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What Does Canada's GM Salmon Lawsuit Mean for the U.S.?

Photo:ensteele/Flickr/Creative Commons License


This week, three Canadian-based environmental groups (Ecojustice, Ecology Action Centre, and Living Oceans Society) filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government over their approval of the commercial production of genetically-modified salmon. The lawsuit proposes that the government didn't follow its own rules before giving the thumbs up to AquaBounty Canada, Inc., the manufacturer of the GM fish.

So, does this affect the U.S.? The answer: Quite a bit.

Scientifically, the process AquaBounty uses to create their salmon is to take genetic material from a Chinook salmon and "the eel-like species ocean pout," mix them up in their laboratory, stick the genetic cocktail into Atlantic salmon eggs, and grow the salmon with the new genetic material embedded inside. This will make the new GM salmon grow to "market-size" a whole lot quicker than wild salmon. (AquaBounty's salmon grows to its full length in 16 to 18 months, rather than three years.)

However, as the current production method is set up, the only part of the process that takes place in Canada is the splicing of the genes into the eggs. (That's the reason for this lawsuit.) Afterwards, the eggs are shipped down to Panama where they are grown (and where, it should be noted, a similar lawsuit is currently underway), before ultimately being shipping into every other country that will eat these salmon. Which, not so shockingly, will probably be here.

"The U.S. government is also proposing approval of the AquaBounty salmon, which would be the first genetically-engineered animal or fish for human consumption," says George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, one of the largest American non-profits focused on keeping GMOs out of the food supply. "We've said many times that what the U.S. FDA has proposed is unlawful, and we'll challenge it."

The challenge will be based on the same argument that is the basis for the Canadian lawsuit, essentially claiming that the country is not following laws they, themselves, made.

"[Canada and the U.S.] have similar environmental laws," explains Kimbrell. "In Canada, they have the Canadian Environmental Policy Act, which is similar to our National Environmental Policy Act, and it requires the agency to analyze the impact of their actions before they take them. The [Canadian] government also violated the law in failing to release a bunch of data and information upon which it based its decision." So, when the FDA finally does give the go-ahead to allow GM salmon to be consumed and/or produced in the country -- and, at this point, it does seem like simply a matter of "when" -- the Center for Food Safety, among other environmental groups, will be filing similar lawsuits against the government to stop the decision.

But these legal proceedings aren't taking place just to keep the government(s) honest when it comes to their decision-making. They're happening because the introduction of GM salmon to the world can have devastating consequences.

"It's potentially catastrophic," said Kimbrell. "It's hard to overstate the potential environmental impacts of genetically-engineered salmon. Most of our salmon stocks are already teetering on the precipice of extinction. This likely would be the final blow and cause their extinction."

Salmon that are genetically engineered to grow more quickly will easily take over the natural environment from wild salmon. That's just simple logistics. "These fish that grow faster than wild salmon, would outcompete them and challenge them for habitat as well as resources," says Kimbrell. "They're going to starve them out."

The question, then, becomes one of figuring out how to make sure the GM salmon are kept away from the natural environment. But as more and more countries approve the science, and more and more facilities industrialize the process, and more and more shipping routes are established, that prospect becomes less and less likely. All it will take is for just one to escape into the wild.

And if we've learned anything from the long history of invasive species being accidentally introduced to various parts of the world, that's merely a question of time.

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