GE Salmon: Swimming Away with Subsidies

As we've noted before, agribusiness loves to tout the ostensible economic benefits of industrial food production, perpetually falling back on the old it's-the-only-way-to-feed-the-growing-population-without-inducing-global-starvation-and-economic-catastrophe argument.  Of course, as I find myself pointing out ad nauseam, these economic benefits are illusory; the price of industrial food is artificially low because its production is subsidized by the government, and because it creates damages (e.g., environmental, human health, animal welfare, socioeconomic, etc.) that aren't included in sticker prices at the grocery store.

While the later costs can be difficult to quantify, subsidies are tangible and easily calculable.  Want a good starting point?  Check out Environmental Working Group's Farm Subsidy Database, which provides a detailed depiction of the dough doled out to the nation's crop producers.  There are also a pile of indirect Big Ag subsidies - e.g., EQIP funds handed out to help CAFOs clean up their own waste, and federal research dollars funneled into land grant universities (which generally focus on improving industrial agricultural technologies rather than developing sustainable alternatives).  And of course, Uncle Sam provides ongoing support for genetic engineering (GE).  In 2011, for instance, the USDA dropped a cool $4 million on biotech risk assessment grants, which included one particularly eyebrow-raising payment to the GE salmon industry.

As Clare Leschin-Hoar reported last week in an outstanding article on Grist, the USDA awarded $494,162 to the biotech corporation, AquaBounty, for the purpose of "research[ing] technologies that would render fish sterile to decrease the risk of gene flow from transgene fish."

You should really read Clare's post for all the details, but here's the overview: for years, AquaBounty has been developing the genetically engineered "AquAdvantage salmon." They used genes from Chinook salmon and ocean pout (kinda like an eel), creating a GE fish that can grow year round and reach market weight twice as fast as "standard salmon" (i.e., industry-speak for the kind that exists in the wild without genetic manipulation in a lab).  AquaBounty is promoting AquAdvantage as the future of sustainable fish production (can you say, "greenwashing?"), and is fighting tooth-and-nail to get the FDA to approve the product for human consumption.

Of course, as is the case with GE crops, GE salmon present a potential threat to biodiversity (summary : the concern is that hearty GE fish might escape into the wild, where their superfishness {highly technical term} could enable them to out-compete non-GE salmon for food, space and mates, ultimately causing a decline in natural salmon populations).  Not surprisingly, AquaBounty insists that this won't be a problem, arguing that:

1 ) GE salmon will be raised in contained, inland facilities, preventing escape into the wild.

Rebuttal : once AquAdvantage eggs are available on the open market, there's no guarantee that the salmon will be raised only by responsible producers in contained facilities.  Although the FDA would initially require inland production, industry will undoubtedly pressure the agency to eventually allow use of open-net ocean pens.  Experts are also concerned that GE salmon will ultimately end up being raised in other countries, where regulation and oversight of aquaculture are lax.


2 ) AquaBounty claims that the GE salmon will be sterile (i.e., unable to reproduce).

Rebuttal : according to Claire's article, the CEO of AquaBounty wrote in an email to Grist that the current sterilization process "has been validated to 99.8%-effectiveness."  (Note that the FDA's environmental impact statement lists the effectiveness as only 95%).  In any case, AquaBounty hasn't been able to guarantee a 100% sterile GE salmon population.  Here's where that USDA grant comes in - instead of paying for their own research, AquaBounty received a fat government check to cover the bills.

Food & Water Watch recently investigated the AquAdvantage boondoggle and determined that in addition to the aforementioned USDA grant, AquaBounty has received more than $2.4 million in federal research funds since 2003, including $1.68 million from the Department of Commerce, more than $550 thousand from the USDA and nearly $200 thousand from the National Science Foundation.

As described by Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch:

The U.S. government is giving taxpayer money to fund a project in Canada while our economy is faltering. Why is our government bailing out AquaBounty at a time when we're radically cutting our federal budget? This is research the company should do to prove their product is safe - the American people shouldn't be paying for it.

Fishy business, indeed.

"I Don't Feel Sufficiently Outraged; Tell Me More."

Ok.  There are also safety concerns associated with GE salmon; experts note the potential for allergic reaction and argue that there hasn't been sufficient testing to prove that GE fish are safe for human consumption.  Furthermore, as described in a recent post by Ecocentric blogger, Erin McCarthy, GE foods don't have to be labeled - so if AquAdvantage salmon is approved and introduced to the market, consumers might not even realize they're buying genetically engineered fish.  Oh, and there's also a good argument to be made that GE salmon are completely unnecessary in the first place!

Learn more about the problems with GE salmon by reading Food & Water Watch's Frankenfish factsheet and their GE primer, Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview. Then visit FWW's Action page to find out what you can do about it.