GMO salmon

From Bad to Worse: The Rise of GMO Salmon 

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In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquaBounty Technologies to sell its genetically modified (GMO) “AquAdvantage” salmon in the U.S., making it the first GMO animal to be approved for sale to U.S. consumers. After the first “harvest” of AquAdvantage in May, the first shipments of GMO salmon were sent to restaurants in eastern U.S. states in June. 

Despite the FDA’s assertion that the approval of AquAdvantage salmon is not environmentally significant and it “is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered . . . Atlantic salmon,” the harmful impacts of farming and consuming genetically modified salmon are unavoidable.  

GMO Salmon Technology: Bad for Animal Welfare  

AquAdvantage salmon are genetically modified to grow twice as fast as their non-modified counterparts. This was accomplished by combining DNA sequences from two other kinds of fish, Chinook salmon and ocean pout, with Atlantic salmon. But this novel science has unintended consequences. 

AquAdvantage raises these GMO animals in land-based aquaculture facilities, otherwise known as factory fish farms. Just like the horrific factory farms that confine billions of pigs, chickens, cows and other animals for slaughter every year, life in an aquaculture facility is an animal’s worst nightmare. For example, our undercover investigation into Cooke Aquaculture in northern Maine revealed vicious acts of cruelty against salmon—including stomping on fish, throwing them significant distances and slamming them into concrete—filthy conditions, severe health issues and deformities.

Other aquaculture facilities may be no better. After salmon at Atlantic Sapphire, an enormous inland aquaculture facility in Florida, were “stressed and weakened by the noise and vibrations of ongoing construction,” the Florida facility opted to kill 200,000 salmon by “vacuum pumping them to be electrically shocked and then have their gills slit” before leaving them to bleed out. That same year, the company killed an additional 600,000 fish “by operating a faulty filtration system.” Although the salmon at these two facilities are non-GMO, the conditions are indicative of the industry as a whole and the fate of AquAdvantage salmon.

In addition to the inherent pain and suffering of life at an aquaculture facility, GMO salmon experience unique forms of pain and suffering due to deformation and diseases, and die prematurely as a result of their genetic modification. Although the FDA has concluded that AquaBounty’s genetic modification is safe for the fish, they relied on a single study conducted by AquaBounty itself which, according to the American Anti-Vivisection Society, “is characterized by several major limitations and flaws that raise serious doubts about [its] . . . reliability, accuracy, and usefulness.” 

GMO Salmon Production Harms the Environment

In addition to welfare concerns, the creation of GMO salmon has environmental consequences. As the fastest growing animal food sector in the world, aquaculture is becoming a major problem for the planet. Concentrated areas of large animal populations like factory fish farms create high levels of runoff wastes and “can be hotbeds for the development of viral diseases and parasites, such as sea lice.”

GMO fish pose an additional threat in the case of an escape—a serious threat to the environment, which could further harm our rivers, lakes and oceans and lead to species extinction. Currently, more than a million farmed fish escape aquaculture facilities and enter the wild every year, which leads to farmed salmon displacing wild salmon. An escape by GMO salmon or releases of stolen eggs could have ever greater ecological impacts. Escaped GMO fish “would compete with their wild counterparts for food and space,” which would eventually cause wild salmon to go extinct. 

Consumers: Confused, Deceived and Harmed by GMO Salmon 

Additionally, aquaculture harms consumers through lack of transparency. For example, Cooke Aquaculture leads consumers to believe that its products are sustainably farmed and humanely raised. Undercover footage, however, shows that the opposite is true. Accordingly, Animal Outlook filed suit against Cooke last June for false advertising.

GMO salmon farming may prove to be even more misleading. According to Food Safety News, “[b]y selling to restaurants and cafeterias . . . AquaBounty can avoid the federal GMO labeling law.” In other words, restaurant-goers will have no way to know whether the salmon on their plate is genetically modified.  

GMO salmon also harms consumers’ health. GMO salmon is potentially more allergenic, although we do not know for sure in the case of AquAdvantage due to a “botched” test that the FDA did not require AquaBounty to reperform. Instead, AquaBounty performed another test that included only twelve fish—six GMO salmon and six non-GMO salmon. Despite the small sample size, the six GMO salmon were very “likely to cause allergic reactions.” Additionally, GMO salmon have more growth hormones. This can create a hormone called IGF, which is linked to increased cancer risk. 

Unlike GMO Plants, GMO Animals are Considered “Drugs”

AquAdvantage salmon is considered an “animal drug” to be regulated by the FDA and subject to the New Animal Drug Application (NADA) requirements. The government reasoned that “the genetic modification . . . affects their ‘structure and function’ in a way that is analogous to how veterinary drugs affect them.” As a result of this classification, unlike with GMO plants, there is no framework for evaluating the environmental impacts of GMO fish. In 2010, the FDA announced that AquaBounty had finally—after a decade of trying—provided the information necessary for the agency to make a decision. However, the data provided by AquaBounty “did not fully comply with NADA requirements.” 

GMO salmon technology leads to increased suffering for fish; negatively impacts the environment, vital ecological systems, and human health; and violates consumer rights. Further, the concept of GMO salmon is in direct conflict with the scientific evidence that fish are sentient beings deserving of compassion and protection from harm. 

You can take the cruelty off your plate by going vegan—visit tryveg.com to get started now. We can only fight against animal exploitation with your support. Please donate today to help bring an end to horrific practices like GMO salmon technology. 

By Allison Briggs, Animal Outlook legal intern and third-year law student at the University of Maine

Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

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