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Why FDA's Frankenfish salmon report is fundamentally flawed

  • Author: Nicolaas Mink
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 24, 2012

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report about AquaBounty's genetically engineered salmon, and its significance cannot be overstated. The FDA concluded salmon will be safe for the environment and safe for consumers, giving the green light for the release of this fish to U.S. consumers.

Unless the U.S. Senate steps in to stop it, salmon will become the first genetically modified animal protein to hit the U.S. market. It will be a watershed moment for our food system, of equal importance to Norman Borlaug's breeding innovations that birthed the Green Revolution and the original genetic innovations that wrought Bt corn and Roundup Ready soybeans that now dominate the Lower 48 food economy.

Real trouble with Frankenfish

But the FDA's report approving the salmon misses the point. It misunderstands salmon history. It neglects the complicated nature of the global salmon economy, and it begins by asking fundamentally flawed questions that focus narrowly on the ecological damage that might be caused by breeding and interspecies competition.

Failures like these obscure the real troubles with the introduction of this so-called "Frankenfish." Let me explain.

About 50 years ago, salmon were on their way to global extinction, victims of damming, industrial pollution, overfishing and logging. The North Atlantic stocks were nearly gone and the North Pacific's stocks were at 10 percent of historic levels.

The global rebound of salmon since the 1960s is one of the world's great environmental success stories. But how that rebound happened differently in different parts of the world represents the main reason why this GMO salmon presents such a problem.

Countries in the North Atlantic decided to rebuild their salmon populations through domestication and farming. Norway and Scotland invested in sophisticated salmon breeding programs and cooperative marketing associations that catapulted farmed salmon to dominance in the global marketplace. Thanks to these developments, farmed salmon, in 1997, became more numerous than wild salmon.

Alaska most successful

Countries in the North Pacific tacked another direction. Rather than moving solely towards farming (some of that happened, too), Japan, Canada, and the states in the lower 48 focused on developing hatcheries to enhance wild salmon populations to bring them back from the brink.

Of them all, Alaska employed the most unique, and ultimately the most successful, model. Alaska banned salmon farming, built a few dozen hatcheries, set up wise fisheries conservation regulations, and worked to protect and recuperate wild salmon habitats and populations. The state also poured tens of millions of dollars into the creation of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the novel public-private partnership that worked to create global consumer demand for Alaska's wild salmon.

The move was genius. Though not without challenges, Alaska's wild salmon would recover to historic levels by the 2000s, thanks to a positive feedback loop based on sustainable management of fisheries resources, habitat protection and enhancements in places like the Tongass and Chugach National Forests that annually rear billions of salmon fry. Meanwhile, marketers help build demand for the products of this healthy and wild system.

Salmon price point

The health of wild salmon rests, however counterintuitive it may seem, on the global desire to consume wild salmon. Right now, wild salmon command consumer allegiance when it is priced somewhere between 30 and 80 percent more than its farmed counterpart. But when wild salmon becomes two and three times more expensive than this new, faster growing genetically modified salmon, a growing number of price-sensitive consumers will think twice.

The market for wild salmon will collapse in the global rearrangement that comes with the introduction of this fish, and with it the political and economic will to maintain the ecological health of wild salmon stocks in Alaska.

This is the crucial point that the FDA report misses, and it is the one that will have the most significant ecological consequences when AquaBounty releases this fish to the public.

Nicolaas Mink is a part-time resident of Sitka, Alaska, and the Urban Sustainable Foods Fellow at Butler University in Indianapolis. His first book, "Salmon: A Global History," is due out this summer.