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Media Backgound: GM Fish in Canada

October 24, 2014

Current Status

The Ministers of Environment and Health in Canada have approved the commercial production of genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) Atlantic salmon. The decision was announced in the Canada Gazette on November 23, 2013 The Environment Canada approval is the first government approval for the company AquaBounty.

Two Canadian environmental groups – Ecology Action Centre (NS) and Living Oceans Society (BC) – are challenging the Canadian decision in court. Lawyers with the charitable organization Ecojustice filed a judicial review application with the Federal Court in December 2013. The legal challenge asserts that the approval is unlawful because it failed to assess whether the GM salmon could become invasive, potentially putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk.

The GM fish is not yet approved for human consumption in Canada or anywhere else in the world. The company has asked for approval of the GM Atlantic salmon for human consumption in the US and Canada. The current proposal being considered in the US is to produce and process the GM salmon in Panama, from GM fish eggs produced in and shipped from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada.

The company AquaBounty already produced GM salmon eggs at its PEI facility, which were (and still are) shipped to the company’s Panama location for further research and development. If fully approved for production and consumption, the GM salmon would be the first GM food animal in the world. The company has publicly stated its intentions to produce the GM fish in countries around the world including the US and Chile.

Genetically modified fish

Genetic modification (also called genetic engineering or rDNA technology) is a controversial new technology that allows for the transfer of genetic material directly from one organism to another (across the species and kingdom barriers) at the molecular level, and is dramatically different from animal breeding, with new risks and unpredictable impacts on the organism.

The Atlantic salmon has been engineered with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout (an eel-like creature), to grow faster than other farmed salmon.

Canadian government decision to approve happens in secret

In Canada, the entire regulatory process is secret, including any timeline for approval (approval could be granted at any time). There are no public consultations.

Health Canada is currently assessing a request to approve human consumption of the GM salmon.

After the decision to approve commercial production of the GM fish eggs, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) released a "Summary of the Environmental and Indirect Human Health Risk Assessment of AquaAdvantage Salmon" This is the only public document in Canada relating to any risk assessment of the GM fish. The DFO opinion concluded that the potential hazard to wild populations of Atlantic salmon was high if the GM fish entered the environment, but that the containment outlined by the company was sufficient to prevent escape.

The US Food and Drug Administration is close to a final decision on the GM salmon.

The GM salmon poses a risk to wild Atlantic salmon populations

If approved, the GM Atlantic salmon would pose a risk to wild Atlantic salmon populations which are endangered around the world.

  • Escape of farmed fish from marine net pens or hatcheries is already a serious, reoccurring problem that threatens wild species.
  • AquaBounty says it will only grow out the GM fish in land-based facilities, but, as production expands, the GM salmon could be grown in ocean-based fish farms across the world.
  • The company says that all the GM fish will be sterile females but also admits that up to 5% may be able to reproduce. Even if only 1% remain fertile, escape from confinement would pose a significant environmental threat.
  • Research from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans relating to Coho salmon found that GM salmon are more aggressive and can outcompete wild salmon for food.

The GM salmon could pose a risk to human health

  • According to AquaBounty’s own research (released in summary form by the US Food and Drug Administration), the GM salmon has elevated levels of IGF-1, a hormone linked to a number of cancers.
  • Additionally, the company research shows an increased risk of allergic reaction in those people who are already allergic to salmon.

There is significant opposition in the food and aquaculture industry

  • The aquaculture industry says it doesn't support GM fish because there is no market demand.
  • Several major U.S. grocery chains recently signed a pledge not to sell any GM fish, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. US polls show that 91% of consumers do not want to eat the GM fish.

There is public opposition in Canada

75 organizations in Canada say they oppose GM fish, including the Ecology Action Centre, David Suzuki Foundation, Wild Salmon First, the Fundy Baykeeper, Living Oceans Society, and the United Church of Canada.

For more information: Lucy Sharrratt, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network 613 241 2267 ext 25. coordinator@cban.ca www.cban.ca/fish

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