The Non-GMO Project is based in Bellingham, Washington, on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish tribes. Indigenous people have fished and stewarded salmon for thousands of years in this region. Today, salmon face a daunting combination of threats — habitat loss, climate change and disease from farmed fish. And when GMO salmon entered the marketplace in 2017, a new threat was added. A coalition of environmental groups argued that fast-growing genetically modified salmon could devastate wild fish in the event of contamination or escape.
AquaBounty, the company behind GMO salmon, has marketed its product as a sustainable solution to declining salmon populations. At the Non-GMO Project, we believe there are better tools with which to rebuild salmon health, tools that trace back to the first people to inhabit these lands. And we aren't the only ones who think so.
A study released in 2021 outlines several Indigenous fishing techniques as promising pathways to sustainable fisheries and healthy fishing communities. These techniques have evolved through centuries of observation, refinement and expertise. In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, here are five traditional salmon fishing practices whose roots in the distant past could very well hold the key to salmon's future.
Fish traps — Fish traps are built at the mouth of a river, where a carefully-designed fence-like structure leads fish into a maze of chambers at high tide. When the tide goes out, the salmon are stranded in a living well — still submerged in water but unable to escape. Fishers can collect the harvest they need, then remove fencing to free the rest of the fish.
Weirs — A weir has a similar fence-like look, but its design and placement differ from a fish trap. Weirs run directly across a river, trapping migrating salmon. Traditionally, weirs were made from cedar and other locally-sourced materials. Weirs may appear simple, but they must be properly managed by local experts. A poorly managed weir has the potential to block the upriver migration of adult fish, preventing spawning and wiping out the entire population.
Dip net — Dip nets are a very ancient method of salmon fishing which, according to researchers, "remains vibrant to this day despite years of harassment and arrest at the hands of fisheries officers during the twentieth century." Dip net fishing combines specialized equipment and knowledge with inherited, inter-generational fishing grounds and profound physical strength. Fishermen stand on platforms constructed above a river where salmon are known to migrate. Dip nets are wide-mouth nets on long poles, which the fishermen throw upstream and allow to be pulled underwater by the current. Experienced fishers can feel salmon bump into the net from their perch above.
Reef nets — Reef net fishing was developed and perfected by the Coast Salish peoples to catch salmon in marine waters as they return to the Fraser River. Nets are suspended between two boats, traditionally canoes, and anchored to huge underwater rocks. Nets are disguised with seaweed fronds or grasses to look like a tidal inlet, where salmon would generally be safe from predators such as orcas. Through selective harvesting, reef net fisheries can catch thousands of salmon each day without harming non-target or endangered species.
Fish wheels — A fish wheel is a large wheel, half-submerged in a migratory river, resembling an aquatic Ferris wheel. The river's current powers the wheel's motion, driving baskets that scoop salmon out of the river and divert them to underwater holding areas without harming them. Salmon remain in flowing river water until they are claimed and harvested.
The practices highlighted here share crucial traits and offer profound benefits. For example, they favor location-specific, local management systems based on a deep understanding of fish populations and ecosystems. Also, nearly all these techniques are "terminal fisheries," operating in river systems where salmon return to spawn. Terminal fisheries support selective harvesting and protect non-target organisms.
Traditional Indigenous technologies are even attracting adherents outside the commercial fishing industry. Biologists and conservationists look to Indigenous systems to catch and release fish so they can be tagged or assessed without harm.
A common criticism of biotechnology as the solution to the world's ills is that its "solutions" tend to be short-sighted. They are highly lucrative for a small group of well-heeled stakeholders while doing nothing to dismantle the systems that gave rise to the climate crisis. If anything, GMOs increase the separation between our food system and the natural world and heighten the post-colonial practice of privatization that led us here.
GMO salmon is no different.
* Source: BioScience, Volume 71, Issue 2, February 2021, Pages 186–204, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa144.
The world's first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption was the AquaAdvantage salmon, a GMO with added genetic material from a Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Canadian consumers became the first people to eat the fast-growing frankenfish — but they didn't know it.
Despite consistent polling that most Canadians support labeling GMOs, Canada has no law requiring it. So, it was a big deal when unlabeled GMO fish were sold to and eaten by humans for the first time in history. At least 4.5 tons of AquaAdvantage salmon were sold to Canadian food distributors, ultimately finding their way into restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores.
While unlabeled GMO salmon was being sold to unwitting Canadians, production and sales expanded into the United States.
Risky fishies: GMO approval based on "sloppy science"
The Non-GMO Project advocates for independent, peer-reviewed safety testing for GMOs. People are often surprised to learn that such a sensible approach is not common practice. Instead, safety testing is mainly conducted by the biotech companies that develop GMOs — the same companies who stand to profit from the GMO's approval.
