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.