U.S. approves GM salmon for human consumption. Here’s what it means for Canada.

Last week, I — along with my colleague Scott McAnsh — went to Federal Court to argue that the government violated the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) when it approved a plan to manufacture genetically-modified salmon eggs and grow them out in Canada.

AquaBounty Inc. sought and was granted approval to manufacture genetically-modified AquAdvantage salmon eggs at a facility in Prince Edward Island, ship those eggs to Panama for grow-out, and then sell the salmon as food in North America. In 2013, the Ministers of Environment and Health went a step further and allowed not only that particular proposal to proceed but also permitted any person to manufacture the eggs at any contained facility in the country meeting certain requirements and also allowed the eggs to be grown out here.

In court, we argued that in doing so the federal government contravened the statutory requirements and purposes of CEPA: To promote transparency and promote sustainable development through precautionary decision-making. We also argued that the government did not adhere to its legal duty to notify the public when it waived information requirements as part of its risk assessment of this organism.

Our clients, Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society, are especially concerned that the manufacture of genetically-modified salmon in Canada poses serious environmental risks. For instance, in the event that genetically-modified salmon escape into the wild, they may pose a serious threat to endangered Atlantic salmon populations. There are a lot of unknowns about the extent of this risk because the government waived the requirement for Aquabounty to provide test data regarding the invasiveness and toxicity of the organism.

Putting AquAdvantage salmon on the market as food would require go-ahead from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada — neither of which had been granted when our case was heard. That changed two days later when the FDA officially approved AquAdvantage salmon as food in the U.S.

Outcry and opposition was swift, particularly in reaction to news that the FDA will not require genetically-modified salmon to be labelled. Major retailers like Target, Costco, and Whole Foods have already said they do not plan sell genetically-modified salmon.

And although our clients’ lawsuit doesn’t deal with the issue of human consumption of AquAdvantage salmon in Canada, the FDA’s approval has implications for the environment north of the border.

First, it may increase the likelihood that Health Canada will approve AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption. The agency has confirmed that it is reviewing AquaBounty’s application to sell the genetically-modified fish in Canada.

Second, although the FDA’s’ approval is tied specifically to the two identified facilities in PEI and Panama, if the Canadian government follows the FDA’s lead and allows this genetically-modified salmon to be sold for food in Canada, it remains to be seen whether it would similarly be restricted to the PEI facility only or if it would open the door to manufacture and grow-out across the country in light of the range of activities in relation to the organism approved following the Ministers’ CEPA toxicity assessment.

For now, we await a decision from the Court on our clients’ case. A win in this case would be an important victory for wild Atlantic salmon and confirm the government’s responsibilities under CEPA when it assesses new products of biotechnology. Given that technology in this area is rapidly advancing we can expect that more biotechnology will be manufactured or imported into Canada. That’s why it’s important that government get its decision-making right from the beginning.

In the meantime, we look forward to seeing the new federal government follow-through on its promises to follow the advice of scientists and promote transparent and open decision-making — as this will affect future toxicity assessments under CEPA, including with respect to risks to the environment posed by products of biotechnology.

Photo by zalgon

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