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FDA's findings on GMO salmon seem fishy at best

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The FDA has promised that genetically engineered salmon is as safe as conventional Atlantic salmon, but is it safe for organic farmers?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that it was extending the public comment period regarding its "Preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact Concerning a Genetically Engineered Atlantic Salmon."

I generally limit my musings on the food system to four-legged critters or crops. But I'm currently engaged in some discussions with policymakers at FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on issues surrounding labeling of non-genetically engineered products, so I thought I ought to take a look at the FDA's "preliminary finding" on the genetically engineered salmon.

Wow.

Just for background, the product under consideration is a salmon that has been engineered through the insertion of a gene from a type of ocean eel to create a fast-growing, all-female population that can be brought to market in about half the time of wild-caught or conventionally farm-raised salmon.

Fishy promises

The FDA has already promised that food from the genetically engineered salmon "is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption" of food made from the laboratory version. 

This latest document simply looks at the potential environmental impact of the new-and-improved salmon. And, the agency now says that the possibility of genetically engineered fish escaping from containment to enter the local environments to survive or reproduce is "extremely remote."

"Reasonable certainty"… "extremely remote"… why am I reminded of the public officials a few years back who assured us that there was "no doubt" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

These findings by FDA offer little reassurance to producers who are trying to preserve the integrity of organic and heritage genetics in crops and livestock.

Pressure on organic farmers

Organic farmers today are dealing with increasing pressure to regularly test their crops to verify the lack (or very low level) of contamination from genetically modified material. It's not because organic growers are deliberately planting genetically modified seeds; it's because they cannot wall themselves off from the birds, winds and waterways that spread the GMO material through the environment. Birds and winds probably aren't a major concern for salmon production, but earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and simple human error could enter into the equation.

Perhaps it's a case of mixing apples and oranges when comparing the environmental consequences of genetically engineered salmon to genetically engineered soybeans. Given the fact that the FDA thinks it's a good idea to mix Atlantic salmon with ocean eels, it's legitimate to ask questions.

The comment period on the FDA proposed "Finding of No Significant Impact" continues through April 26. Click here to see the agency's latest notice of the comment period [PDF].

Click here for the agency's analysis [PDF]

Dave Carter studied journalism at University of Northern Colorado but found his true calling working with farmers and ranchers at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union for 25 years. He’s now the executive director of the National Bison Association.

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