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GUEST OPINION: Halting federal funding of GE salmon

  • This undated 2010 handout photo provided by AquaBounty Technologies shows two same-age salmon, a genetically modified salmon, rear, and a non-genetically modified salmon, foreground. The Agriculture Department approved more genetically engineered crops in the last month, and the Food and Drug Administration could approve modified salmon for consumption in 2011. If the sale of salmon is approved, it will be the first time the government has allowed such modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. (AP Photo/AquaBounty Technologies) NO SALES

As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues, we have no shortage of examples of powerful corporations using their influence to skew public policy and public spending decisions to favor their interests over the broader public interest.

Consider an issue that is close to home for those of us on the North Coast: genetically engineered salmon. As if to prove the point of the Occupy movement, federal agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working overtime to help a corporation, AquaBounty, secure approval for its highly controversial request to sell a proprietary GE fish as "salmon" in supermarkets and restaurants throughout the United States.

AquaBounty's GE fish creation crosses growth-hormone genes from an ocean pout with a Chinook salmon to dramatically increase the speed and size of the salmon's growth. The FDA has been considering the company's application for more than a decade. If approved, it would be the first GE animal permitted for sale for human consumption. Not surprisingly, this has sparked controversy and strong concerns from the scientific, environmental and consumer rights communities.

Despite these concerns, the USDA recently granted $500,000 to AquaBounty to do further research to perfect the engineered fish. This is on top of previous federal grants, now totaling nearly $3 million, to support the research and development of AquaBounty's GE salmon.

The latest grant comes despite the introduction of an amendment by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill that would prohibit the FDA from using its funding to approve the application for GE salmon, and a similar amendment by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. Until this legislation gets approved by the full House and Senate and signed by the president, federal agencies can continue to dole out public money to AquaBounty, so that is what they have decided to do.

Even in good fiscal times, our government should not be subsidizing corporations that seek to profit from a controversial and environmentally risky proposal such as GE salmon. Those funds could be put to better use — including research to protect imperiled wild salmon populations.

Wild Pacific salmon are a critical natural, cultural and economic resource for California and other Northwest states. Yet many salmon runs in California and the Pacific Northwest have gone extinct, and many more are at risk of extinction. And just last month, a lethal and contagious salmon infection originating from farmed salmon was found in wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest, stirring concern that neighboring salmon populations, including here in California, could be vulnerable to infection.

There is a dire need for research to protect our wild salmon populations, and $3 million could certainly help. Unfortunately, the FDA seems bent on not only subsidizing but approving AquaBounty's GE salmon application. That approval will affect Californians' consumer confidence and their pocketbooks, and it could devastate our commercial salmon fishing industry. Consumers would have no way to tell whether the "salmon" they purchase is genetically engineered. That's because the federal government is not requiring AquaBounty to label its product.

This uncertainty is why I wrote Assembly Bill 88, which requires a label on all GE salmon sold in California — just as Alaska law currently requires — so that consumers can make informed choices. Frankly, if California was not federally pre-empted from doing so, I would introduce legislation, similar to the Murkowski/Woolsey/Young amendments, to ban GE salmon. Short of that, we should at least make sure GE salmon is properly labelled so that consumers know what they are getting.

Our government should not be underwriting the business activities of private corporations like AquaBounty, especially in light of the pending application for FDA approval and the controversy and environmental risk posed by GE salmon. Here in California, requiring proper labeling of this dubious product is the best we can do.


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