The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
Salmon that have been genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as wild salmon are not ready for an appearance on the American dinner plate. An advisory panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was wise to push back this week against what looked like fast-track approval of the first genetically altered animal for human consumption, saying more research is needed.
Most of the debate has centered on whether the super-salmon proposed by AquaBounty Technologies Inc. are safe to eat. They might well be, despite the just criticisms of poorly designed studies on hormone levels in their flesh and whether they might have lower resistance to disease.
That discussion has unfortunately overshadowed the even more troubling question of whether the fish are safe for the environment. There's a big difference between genetically altering domesticated animals - cattle, for example, which might be designed to resist mad cow disease - and creating an animal with a possible evolutionary advantage in the wild. Cheaper salmon that can be farmed with less of a carbon footprint might be a tempting idea, but does the modern world really need such salmon? Not enough to merit environmental risk. It would take many more years of research, and far more information than the public has so far been given, to determine whether it's possible to fully guard the world's waters from harm - such as the possibility that the super-salmon could breed with wild salmon or outcompete wild fish for available food, endangering the survival of the species and possibly harming other aquatic life.
In any case, the FDA is the wrong agency to make the environmental decision. It was given authority over such animals because the genes inserted into the animals' DNA are considered a drug. But the FDA isn't where the federal government's top environmental, wildlife and fisheries experts work. Multiple agencies should have responsibility for reviewing these applications, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
In order to avoid escapes of super-salmon into rivers or the ocean, AquaBounty has developed an impressive set of safeguards. It plans to rear the fish in tanks on land rather than in the usual ocean pens. As an added precaution, it would render the fish sterile so they could not mate with wild salmon. But the sterilization process is not perfect; up to 5 percent of treated salmon could still reproduce. The company has said that the facility in the Panama highlands where the fish would be reared is adjacent to a river, probably because copious amounts of water are needed to flush the tanks. But the specific location has not been revealed, and the public has the right to know more about it. Where is the river exactly? How close to it will the tanks be? Further, even if the FDA approves the process, it's unclear that the agency would be able to ensure compliance.
AquaBounty's two small facilities - it would also run a hatchery on Prince Edward Island in Canada - probably would offer little chance of escape. But federal regulators must look at the bigger picture. This is a first-phase proposal. If more and larger super-salmon farms come into play, the chances of sloppier facilities and the escape of non-sterile salmon would increase.
What would happen then? Possibly nothing. The salmon might be less able to live in a natural environment than their wild counterparts. But we don't know. The environmental assessments so far haven't adequately looked at this question or what kind of environmental response might be needed. Instead, they have mainly been limited to preventing escapes, on the assumption that a serious problem is so unlikely to occur, there's little need for a well-researched plan beyond that point. We all know how well that kind of thinking worked with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.