On November 5, 2020 – the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) violated core environmental laws when it approved a genetically engineered salmon for human consumption in the U.S. The Court stated that FDA ignored the serious environmental consequences and that the agency’s decision that genetically engineered salmon could have no possible effect on highly-endangered, wild Atlantic salmon was wrong. The Court ordered FDA to go back to the drawing board and thoroughly analyze the environmental consequences of an escape of genetically engineered salmon into the wild.
In 2016, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Earthjustice—representing a broad client coalition of environmental, consumer, commercial and recreational fishing organizations and the Quinault Indian Nation—sued the FDA for approving the first-ever commercial genetically engineered animal for human consumption, an Atlantic salmon purported to grow twice as fast as wild salmon. AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. used DNA from Atlantic salmon, Pacific king salmon, and Arctic ocean eelpout to create the new modified fish. This marks the first time any government in the world has approved a commercially genetically engineered animal as human food.
The Court ruled that FDA failed to consider and study environmental risks of this novel genetically altered fish. When these salmon escape or are accidentally released into the environment, the new species could threaten wild populations by mating with endangered salmon species, out-competing them for scarce resources and habitat, and/or introducing new diseases. The world’s preeminent experts on genetically engineered fish and risk assessment, as well as biologists at U.S. wildlife agencies charged with protecting fish and wildlife, heavily criticized FDA’s approval for failing to evaluate the impacts of lab-altered salmon on native salmon populations. FDA ignored these concerns in the final approval.
Studies have shown that there is a high risk for genetically engineered organisms to escape into the natural environment, and that genetically engineered salmon can crossbreed with native fish. So-called “transgenic contamination”—where genetically engineered crops cross-pollinate or establish themselves in nearby fields or the wild—has become common. These contamination episodes have cost U.S. farmers billions of dollars over the past decade. In wild organisms like fish, it would be even more damaging.
The Court also rejected FDA’s argument that it lacked authority to consider the adverse environmental impacts of genetically engineered animal, including this salmon. To find otherwise, the Court said, would lead to “absurd possibilities,” like approval of genetically engineered animals that could cause serious harm to other life. The Court held FDA had to consider environmental risks in its decision.
The lawsuit also highlights FDA’s failure to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law. U.S. Atlantic salmon, and many populations of Pacific salmon, are protected by the Endangered Species Act and in danger of extinction. Salmon are keystone species and unique salmon runs have sustained people and wildlife for thousands of years. Diverse salmon runs today remain essential to indigenous food sovereignty, sustaining thousands of American fishing families, and are highly valued in domestic markets as a healthy, domestic, “green” food.
Represented by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, plaintiffs in the case include Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Ecology Action Centre, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Golden Gate Salmon Association, and the Quinault Indian Nation.