Remember back when we first started talking about Franken-fish? (No worries if not... a lot has happened since then.) To refresh your memory: back in 1989, a company called AquaBounty figured out a way to splice growth hormone-regulating genes from ocean pout and Pacific Chinook salmon into Atlantic salmon, enabling the fish to reach adult (read: harvestable) size more quickly. The fish was approved by the FDA in 2015 and by Canadian authorities in 2016. And while it was rolled out to Canadian consumers in 2017 (much to their chagrin), all is not rosy for this pink fish.
Following a lengthy back-and-forth between FDA and USDA over who would regulate the GE fish, AquaBounty has finally announced the sale of its first-ever harvest in the U.S. in the next few weeks. But consumers are none too thrilled, and so, in an echo of the Great Caged Egg Demise of 2015, American food service companies (facing little regulation from the powers that be) are fighting back. To wit: Aramark, a food service provider for hospitals, universities, school districts, stadiums across the country, has just announced its commitment to reject genetically engineered salmon, joining Compass Group and Sodexo, not to mention many of the largest U.S. grocery retailers, seafood companies, and restaurants including Costco.
“Reiterating our previously stated opposition to genetically engineered (GE) salmon, we will not purchase it should it come to market,” reads Aramark’s updated Sustainable Sourcing Policy. “Avoiding potential impacts to wild salmon populations and indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are deeply connected to and often dependent upon this vital resource, is core to our company’s commitment to making a positive impact on people and the planet.”
So why all the fuss? A few things.
From a social standpoint, much like traditional farmed salmon, genetically modified salmon push out community-based fishermen, threatening their livelihoods.
"The corporate consolidation of our seafood markets is pushing out community-based fishermen and BIPOC fishermen left and right and destroying our waters,” says Jason Jarvis, a commercial fisherman from Rhode Island and the Board President of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), in a recent press release. “These GE salmon would be just another step in that direction, and we have the chance to stop more of this destruction right now."
In addition to social concerns, there is also quite a bit of tension regarding GE salmon's environmental impact. Salmon is a carnivorous fish, and farmed salmon requires up to three times its weight of smaller fish to reach adult size. While there have been some strides towards more sustainable salmon farming, notably regarding a transition to plant-based feeds, the salmon farming industry is still far from the most ecologically sound. Since GE salmon is engineered to grow quickly, it should, in theory, boast less of a climate concern, at least regarding the issue of feed, but this has proven to be far from the case.
A 2017 risk assessment from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that the GE salmon showed dramatically diminished growth rates as compared to what was promised by the company. The salmon also appear to be prone to disease and deformities, which could raise animal welfare concerns. And to add insult to injury, there is some concern over GE salmon contaminating wild stocks of salmon or local brown trout in the Indiana region, despite assurances from the company to the contrary.
“GMO salmon is not 100 percent sterile, and containment is never 100 percent safe,” says Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth. “Escape is inevitable given human negligence and natural disasters.”
Continued back and forth between FDA and USDA leaves regulation far from watertight.
“Regulations under FDA and USDA are woefully inadequate to responsibly assess the safety or sustainability of new genetic engineering applications,” says Perls. “So far, no safety assessments specific to these new techniques are required, and no regulatory oversight is in place for this swiftly moving set of new technologies.”
For Jon Russell, also of NAMA, GE salmon merely doubles down on the issues linked to non-GMO farmed fish.
“AquaBounty is one of many BioTech funded businesses trying to take over the food industry for the next wave of money making," says Russell. "And seeing how mono-cropping and gene editing made the farming industry about profit and not about feeding people, we can see very similar trends happening in the Biotech fishing world.”
"If the GMO fish market grows similarly to the GMO seed market," he continues, "any healthy and sustainable fish market will be eclipsed by this cheap, industrial, GMO fish and create very similar problems to what we're seeing in our agriculture world right now.”
Since GMO salmon likely won’t carry clear, on-package labels (as is already the case in Canada), it may be difficult for consumers to avoid. That's why it's so important that companies like Aramark are taking a stand.
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