Reflections after the FDA public meeting on AquaBounty, December 2022: What if we instead invested in community-controlled food systems?

On December 15, 2022, members of the Block Corporate Salmon campaign attended the US Food and Drug Administration’s public meeting on its new environmental assessment of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon facilities in Prince Edward Island, Canada. On the same day, we coordinated rallies in Ohio and Washington states, which you can read about in Intrafish, Undercurrent, and in our press release

Here we’re sharing some reflections after the FDA meeting. In its assessment, the FDA described possible but ‘highly unlikely’ scenario for GMO salmon to reach Maine, where Wild Salmon still exist. However, we feel the scope of their assessment was too narrow and didn’t fully address many important issues.

A big one is incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and consent. In the case of GE salmon escaping, even if likelihood is low, the impact could be catastrophic for wild ecosystems and fish. Who gets to make the call of whether that risk is worth it? 

Indigenous communities who have stewarded these resources since time immemorial, and whose ways of life are deeply and inextricably connected to the Wild Salmon and the waters, should be centered in these assessments. Around Prince Edward Island, the Mi’kmaq and Penobscot have historic and culturally significant relationships with Salmon.

Among other issues, the environmental assessment also didn’t fully address: proper disposal of deceased fish; AquaBounty’s usage of antibiotics and antifungals; the potential for GE salmon eggs to be sent mistakenly to open-net-pen salmon farms; wastewater impacts on surrounding waterways and Salmon habitat; the possibility of GMO salmon eggs being taken from the facility (we know at least one incident where workers took eggs home and reared fish in ponds); and containment protocols during power outages and storms, such as a 2008 storm that caused mass fish escape at an AquaBounty facility in Panama.

AquaBounty says their containment protocols require that “devices and chemicals are used as prescribed.” We know from 60+ pages of photo and video evidence from a whistleblower who used to work at AquaBounty’s Indiana facility that devices and chemicals are frequently NOT used as prescribed.

The FDA assessment relies heavily on the assumption that AquaBounty will follow their own protocols. But the whistleblower report paints a damning picture of lax attitudes and neglect toward worker safety, food and consumer health, environmental impact, and animal welfare protocols. It’s clear that what AquaBounty says they are doing is one thing, and what they are actually doing is something else entirely. 

There is much to be concerned about here in terms of setting an industry standard where companies scrape by regulation, even if they are failing in their operations. We urge the FDA to expand their scope and consider a wider range of impacts to Wild Salmon, as well as to deeply look into AquaBounty’s operations at other facilities. We must consider that AquaBounty intends to expand GE salmon to a global scale, including selling GE salmon eggs to facilities run by other companies. 

We also pose the question: To what end? What is the need for mass producing GE salmon that grows at twice the rate of Wild Salmon? And is the need greater than the risks and stakes at hand? AquaBounty’s end goal is profit. Corporate-controlled, industrial scale food production is the status quo. We know it has not led to food sovereignty and adequate food access. Small-scale farmers are the ones who feed 70 percent of the world’s population, on just 25 percent of its agricultural land.

What if we instead invested in solutions like breaching dams, eliminating bycatch from factory trawlers, and restoring habitat for Wild Salmon to bounce back? What if we instead invested in community-controlled food systems?