggs in their research and development facility that overlooks the bay. The facility is supposed to be impossible to escape from, which is the only condition set by the Canadian government when it comes to farming a potentially “toxic” organism. “Toxic” is the language of the Environmental Protection Act of 1999; it doesn’t necessarily mean poisonous, but rather that the species could have an irreversible, damaging, or potentially uncontainable impact on its surrounding environment. Given that the possibility of GM fish entering the natural environment could be devastating to salmon stock, these modified aquatic beings fit the bill.
The fish have to be contained in a landlocked tank inside a closed-off room, and unspecified chemical barriers are listed alongside physical boundaries to limit any chance of these frankenfish escaping. The AquaBounty facility is connected to the ocean by a single pipe. It’s mostly buried underground, but it pops out of the compound’s dike wall before diving into the shallow waters of the bay. Here’s hoping they have a good filtration system. Though the fish are allowed to grow to full-size in Canada, once the eggs have been fertilized they get flown Panama. There, they will grow to full size, at which point they are promptly slaughtered.
For the time being, there is no country to legally export the AquAdvantage fish to, so their existence is wiped from the face of the earth as soon as they’ve matured—at least until the next batch starts to grow. AquaBounty has plans to harvest and ship their genetically modified salmon to Canada, USA, Argentina, Chile, and China as a food source. They have their production system all worked out and running; all they need now is permission from the relevant regulatory bodies.
The allure of GM fish is obvious. The fish mature twice as fast as “normal” fish, which makes GM fish a significantly cheaper and a more efficient product—since they ostensibly provide an economically viable way to feed a whole wack of people. AquaBounty claims to be the future of aquaculture, but in spite of these lofty promises, a large and diverse group across Canada has gathered to challenge the manufacturing of GM salmon.
Right now, no country has approved the sale and consumption of genetically engineered fish, though that might not stick, as AquaBounty’s future relies on it changing, and has already applied to sell its fish in both Canada and the USA. At the moment, Canada is still considering the application, and the American Food and Drug Administration’s current stance is that there wouldn’t be any significant environmental impact caused by the fish. AquaBounty’s CEO, Ron Stotish, seems sure that the FDA, at least, won’t stand in the way of the company’s new bioengineered product. In a quarterly report, he’s quoted as saying): “We remain confident of receiving approval for our new animal drug application for AquAdvantage salmon.”
The Ecology Action Centre (EAC) and the Living Oceans Society filed a lawsuit over the GM salmon against the Minister of Health, the Minister of Environment, and AquaBounty Canada Inc. They’ve alleged that the government has not properly researched the potential toxicity of the GM salmon.
“We’re asking the Canadian courts to decide if the federal government violated its own law when it issued approval of the manufacturing [of GM salmon],”Joanne Cook, the Minister of Toxics Coordinator at EAC, told me over the phone. “And the legal challenge is based on the assertion that the government failed to asses whether GM salmon could become invasive and that they did not obtain all the information required by law in purporting to complete their assessment.”
Besides EAC’s lawsuit, a campaign of dissent has been mounted against the introduction of GM fish. The Atlantic Fish Farmers Association of Canada, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Ecojustice, as well as major grocery chains Safeway, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have all taken a public stand against the AquaBounty’s salmon.
Danny Kingsberry, a spokesperson for the Minister of Environment, told me through e-mail that the minister’s decision was thoroughly researched and based on scientific evidence provided by scientists within Environment Canada and Health Canada.
“It was concluded that there were no concerns identified to the environment or to the indirect health of Canadians due to the contained production of these GM fish eggs for export,” said Kingsberry.
When asked if there were any other bioengineering projects being bandied about for approval, Kingsberry said that new organisms under review are not disclosed for “confidentiality reasons.”But that itself seems to be part of the problem for some Canadians.
As Joanne Cook told me: “Part of our concern is that the process has really been cloaked in secrecy. There is no public comment—there was no public notice that the approval was being considered. It was just quietly posted shortly before Christmas in the Canada Gazette.”
Canada’s Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, has unilateral authority to approve projects of this type, and is under no obligation to inform Canadians on controversial issues, like that of genetically engineering food sources and livestock. The lawsuit doesn’t challenge the minister’s authority, but instead focuses on what they claim was an insufficient amount of research; particularly over the lack of an environmental impact assessment of the damage that genetically modified salmon could do to natural salmon, or the environment, if any were to escape.
One scientist has already proven AquAdvantage salmon capable of breeding with a wild brown trout. The hybrid offspring outcompeted its progenitors and stunted their growth in a semi-natural environment. This is the danger that the opponents of GM salmon are worried about: a possible scenario where mutant fish further damage the ocean’s ecosystem, exacerbating the ongoing crisis of depleted global fish stocks. As it stands, 85% of the world’s fish stocks are in a crisis of being over-exploited. If bioengineered fish further destabilize oceanic ecosystems, the ocean itself could run dry of fish. That scenario isn’t entirely to blame when it comes to tampering with the genetics of salmon, but the myopic trend of ramping up production without concern or even thought to the consequences is how we ended up in this situation to begin with.
AquaBounty are only manufacturing AquAdvantage eggs at the moment, but the Canadian government has already sunk $2.9 million into the GM fish company through the Atlantic Innovation Fund, an R&D grant program that subsidizes businesses in Atlantic Canada. Canadian tax dollars have been invested into a project that the government would rather keep under wraps. And since all government actions so far have been benefitted the company, it doesn’t seem likely that the feds will turn against them in the future.
The point of investing in a company like AquaBounty is to embolden the Canadian private sector and grow the nation’s economy. To then turn around and deny it a market of 34 million consumers wouldn’t make for good business, so pending this upcoming lawsuit, these GM fish may end up in Canadian grocery stores in the not too distant future. Clearly, the potential hazards outlined by concerned scientists and environmental groups have been chalked up as necessary hurdles in the race towards economic progress. The only thing that could force a proper examination of our technological advances—or hubris—is public concern, but that seems to be mitigated pretty well thanks to a cocktail of government secrecy, corporate privilege, and confidentiality.
The court case against the government and AquaBounty will likely be heard late this year, according to Tanya Nayler, a lawyer for Ecojustice who will be representing the EAC and LOS. No specific date has been set, but the stakes are quite high. As Joanne Cooke said: “One of the interesting things about this issue, is that if the Canadian approval stands and the US Food and Drug Administration approves the marketing of the genetically modified salmon flesh, it would be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption in the world.”