Research on AquaAdvantage salmon given to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was described as "woefully inadequate," based on "sloppy science, small sample sizes, and questionable practices."
Without rigorous and independent research, the long-term health implication of eating GMO salmon is unknown. However, the environmental risks are crystal-clear.
Escaped AquaAdvantage salmon could be devastating for struggling wild salmon populations (both Pacific and Atlantic salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act). The fast-growing GMOs could outcompete wild salmon for resources in open waters, introduce disease or parasites, and contaminate wild populations by crossbreeding – an irreversible development.
In a 2020 article on fish farming, the Guardian described salmon as "a kind of barometer for the planet’s health." Well, we know only too well that the planet is in danger. Inviting — or in this case, actually inventing — a new threat to an imperiled species is asking for disastrous repercussions.
GMOs on the loose — an "if" or a "when"?
AquaBounty, the company responsible for the GMO salmon, is aware of the dangers. They have pledged to only produce infertile female salmon in inland containment facilities — but these measures aren't fool proof.
For example, GMO salmon's sterility is successful in 99.5-99.8% of fish. That may sound impressive, but the numbers involved in fish farming are gargantuan. AquaBounty projects an annual capacity of 10,000 tons of GMO salmon in a proposed mega-facility in Pioneer, Ohio. That would mean billions of fish. Even a 99.8% sterility rate — the most optimistic estimate — could leave up to 15 million fertile genetically modified fish capable of breeding with wild salmon.
Escape risks increase as production grows — and AquaBounty has ambitious plans. The new Ohio facility will be eight times larger than AquaBounty's existing U.S. facility in Indiana, and 40 times larger than the original site on Prince Edward Island. The company is also reportedly looking at international opportunities, which would add variation to security regulations and environmental priorities.
Ultimately, math only goes so far in projecting disaster. If GMO salmon escape, and if the escape includes some of the fertile minority, the result could be a death knell for struggling wild salmon populations — all for a product that most consumers simply don't want.
That's why a growing list of food retailers, wholesalers, restaurants and grocery stores are listening to consumer voices. More than 80 companies with over 18,000 locations have publicly pledged to boycott GMO salmon. This victory clearly demonstrates that consumer voices can — and do — influence industry behavior and shape the supply chain.
Together, we can build a non-GMO food system that works for wild salmon, the environment, and for us.
The Non-GMO Project was created because people had questions about genetically modified organisms. In the years before the Project was founded, now-Executive Director Megan Westgate worked at a food co-op. "We were seeing in stores that increasingly people were coming in and looking for non-GMO choices," she says. "They were having a hard time figuring out which food was GMO and which wasn't."
In 2007, GMOs were becoming prevalent in the supply chain and shoppers wanted clear, reliable information about how their food was produced. Two grocers in particular — The Natural Grocery Company in Berkeley, California and The Big Carrot Natural Food Market in Toronto, Ontario — led the brainstorming. How could they provide their communities with reliable information? What might a transparent, rigorous third-party certification program for GMO avoidance look like?
Fifteen years later, we've all come a long way. Awareness of the GMO issue is nearly universal at *97% and the Non-GMO Project has grown to meet demand.
Today, we provide:
- Verification for more than 66,000 products
- Partnerships with thousands of brands through the Product Verification Program
- Ongoing education and outreach for the public
- Continued monitoring of new developments in biotechnology
It's our job to make sure your interests are served, but it is your interest that drives this movement.
If it weren't for you, this Butterfly would never have gotten off the ground.
More shoppers than ever are looking for natural foods and non-GMO choices. That kind of collective action gets noticed — major food brands and retailers recognize that their customers are prioritizing a healthy, natural, and non-GMO food supply, and they're changing their operations accordingly.
Big fish going non-GMO: Walmart, Costco and more join boycott of GMO salmon
For example, the first generation of genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon was harvested and sold to U.S. seafood suppliers in May, 2021. Containing DNA from three different types of fish — Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, and the eel-like ocean pout — AquAdvantage salmon are genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as natural salmon while consuming less feed.
While those salmon were growing in island pens at freakish speed, the voices of concerned citizens and environmental groups moved 80 companies with more than 18,000 locations to boycott the GMO fish. At the national level, the boycott includes 8 of the top 10 grocery chains in the country: Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize, H-E-B, Meijer and Target. More regional chains, chefs, restaurants and seafood suppliers have also pledged not to carry GMO salmon.
McDonald's + Beyond Meat: Fast food giant says no to new GMOs
Driven by individual choices at the grassroots level, collective action has spurred corporate action, catching the attention of some of the biggest boardrooms in the world. For example, McDonald's has opted for non-GMO ingredients in some of its latest and greatest products.
