Weigh­ing the su­per-salmon

The en­vi­ron­men­tal risks need fur­ther study be­fore a ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered salmon is mar­keted.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

Salmon that have been ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered to grow twice as fast as wild salmon are not ready for an ap­pear­ance on the Amer­i­can din­ner plate. An ad­vi­sory panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion was wise to push back this week against what looked like fast-track ap­proval of the first ge­net­i­cally al­tered an­i­mal for hu­man con­sump­tion, say­ing more re­search is needed.

Most of the de­bate has cen­tered on whether the su­per-salmon pro­posed by AquaBounty Tech­nolo­gies Inc. are safe to eat. They might well be, de­spite the just crit­i­cisms of poorly de­signed stud­ies on hor­mone lev­els in their flesh and whether they might have lower re­sis­tance to dis­ease.

That dis­cus­sion has un­for­tu­nately over­shad­owed the even more trou­bling ques­tion of whether the fish are safe for the en­vi­ron­ment. There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween ge­net­i­cally al­ter­ing do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals — cat­tle, for ex­am­ple, which might be de­signed to re­sist mad cow dis­ease — and cre­at­ing an an­i­mal with a pos­si­ble evo­lu­tion­ary ad­van­tage in the wild. Cheaper salmon that can be farmed with less of a car­bon foot­print might be a tempt­ing idea, but does the mod­ern world re­ally need such salmon? Not enough to merit en­vi­ron­men­tal risk. It would take many more years of re­search, and far more in­for­ma­tion than the pub­lic has so far been given, to de­ter­mine whether it’s pos­si­ble to fully guard the world’s wa­ters from harm — such as the pos­si­bil­ity that the su­per-salmon could breed with wild salmon or out­com­pete wild fish for avail­able food, en­dan­ger­ing the sur­vival of the species and pos­si­bly harm­ing other aquatic life.

In any case, the FDA is the wrong agency to make the en­vi­ron­men­tal de­ci­sion. It was given author­ity over such an­i­mals be­cause the genes in­serted into the an­i­mals’ DNA are con­sid­ered a drug. But the FDA isn’t where the fed­eral govern­ment’s top en­vi­ron­men­tal, wildlife and fish­eries ex­perts work. Mul­ti­ple agen­cies should have re­spon­si­bil­ity for re­view­ing these ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and the Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­eries Ser­vice.

In or­der to avoid es­capes of su­per-salmon into rivers or the ocean, AquaBounty has de­vel­oped an im­pres­sive set of safe­guards. It plans to rear the fish in tanks on land rather than in the usual ocean pens. As an added pre­cau­tion, it would ren­der the fish ster­ile so they could not mate with wild salmon. But the ster­il­iza­tion process is not per­fect; up to 5% of treated salmon could still re­pro­duce. The com­pany has said that the fa­cil­ity in the Panama high­lands where the fish would be reared is ad­ja­cent to a river, prob­a­bly be­cause co­pi­ous amounts of wa­ter are needed to flush the tanks. But the spe­cific lo­ca­tion has not been re­vealed, and the pub­lic has the right to know more about it. Where is the river ex­actly? How close to it will the tanks be? Fur­ther, even if the FDA ap­proves the process, it’s un­clear that the agency would be able to en­sure com­pli­ance.

AquaBounty’s two small fa­cil­i­ties — it would also run a hatch­ery on Prince Ed­ward Is­land in Canada — prob­a­bly would of­fer lit­tle chance of es­cape. But fed­eral reg­u­la­tors must look at the big­ger pic­ture. This is a first-phase pro­posal. If more and larger su­per-salmon farms come into play, the chances of slop­pier fa­cil­i­ties and the es­cape of non-ster­ile salmon would in­crease.

What would hap­pen then? Pos­si­bly noth­ing. The salmon might be less able to live in a nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment than their wild coun­ter­parts. But we don’t know. The en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments so far haven’t ad­e­quately looked at this ques­tion or what kind of en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sponse might be needed. In­stead, they have mainly been limited to pre­vent­ing es­capes, on the as­sump­tion that a se­ri­ous prob­lem is so un­likely to oc­cur, there’s lit­tle need for a well-re­searched plan be­yond that point. We all know how well that kind of think­ing worked with the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil rig.

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