AquaBounty Technologies - which hopes to become the first company to introduce a genetically engineered (GE) animal to the human food supply - says a legal challenge to Environment Canada’s decision to approve its technology is just the latest attempt by its opponents to delay the commercialization process.
CEO Dr Ron Stotish was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after environmental groups applied for a judicial review of Environment Canada’s recent decision to approve the production of AquAdvantage salmon eggs in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
He said: “This has been the most transparent and rigorous process ever conducted. Multiple regulatory agencies in two countries have concluded multiple times that our salmon is environmentally safe. They are backed up by the consensus of the credible scientific community.
“This law suit is nothing more than attempt to continue to delay a process that has already taken 20 years."
Lawsuit: Environment Canada failed to assess whether GE salmon would become invasive
The application for a judicial review - filed by Ecology Action Center and Living Oceans Society against AquaBounty, the Minister of Health Rona Ambrose, and the Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq - alleges that the Canadian government did not conduct a full risk assessment before giving AquaBounty the thumbs up.
Specifically, it says Environment Canada failed to assess whether the GE salmon could become invasive, putting ecosystems and wild salmon at risk.
It also alleges that the government acted unlawfully in purporting to complete an assessment of whether AquAdvantage salmon is toxic or capable of becoming so without obtaining all information required by the law.
AquaBounty has been in legal limbo for years
AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon contains a growth hormone gene from the faster-growing Chinook salmon; which is effectively ‘turned on’ all year round instead of only during the warmer months, which halves the time it takes to reach maturity.
In November 2013, Environment Canada concluded the salmon are not harmful to the environment or human health when produced in contained facilities, following a risk assessment by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which convened a panel of independent experts in transgenics and fish containment technology.
However, for the eggs and fish to be approved for sale in the US and Canada, AquaBounty still needs final regulatory approvals from the FDA and Health Canada.
So far, the only approved growing facility for the fish is operated by AquaBounty in Panama. However, if the FDA gives the technology the green light, several partners are poised to set up facilities in other locations in which to grow the fish, each of which would require FDA approval on a case-by-case basis.
Food & Water Watch: Canadian government and FDA refuse to acknowledge real threat GE salmon pose to the environment
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety - which is well-known or its opposition to genetically engineered plants and animals - welcomed the legal challenge, adding: “This case is an important step in preserving native salmon populations and the environment from an unwanted, untested, novel threat."
“The Atlantic salmon has evolved over millions of years...” added Susanna Fuller of the Ecology Action Center. “The move to commercial production of GM Atlantic salmon puts this magnificent wild fish at risk of irreversible genetic contamination.”
What happens if the fish escape?
However, AquaBounty has consistently rejected the argument that its fish could decimate wild salmon populations.
In a recent article in the Food & Drug Law Institute’s Food and Drug Policy Forum , biotech experts Dr Alison L. Van Eenennaam, Dr William M. Muir, and Dr Eric M. Hallerman argued that should the all-female, sterile GE salmon escape from enclosed FDA-regulated facilities, selection over time would be expected to purge the transgene from any established salmon population.
They added: “No Atlantic salmon has ever successfully mated with any of the Pacific salmon species and so fears that sterile, female Atlantic salmon housed in a contained facility in the highlands of Panama will escape, migrate to the ocean, and then traverse thousands of miles across tropical seas and interbreed with wild Alaskan Pacific salmon are scientifically unfounded.”
Sustainability argument for GE salmon
They also argued that wild-caught fish deplete oceanic stocks and do not present a long-term, ecologically sustainable solution to rising global fish demand.
“A recent study found that transgenic AquAdvantage salmon had better feed conversion ratios, higher nitrogen retention efficiency, and achieved target weight gain in a considerably shorter period (40%) than conventional Atlantic salmon fed the same experimental grower diet in freshwater until they tripled their weight.
“Total feed required to produce the same fish biomass was reduced by 25% in the transgenic fish; representative of a significant and economically-relevant reduction in overall feed intake which is by far the most significant cost associated with salmon aquaculture.”
Click here to read some arguments for and against the technology.