San Francisco — A coalition of environmental groups, commercial and recreational fishing organizations and one Indian Tribe has won a huge victory in the battle to stop the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of genetically engineered salmon for human consumption in the U.S.
On November 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) violated core environmental laws in approving the genetically engineered salmon, according to a press release from the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Earthjustice.
“The Court decided that FDA ignored the serious environmental consequences of approving genetically engineered salmon and the full extent of plans to grow and commercialize the salmon in the U.S. and around the world, violating the National Environmental Policy Act,” the groups stated.
““The Court also ruled that FDA’s unilateral decision that genetically engineered salmon could have no possible effect on highly-endangered, wild Atlantic salmon was wrong, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The Court ordered FDA to go back to the drawing board and FDA must now thoroughly analyze the environmental consequences of an escape of genetically engineered salmon into the wild,” the groups said.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria concluded:
“The FDA did not, however, meaningfully analyze what might happen to normal salmon in the event the engineered salmon did survive and establish themselves in the wild. Even if this scenario was unlikely, the FDA was still required to assess the consequences of it coming to pass. This is especially true because 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. Thus, it was particularlyimportant at the outset for the agency to conduct a complete assessment of the risks posed by the company’s genetic engineering project, including an assessment of the consequences for normal salmon if the engineered salmon established themselves in the wild.”
The plaintiffs in the case, represented by the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, include the Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Ecology Action Centre, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Golden Gate Salmon Association, and the Quinault Indian Nation
“Today’s decision is a vital victory for endangered salmon and our oceans,” said George Kimbrell, CFS legal director and counsel in the case. “Genetically engineered animals create novel risks and regulators must rigorously analyze them using sound science, not stick their head in the sand as officials did here. In reality, this engineered fish offers nothing but unstudied risks. The absolute last thing our planet needs right now is another human-created crisis like escaped genetically engineered fish running amok.”
In 2016, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Earthjustice—representing a broad client coalition of environmental, consumer, commercial and recreational fishing organizations and the Quinault Indian Nation—sued the FDA for approving the first-ever commercial genetically engineered animal, an Atlantic salmon engineered to grow twice as fast as its wild counterpart, the groups said.
The genetically engineered salmon was produced by AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. with DNA from Atlantic salmon, Pacific king salmon, and Arctic ocean eelpout. This marks the first time any government in the world has approved a commercially genetically engineered animal as food.
AquaBounty recently reported a strong balance sheet going into the fourth quarter of 2020 and announced that it had selected Mayfield, Kentucky, U.S.A., as its favored site for a future 10,000-metric-ton (MT) land-based salmon farms. However, the FDA failed to consider and study the environmental risks of what many opponents of genetically engineered salmon call “frankenfish.”
“When GE salmon escape or are accidentally released into the environment, the new species could threaten wild populations by mating with endangered salmon species, outcompeting them for scarce resources and habitat, and/or introducing new diseases,” the groups said. “The world’s preeminent experts on GE fish and risk assessment, as well as biologists at U.S. wildlife agencies charged with protecting fish and wildlife, heavily criticized FDA’s approval for failing to evaluate the impacts of GE salmon on native salmon populations. Yet FDA ignored their concerns in the final approval.”
“This decision underscores what scientists have been telling FDA for years—that creating genetically engineered salmon poses an unacceptable risk if the fish escape and interact with our wild salmon and that FDA must understand that risk to prevent harm,” said Earthjustice managing attorney Steve Mashuda. “Our efforts should be focused on saving the wild salmon populations we already have—not manufacturing new species that pose yet another threat to their survival.”
According to the groups, studies have shown that there is a high risk for genetically engineered organisms to escape into the natural environment, and that genetically engineered salmon can crossbreed with native fish. So-called “transgenic contamination”—where genetically engineered crops cross-pollinate or establish themselves in nearby fields or the wild—has become common. These contamination episodes have cost U.S. farmers billions of dollars over the past decade. In wild organisms like fish, it would be even more damaging.
The Court also rejected FDA’s argument that it “lacked authority” to consider the adverse environmental impacts of GE animals, including the GE salmon. To find otherwise, the Court said, would lead to “absurd possibilities,” like approval of GE animals that could cause serious harm to other life. The Court held FDA had to consider environmental risks in its decision.
“The lawsuit also highlights FDA’s failure to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law. U.S. Atlantic salmon, and many populations of Pacific salmon, are protected by the Endangered Species Act and in danger of extinction,” the groups said.
“Salmon are keystone species and unique salmon runs have sustained people and wildlife for thousands of years. Diverse salmon runs today remain essential to indigenous food sovereignty, sustaining thousands of American fishing families, and are highly valued in domestic markets as a healthy, domestic, green’ food,” the groups stated.
Fawn Sharp, Quinault Indian Nation President, said, “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. Our responsibility as stewards of our sacred salmon demands we aggressively protect their natural habitat and genetics. We applaud today’s court decision; our prayers were answered and justice prevailed.”
“It’s a terrible idea to design genetically engineered ‘Frankenfish’ which, when they escape into the wild (as they inevitably will), could destroy our irreplaceable salmon runs,” said Mike Conroy, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “Once engineered genes are introduced into the wild salmon gene pool, it cannot be undone. This decision is a major victory for wild salmon, salmon fishing families and dependent communities, and salmon conservation efforts everywhere.”
“Salmon fishermen and women don’t want to see these lab-made salmon in our waters nor in any market or restaurant where salmon is sold,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association. “The federal Food and Drug Administration clearly let America down when it chose to overlook the environmental risk these fish pose.”
“Genetically engineered salmon place wild salmon at risk and set a dangerous precedent for other genetically engineered animals, like cows and chickens designed to fit into factory farms, to enter the food system. We applaud the court for this carefully-reasoned decision,” said Dana Perls, Food and Technology program manager at Friends of the Earth U.S. “All products made with genetic engineering, especially live animals like genetically engineered salmon, should undergo thorough and precautionary assessment for impacts to our health and environment, be properly regulated and clearly labeled before entering the market.”
Fishermen, Tribes, environmentalists and public interest groups have been fighting the approval of genetically engineered salmon for human consumption for nearly two decades.
The Yurok Tribe, the largest Indian Tribe in California with over 6,000 members, in December 2015 banned genetically engineered salmon and all Genetically Engineered Organisms (GEOs) on their reservation on the Klamath River in the state’s northwest region.
The Yurok ban came in the wake of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision on November 19, 2015 to approve genetically engineered salmon, dubbed “Frankenfish,” as being fit for human consumption.s
On December 10, 2015, the Yurok Tribal Council unanimously voted to enact the Yurok Tribe Genetically Engineered Organism (“GEO”) Ordinance. The vote took place after several months of committee drafting and opportunity for public comment, according to a news release from the Tribe and Northern California Tribal Court Coalition (NCTCC).
This ordinance was apparently the first of its kind in the U.S. to address the FDA’s approval of AquaBounty Technologies’ application for AquAdvantage Salmon.
“The Tribal GEO Ordinance prohibits the propagation, raising, growing, spawning, incubating, or releasing genetically engineered organisms (such as growing GMO crops or releasing genetically engineered salmon) within the Tribe’s territory and declares the Yurok Reservation to be a GMO-free zone. While other Tribes, such as the Dine’ (Navajo) Nation, have declared GMO-free zones by resolution, this ordinance appears to be the first of its kind in the nation,” the Tribe said.