The Battle Over Frankenfish Heads to Congress

GMO salmon's potential impact will be debated in front of a Senate subcommittee this week.

GMO Salmon
A growth hormone from another fish species is added to modified "AquAdvantage" salmon—not exactly tasty. (Photo: funkystock/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

The continuing tussle over the future of AquaBounty Technology’s genetically modified salmon is heating up again this week, as a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard prepares to hear testimony on Thursday addressing the potential environmental impacts and safety issues surrounding the salmon—including risks to wild fish stocks.

“Any time you have a Senate hearing, it’s a big deal,” says Senator and committee chair Mark Begich (D-AK). “People are watching this to see if there is support or not. We wanted to make sure the scientific information was on the table.”

Thursday’s hearing can be viewed live through the Senate Commerce Committee website. It will be the first time Congress publically discusses the issue.

Begich, a vocal opponent of the genetically engineered salmon, introduced the Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States (PEGASUS) Act this fall, which would ban interstate commerce of GE fish.

“We can’t ban [the GE fish] through our process, but we can limit it from being moved from one state to the next,” he says.

The Atlantic salmon, known as AquAdvantage, has been genetically modified with a growth hormone taken from a Chinook salmon and a genetic on-switch from an ocean pout, allowing the fish to grow faster than traditional farm-raised salmon. Should it get the nod from the FDA, it will be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption.

The American people, frankly, deserve better.

Rumors swirled in mid-2010 that the genetically engineered salmon was well on its way to your dinner plate, but has since stalled, despite media reports that FDA had finished their evaluation and were preparing to grant their approval.

“The [Talking Points Memo] story was false. This application is still pending and we do not have any information on a timeline,” says FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey. “We can’t comment on where the application is in the process, but no, it has not received an approval.”

DeLancey says no one from the FDA had been asked to testify at tomorrow’s hearing.

Scheduled to speak is Dr. John Epifanio, Illinois Natural History Survey; Paul Greenberg, journalist and author of Four Fish; George Leonard, Ocean Conservancy; and Ron Stotish, president and CEO of AquaBounty.

The conversation is likely to be heated.

George Leonard, aquaculture program director for Ocean Conservancy, says an important point of contention is that in seeking FDA approval, AquaBounty only conducted an ecological assessment, rather than the more rigorous environmental impact statement.

“The process by which the FDA is regulating GE animals and fish is behind closed doors,” says Leonard. “Consumers should be concerned. The standards we set for ourselves today is the precedent for how thoroughly or not we evaluate the next application for GE fish or the next species that comes down the line. We need regulators to set a really high bar for the economic, environmental and societal costs and benefits of taking such a path —and right now, that’s not happening, and the American people, frankly, deserve better,” says Leonard.

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