The Non-GMO Project team is fortunate to call the beautiful Pacific Northwest our home. We bike, climb, run, ski, hike, kayak, sail, and play in our natural environment every day, and we enjoy an amazing view of the Salish Sea from our offices. Orca whales, river otters, sea birds, and more than 250 species of fish share this corner of the world with us, and many of us care deeply about being good neighbors to them.
Salmon in the Pacific Northwest
Salmon have been a meaningful part of life in the Northwest for thousands of years, especially for the indigenous peoples who reside here. These fish are more than a source of food–they are a staple of the local economy and culture. Salmon are even part of the elementary school curriculum! Like many Washington State natives, I still remember raising salmon eggs in my kindergarten classroom and releasing the fry in a nearby creek.
Salmon fishing was part of a sustainable balance in this region until early settlers made their way here in the 19th century. They started fishing on a commercial scale, opened dozens of canneries in the Columbia River Basin, and, without regulation, sparked the decline of the wild salmon population. Pioneers didn’t understand the downstream implications of their actions, which led to wide-reaching problems that still impact salmon populations today.
We can learn lessons from our history with salmon: altering aquatic ecosystems may lead to a butterfly effect of unanticipated consequences.
A Fishy New GMO
You have probably heard about AquAdvantage Salmon by now—this genetically modified fish combines the Atlantic salmon, the Chinook salmon, and the unrelated ocean pout.
By taking a growth hormone gene from the Chinook and a promoter gene from the pout, the biotech industry has created a fish that grows rapidly throughout the whole year, even during very cold weather. The end result is a fish that grows about twice as fast as conventionally farmed fish, making it ready for market in 18 months instead of three years.
Many stakeholders are concerned that these genetically modified salmon could jeopardize the future of wild Atlantic salmon. The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity, and multiple employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have all called AquaBounty’s product a threat to other Salmon.
Some of these groups are fighting back. The Center for Food Safety and ten other organizations are currently involved in a lawsuit against the FDA over its approval of the AquAdvantage salmon. Filed in March 2016, this suit claims the FDA’s hasty approval was unlawful because the Administration failed to fully assess the potential environmental and ecological impacts of the modified Salmon. Specifically, the suit (read the full complaint here—it is very interesting!) suggests that the FDA violated these laws:
- Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Federal Food and Drug Amendments Act of 2007
- Administrative Procedure Act
The Latest Updates
Meanwhile, GMO salmon is already being sold in Canada—quietly. As of July 2017, AquaBounty estimated that 4.5 metric tons of the salmon had already been sold in Canada. More than 60 countries around the world—including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union—require GMOs to be labeled, but Canada does not have such laws. As a result, many Canadians are unknowingly eating genetically modified salmon.
AquaBounty is also preparing to expand into the United States. In addition to the company’s existing facilities in Canada and Panama, it purchased a fish farming facility in Indiana last July. AquaBounty plans to sell its genetically engineered salmon in the US by the second half of 2019. As the incoming labeling law in the United States is deeply flawed, this salmon is likely to be sold unlabeled here as well.
The Good News
Consumers are rejecting this experimental fish—only 35 percent of Americans would try it—so many retailers are publicly refusing to carry it. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, Kroger, Costco, Safeway, Albertsons, Aldi, and more than 60 other chains (over 11,000 stores in total) have all promised not to sell AquAdvantage salmon. Notably, one of the most successful petitions to keep GMO salmon out of grocery stores started right here in Washington State.
This is an excellent reminder of the power you have as a consumer. When you vote with your dollars, even the biggest companies listen!