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Environmental groups in court to ensure rigorous assessment of genetically modified salmon in Canada

November 17, 2015
Failure to notify public during consideration of application to grow genetically-modified salmon eggs violates Canadian Environmental Protection Act, groups say

OTTAWA—Environmental groups are in court today to challenge the federal government's approval of an application to manufacture genetically-modified salmon eggs in P.E.I. The eggs would then be shipped to Panama for grow out before being sold as food in North America.

Ecojustice lawyers, on behalf of Living Oceans Society and the Ecology Action Centre, will argue that the federal government acted unlawfully when it approved AquaBounty Canada Inc.'s application to manufacture genetically-modified salmon without adequate public notice and without adequate assessment for its other uses. The groups seek a court order overturning the approval.

"Canadians expect government decision-making to be open and transparent, especially when it comes to something as significant as manufacturing genetically-modified salmon that may pose serious risks to wild Atlantic salmon stocks," said Kaitlyn Mitchell, Ecojustice lawyer. "This decision should have never been shielded from public view, and the federal government's actions leave our clients no choice but to bring this matter before the courts."

Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA), before a new genetically-modified organism can be manufactured in Canada, the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Health must collect and assess all required information in order to determine whether the organism is toxic or capable of becoming toxic to human health or biodiversity. If the government decides to waive an information requirement—here, the requirement for test data regarding invasiveness and toxicity—it must provide public notice. No such public notice was provided until months after the legal challenge was launched.

"Approval of the world's first genetically-modified food animal essentially happened behind closed doors, with zero public input," said Mark Butler, policy director at Ecology Action Centre. "Not only was the public left out of the loop, there has been no consideration of whether these genetically-modified salmon could become invasive in the event of an escape."

"We are asking the court to overturn this approval and uphold the public's right to know, ensuring that it is included in future assessments about genetically-modified food production," said Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans Society. "By the government's own admission, the environmental risks posed by this organism are high. Wild salmon stocks are of vital importance to our country and our economy, and risks to wild Atlantic salmon should only be taken in a precautionary and fully informed manner."

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Contact Information

Kaitlyn Mitchell, lawyer | Ecojustice 647-746-8702
Mark Butler, policy director | Ecology Action Centre 902-266-5401
Karen Wristen, executive director | Living Oceans Society 604-788-5634

Background

The approval of GM salmon: In late 2013, the Government of Canada (Environment Canada) approved the commercial development of genetically modified (GM) salmon. The approval was granted to AquaBounty, an American biotechnology company, which runs facilities in Prince Edward Island. AquaBounty is producing GM salmon eggs at a commercial scale, and shipping the eyed eggs to its facilities in Panama, where they grow to adult Atlantic salmon. If the GM salmon is approved for human consumption in Canada and the U.S., the company plans to ship the fish back to the North American market.

While the approval was granted to AquaBounty, its scope went beyond what the company requested (and what was assessed by government departments) in that it allows for the unlimited commercial development of GM salmon (both eggs and fish) on Canadian soil by any company in the future. If approved for human consumption (which is pending), GM salmon will be the first ever genetically modified food animal in the world.

What is the GM salmon

The GM salmon, or "AquaAdvantage" salmon, is an Atlantic salmon which contains the genes of Chinook (Pacific) salmon, as well as the ocean pout. The insertion of these genes is designed to make GM salmon grow faster than convention salmon so that they can be raised to market size in less time. While the GM salmon are "triploid" fish—which means they are sterile, up to five percent will be able to breed with wild salmon, as well as trout species. This is the major cause for concern by conservation groups, particularly as wild Atlantic salmon are endangered in many regions.

The legal challenge

In December 2013, EAC and LOS filed for judicial review of the Environment Canada decision for failure to comply with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which requires that all new substances are assessed for toxicity to the environment. EAC and LOS are concerned that the toxicity of GM salmon was not adequately assessed when the approval was given. The groups are concerned that the GM salmon's ability to become invasive (through potential interbreeding with wild Atlantic salmon) constitutes toxicity to the environment.

Panama facilities

AquaBounty's facilities in Panama, where the fish are grown to market size, has been fined by the Panamanian government for failure to comply with environmental regulations. Of these violations includes the failure to treat waste water coming from the facility, and acquiring the proper permits. The plaintiffs are concerned that the Canadian approval is contributing to the downloading or transferring of ecological costs to other nations.

Public consultation

Under Canadian law, no public consultation is required for the development of GM foods. However, under the CEPA, the government must provide notice of decisions to the public when exemptions are granted under the ACT ("waivers"). Through disclosure of documents through legal proceedings, EAC learned that Environment Canada in fact failed to publish notice of the approval waiver, thereby denying the public knowledge of its decision regarding the GM salmon.

This lack of public consultation is in stark contrast to the level of public input the U.S., where the FDA accepted submissions from the public on GM salmon.

In addition, as far as the plaintiffs are aware, no comprehensive aboriginal consultation has been conducted on GM salmon despite the importance of Atlantic salmon for many aboriginal communities, for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

Economic Impact

The economic benefit of AquaAdvantage salmon is accelerated growth rates allowing the fish to be brought to market in a shorter period of time resulting in lower costs for the grower. The conventional or existing salmon farming industry has stated that it can match the growth rates claimed by AquaBounty and the industry response to the GM salmon has been lukewarm. In addition, the growing viability of closed containment fish farming where the water temperature can be better controlled may further reduce any benefits from AquaAdvantage salmon. The controversy around GM salmon could harm the already embattled salmon farming industry.

Images

  • The GM AquAdvantage salmon was engineered by introducing a growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout (an eel-like species) into the eggs of Atlantic salmon. The company claims the GM fish grow faster than other farmed or wild salmon. Photo: AquaBounty