When the golden arches joined the plant-based protein craze with their new McPlant, they worked with Non-GMO Project Verified brand Beyond Meat to come up with the recipe. And their french fries — which are one of the most popular fast food menu items of all time — are made with non-GMO spuds rather than the genetically modified "Innate" potatoes that were created by one of their biggest suppliers. McDonald's issued a statement when GMO potatoes came on the market: “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice."
As the sign says, McDonald's serves billions of meals. Expanding their use of non-GMO ingredients indicates growing commitment to non-GMO and shows they are listening to their customers.
Your support for the Butterfly is changing how retailers and restaurants choose what they carry — and that changes the food system.
GMOs — new and old — have no place in our food supply
Working with a wide range of brands helps Non-GMO Project Verification increase non-GMO acreage and build a non-GMO supply chain, reducing pesticide use and supporting biodiversity in local ecosystems. In 2016, our partnership with Dannon led to the dairy company's commitment to go non-GMO with their top-selling yogurt brands. To reach this goal, 80,000 acres were planted with non-GMO crops for livestock feed.
Today, new GMO products made with emerging techniques are entering the food supply — and many of them bypass the Bioengineered Food Labeling law. It's more important than ever to shop for the food system you want to see. The Non-GMO Project Butterfly remains the most trusted and rigorous third-party certification for avoiding GMOs, new and old.
So, whether you visit big chains to find big brands or search out local, independent producers in your area, rest assured that every action is part of a larger movement towards the food system we are creating for future generations. With your choices, you've already inspired change in a global movement toward an equitable and regenerative food system.
In the words of Executive Director Megan Westgate:
"We are all connected in ways that make it possible to make big changes through small but important choices. That includes the food we buy, and also what we give back to the Earth and to each other."
The Non-GMO Project is honored to continue to serve you and your families.
*Source: Organic and Beyond Report ⓒ 2020, The Hartman Group, Inc.
The first batch of genetically modified salmon raised in a U.S. facility has been sold from AquaBounty's facility in Albany, Ind. The GMO salmon were modified with DNA from both a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout to grow nearly twice as fast as non-GMO Atlantic salmon while consuming less feed.
Will GMO salmon be labeled?
The Non-GMO Project supports clear and transparent labeling of products made with or containing GMOs. AquaAdvantage salmon is listed as a “bioengineered food” under federal BE food labeling law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS). Because of this, AquAdvantage salmon sold by retailers must include a mandatory “Bioengineered Food” disclosure starting January 1, 2022. However, the GMO labeling scheme is not short on loopholes:
- Mandatory disclosures can take the form of the bioengineered foods label, a QR code or a phone number the consumer can dial for more information — a range that presents three very different experiences for a busy shopper in a grocery store.
- The voluntary disclosure period of the NBFDS is still in effect until the end of this calendar year, and it's unclear whether fish sold directly to consumers during this period will be labeled. AquaBounty has previously sold genetically modified salmon to unwitting consumers in Canada, where unlabeled GMO fish have been available since 2017.
Without standardized and accessible labeling — not to mention the confusing attempt to rebrand GMOs as "bioengineered foods" — shoppers continue to rely on the Butterfly to exercise their right to choose non-GMO.
Big names in food industry boycott GMO salmon
Consumers won't find AquAdvantage salmon at some of the biggest retail chains in the country, as 80 companies with more than 18,000 locations have pledged to not carry the GMO fish. The list includes grocery chains, restaurants, seafood companies and food service providers including Costco, who find the product incompatible with their sustainability policies. Hy-Vee issued a statement on their reasons for not carrying AquAdvantage: "In order to protect marine resources and ensure future seafood supplies, Hy-Vee strongly believes that genetically engineered seafood has no place in its stores."
Other companies that have publicly committed not to carry the GMO salmon include Kroger, Meijer, Target, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexo. For a detailed list of companies that are opting out of GMO salmon, visit Friends of the Earth's webpage.
FDA failed in environmental assessment of GMO salmon
A coalition of environmental groups have fought against the approval of genetically modified salmon for years, citing the risks it poses to native salmon populations. Critics of the GMO fish include The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity as well as several employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. On November 5, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the FDA violated environmental laws with its hasty approval of GMO salmon. The ruling calls out the FDA's failure to adequately assess the impact escaped GMO salmon could have on wild populations, stating, "The FDA knew that the company’s salmon operations would likely grow, with additional facilities being used for farming. Obviously, as the company’s operations grow, so too does the risk of engineered salmon escaping."
