Environmental organizations criticize federal handling of genetically modified fish
Two environmental groups are crying foul over what they call a “cloud of secrecy” over federal approval of genetically modified salmon, developed in part at Memorial University.
The Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre and Vancouver-based Livings Oceans Society said Thursday that the federal government violated its own law in granting the approval to AquaBounty Canada — a P.E.I.-based subsidiary company of AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts.
Joanne Cook, marine toxics co-ordinator at Ecology Action Centre, said AquaBounty received approval from Environment Canada in November to produce genetically modified salmon eggs — AquAdvantage salmon, based on research done at MUN in the 1980s — at its farm in Fortune, P.E.I.
“The company says their plan at the moment is to ship the eggs to their grow-out facility, which are ponds in Panama,” said Cook. “However, the Environment Canada approval was sufficiently broad that it leaves open the possibility of the salmon being grown to size, market-size, in Canada.”
The two environmental groups launched a lawsuit against the federal government, asking the court to decide if the government followed due diligence in allowing the manufacture of the eggs, said Cook.
“Now we find out that Health Canada is actively assesing whether the salmon flesh should be permitted to hit the Canadian market,” said Cook. “That became public last week, not from Health Canada, despite repeated requests, but because of a stock filing of AquaBounty’s. They’re raising another $10 million on the London Stock Exchange, and as part of their filing, they mentioned that the salmon flesh was up for approval in Canada.”
Cook said Health Canada would not disclose if it’s assessing the salmon flesh, but a spokesman for the department refuted that claim and confirmed for the Telegram that it is reviewing the salmon, adding it would be “disingenous” to refuse to disclose that the process is taking place, given the company itself has announced it.
In an emailed response to questions from The Telegram, Health Canada spokesman Gary Scott Holub said, “Health Canada cannot speculate on the timing for the completion of the safety assessment for individual product submissions. Timing for the review of novel food submissions varies depending on the information provided by the petitioner, as well as whether or not requests for additional information or clarification are required to complete the assessment.
“All decisions regarding genetically modified food are based on rigorous scientific testing to ensure the health and safety of Canadian consumers.”
Cook said AquaBounty has also been given an information waiver from the federal government.
“Those waivers exempt a company from providing some of the normally required information under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act,” she said, adding that the federal government didn’t publish its waiver until three months after the eggs were approved for production.
“They published a waiver for toxicity and invasiveness information that one would think would have been before their assessment, not three months after. It’s just bizarre,” said Cook. “And the government has refused to provide us with a copy of the actual waiver, so we don’t know what’s actually in it. We can’t challenge it in court, because we don’t know what’s in it.”
Cook acknowledged that even if the groups thought the government conducted proper assessments of the eggs and the salmon flesh, they’re still against the genetically modified salmon in principle.
“I would say it’s a bit of both,” said Cook. “We’re very cautious when it comes to genetically modified food organisms. Something like stem-cell research, that’s an entirely different matter. We’re very cautious, particularly about a critter for human consumption that’s been genetically modified and that hasn’t had a really, really thorough assessment of its toxicity, or lack thereof.”
A message requesting an interview with AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotus was not returned.