Opinion: Unlabeled GE salmon


by Gabe Scott, Cascadia Wildlands – for the Cordova Times

April 23, 2013
Well here is something useful. Alaskans are united in defending our wild salmon heritage against Frankenfish. From Don Young to Mark Begich, Cascadia Wildlands and Greenpeace, we are leading the fight on one of the most consequential environmental issues of our time. It's not often we're this united around such a contentious issue. I think it's creeping the bad guys out. Some accuse us of selfishly looking to protect our own bottom line. But Alaskans are united against GE salmon for good reasons.
Quick background. The biotech firm AquaBounty spliced a Pacific King salmon gene into an Atlantic salmon to make it grow faster. The F.D.A. is on the cusp of giving approval to commercially farm the things. This is a huge international deal — the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption, by anyone, anywhere, ever. What happens here will set the pattern globally. This is the crossroads.
The big fear is that that escaped GE fish could threaten wild salmon runs. The FDA works on the assumption that there is no way GE Fish would escape contained pens along rivers on land. I'm reminded of earlier assumptions that farmed salmon wouldn't escape ocean net pens, and that GE crops wouldn't contaminate neighboring fields. If GE Fish do escape — and they inevitably would — these freakishly fast-growing salmon could interbreed with or out-compete wild salmon runs.
Rather than study the issues scientifically and make decisions democratically, the FDA is pushing a secretive, reckless approach. The Environmental Analysis is shamelessly shoddy. They brush aside deep scientific uncertainty, choosing instead to simply trust AquaBounty Inc.. They don't even pretend to confront social and economic impacts. Your average highway widening project undergoes more careful study.
Rather than operate above the table, the biotech company wants to manufacture eggs in Canada and grow their fish at a secret facility in Panama, then sell their product labeled only as "Atlantic Salmon" to unwary consumers in the United States. In other words, they don't want to follow our laws or employ our citizens. They just want to take our money.
Consumers loudly object to the lack of labeling. Surveys show most people don't want GE Fish on their plates, and even more think they should be labeled in the store. Over 2,500 grocery stores across the country, including major chains like Whole Earth and Trader Joe's, have pledged not to sell GE Fish.
Commercial fishermen and coastal residents express an array of concerns. Providing wholesome seafood from sustainable stocks is a responsibility fishermen take seriously. Alaska Trollers Association's Dale Kelley told me, "[t]he FDA has a long way to go before it can truthfully say that the risks of genetically engineered salmon have been fully evaluated and that this is a safe choice for consumers or the environment."
And what of the market effects? Copper River salmon command a premium price because they are high-quality, wild, and sustainable. That's good for us, consumers, and the planet. Unlabeled GE salmon in the market could undermine Copper River's good name and Alaska's hard-won wild fish economy.
Politicians spanning the political spectrum are standing up for their constituents in wild salmon territory. Our delegation of Begich, Murkowski and Young have lead the fight, introducing several pieces of legislation to stop, or at least improve, commercial GE salmon production.
Alaska's state legislature, in an incredible display of bipartisanship, unanimously passed a resolution opposing GE Fish. On April 18, Alaska state rep. Geran Tarr is visiting the AquaBounty facility in Canada, and meeting with local opponents as well. Turns out folks there also are proud of their local salmon. Working together, we can stop this thing.
We Alaskans are proud of our wild salmon, and should be proud to stand up for them on the international stage! We learned from past mistakes and have (more-or-less) successfully stewarded one of nature's greatest bounties. This is our heritage. Never apologize for defending it. If we don't, nobody else will.
Gabe Scott is Alaska field director for Cascadia Wildlands, and has a private maritime law practice in Cordova.