Salmon hold a place of particular importance to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest who lived and fished sustainably for centuries before the arrival of colonizers in the 19th century. In the words of Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians and of the Quinault Indian Nation,
"Salmon are at the center of our cultural and spiritual identity, diet, and way of life. It's unconscionable and arrogant to think man can improve upon our Creator's perfection as a justification for corporate ambition and greed."
While the FDA must now complete adequate assessments on the environmental risks of genetically engineered salmon, the ruling doesn't impact the current sales of AquAdvantage.
Find out more! Read Hidden GMOs in the Seafood Aisle
GMO Salmon have made headlines before—check out our older blog for more details on the fishiest GMOs.
AquAdvantage Salmon to be Sold in the United States
On March 8, the American FDA lifted its ban on the import of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies. The FDA initially approved this GMO for human consumption in 2015, but Congress required the FDA to halt imports of the fish until appropriate GMO labeling guidelines could be established. The FDA announced that this congressional mandate has been fulfilled through the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which requires the labeling of (some) GMOs at the federal level. Now that GMO salmon will be labeled in the US, the FDA has given the go-ahead to import, raise, and sell GMO salmon.
Congress is not the only institution that found fault with the hasty approval of the world’s first genetically modified meat; environmental groups immediately took issue with the FDA’s decision as well. The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity, and multiple employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have all called AquaBounty’s product a threat to other salmon.
George Kimbrell at the Center for Food Safety called the FDA “dangerously out of touch with the facts on the ground,” and Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth said “It is increasingly clear that there is inadequate regulation: the FDA is trying to shoehorn this new genetically engineered animal into a completely ill-fitting regulatory process.” Their groups and several others sued the FDA over its hurried approval, which may have violated several laws including:
- Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Federal Food and Drug Amendments Act of 2007
- Administrative Procedure Act
This litigation is ongoing. George Kimbrell and other stakeholders still believe their lawsuit could keep these GMO fish out of American stores if it is successful. “We think a remedy in our case would stop sale of the fish before they’re allowed to be sold,” he says.
Meanwhile, the AquAdvantage salmon has been quietly sold unlabeled in Canada since 2017. As of September 2018, AquaBounty reported that nearly 15 metric tons of the fish had been sold, but would not say to whom. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and other stakeholders are working to address multiple issues related to the labeling and marketing of this fish in Canada.
AquAdvantage salmon is a transgenic GMO that contains DNA from three different types of fish: Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, and the eel-like ocean pout. This results in a salmon that grows nearly twice as fast as other farmed Atlantic salmon while consuming about 25 percent less feed. Researchers do not yet know if these fish will have other, off-target effects as a result of their genetic manipulation.
These living GMOs are bred to be sterile and always female in hopes of preventing them from mixing with wild populations. Unfortunately, it only takes one mishap for GMO contamination to occur. Once GMOs are released into the environment, there is no recalling them into the lab. Contamination events spanning decades and continents prove that no containment plan is foolproof. Some people are particularly concerned that AquaBounty is not being careful enough in Panama, where authorities ruled that AquaBounty had “repeatedly violated” certain environmental regulations.
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard
The FDA announced that since the USDA already set rules for GMO labeling by establishing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, the congressional labeling requirement has been met. Many of the most prevalent GMOs will remain unlabeled under this fatally-flawed law because it contains so many omissions and loopholes. Despite these many shortcomings, AquAdvantage salmon and most products containing AquAdvantage salmon will require a “bioengineered food” disclosure under this law. This specific salmon is explicitly included in the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods.
Take the quiz: Which GMOs will be labeled and which will be hidden under the NBFDS?
The company has been farming conventional salmon in its Indiana facility while waiting for the FDA to lift the import ban. In the interim, it has been raising GMO fish in Panama, then exporting them to Canada for sale.
AquaBounty will now be permitted to import eggs to the Indiana-based farming facility it has held since June 2017. The company hopes to have its GMO salmon on the market as soon as 2020. Since compliance with the NBFDS does not become mandatory until 2022, it is unclear whether AquaBounty would choose to label its salmon in the interim. This means it is possible, but not certain, that GMO salmon could be sold in the US without a GMO disclosure for two years.
Consumers Reject GMO Meat
The hasty government approval of GMO salmon demonstrates once again that the FDA puts agribusiness first and consumers second. Despite this failure to create meaningful regulations, consumers and consumer groups are fighting back. Consumers don’t want GMO salmon--polls show only 35 percent of Americans would even try it. Nearly two million people sent the FDA comments asking them not to approve GMO salmon back in 2013, but the FDA did not listen. Luckily, many grocery retailers are listening. More than 80 retailers with a total of over 16,000 locations nationwide have promised not to sell genetically modified seafood.