Monday, 17 October 2011

Asking the Right Questions

It must be the size, maybe the perceived remoteness, of PEI that attracts controversial economic projects. Remember the Earth Future Lottery.  PEI would be home to a world-wide lottery, 5% of the gross revenue (tens of millions of dollars, looked like a lot for PEI, given that the jurisdiction that would approve this would be seen as a pariah)  would be split with environment groups, medciens sans frontiers, and other worthwhile organizations. The courts put an end to the project.  Then there was the Sprung Greenhouse which would have been built in Western PEI where jobs were badly needed.  I had the opportunity to produce a documentary pointing out the financial and environmental/biological problems with the project (kept it from being built on PEI), and it ended up in Newfoundland where it failed (this was back when the CBC had time and money to take on bigger projects).  Now there's Aquabounty Technologies, an American company that has a "research" facility in Fortune PEI.

I did several stories on Aquabounty, from interviews with company representatives pushing the positives of what it was trying to do, to Greenpeace, and local actions condemning the project.  Aquabounty used  bio-engineering to splice specific genes (from an Ocean Pout, and a Chinook Salmon) into conventionally farm-raised salmon. The genetically altered fish continues to feed year around (when it's natural counterpart stops feeding and gaining weight for months at a time) so the GMO fish reaches market weight in half the normal time.   The company says there are two big advantages: an important protein source becomes more cost effective, and the fish will be raised in indoor tanks, well away from wild stocks so there's no danger of  escape and genetic contamination. 

This is the first genetically modified animal to get close to being on supermarket shelves (there's more on the approval process later on), so GMO supporters and opponents are pulling out all the stops.  I know many have decided this is "frankenfish" and should have been stopped years ago. I'm tempted to think that too, but still have nagging questions.

There needs to be serious actions taken to protect ocean eco-systems (from acidity from climate change,  pollution, overfishing, etc) and there seems little doubt  that conventional outdoor  fish farming  in bays and estuaries is adding to the problems with concentrated fish waste, antibiotic leaching, and escaped fish.  If we need the protein and if there is to be fish farming, I think it does make sense to raise them in land-based indoor tanks, but the economics don't work, and that's the small upside with Aquabounty salmon.

I fully agree that not enough is known about many, many GMO products (including this fish) that get a health pass by being labelled as "substantially the same" as it's natural counterparts. It's one of the biggest failures of our whiz-bang technology/science bunch that there's no definitive answer to this. Does the fact this is fish gene to fish genome make it any safer? I don't know.  Does raising fish indoors where waste can be treated, and fish contained make this better than outdoor fish farming?   I think so. Does that mean Aquabounty  should be allowed to proceed? I don't know.

It turns out that Environment Canada is going to have a big say in whether this project proceeds. An important and interesting story from the weekend.

Safety of wild fish stocks questioned if GE salmon eggs hatchery gets OK
by Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News October 16, 2011

OTTAWA — Environment Canada isn’t sure it can fully protect wild fish stocks if it approves the commercialization of a hatchery of genetically engineered salmon eggs.

The admission, outlined in internal records obtained by Postmedia News, could stymie efforts by American company AquaBounty Technologies to sell the first genetically engineered animal that people can eat.

The company’s plan is to transform its research facility in Prince Edward Island into a commercial hatchery to produce GM salmon eggs. The eggs would then be sent to an inland fish farm in Panama, where the GE Atlantic salmon, called AquAdvantage, would be raised and processed before being shipped as table-ready fish to the U.S.

Last year, a preliminary analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that the salmon — engineered to grow twice as fast as normal fish thanks to a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout — are safe to eat. The FDA also said in its preliminary analysis that the GE salmon were not expected to have a significant impact on the environment.

The FDA’s environmental impact report is now being reviewed by the White House, even as opponents continue to raise concerns about possible escapes and the threat to wild fish stocks.

Even if the U.S. approves AquaBounty’s application to sell GE salmon there, the company will still need approval from Environment Canada to manufacture the GE fish eggs in Prince Edward Island. Approval falls under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

It poses a dilemma for Environment Canada, which has to determine whether to concern itself only with the production and transportation of GE fish eggs from P.E.I. to Panama when considering AquaBounty’s hatchery application, or whether the federal government also has a duty to consider wider potential effects GE fish could have on this country or the global environment if the fish ever escaped the Panamanian facilities and migrated into Canadian or international waters.

According to the internal records released under access to information law, prepared last year in anticipation of a formal application from AquaBounty to operate its hatchery, Environment Canada concluded that the narrower oversight option — while “easily enforceable by inspecting shipments at the port of export” in Canada — “falls short” of meeting Canada’s legal obligations under CEPA “because it does not fully consider potential effects within Canada.”

Noting there’s also a “broad legislative requirement under CEPA to assess potential risks to the global environment,” Environment Canada recommended that the scope of the environmental risk assessment to take a “fulsome approach.” At a minimum, any risk assessment should provide “for the full protection of the Canadian environment, in particular Canadian fish stocks,” the document states.

But this would raise problems because wider oversight of the process — to include keeping an eye on the Panamanian fish farming operation — could well be beyond the capability of Canadian authorities.

“If approval were contingent upon continued adherence to adequate physical containment at Panamanian grow-out facilities, Environment Canada enforcement officials may face challenges in monitoring and enforcing continued adherence to these physical containment measures in Panama,” the document says.

“Without presupposing the outcome of the risk assessment, but recognizing that approval may be contingent upon continued adherence to physical containment measure in Panama, there may be some challenges for Environment Canada to enforce the regulations,” it concludes.

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and a critic of AquaBounty’s GE fish, said it looks like the federal government is boxed in.

“If they do find that there’s a risk from grow-out in Panama, then they actually have to deal with that risk and this is the question: if Environment Canada cannot monitor and enforce safety in Panama, then we cannot approve the GE fish egg production here. The document seems to recognize that Environment Canada knows that they cannot monitor and enforce safety in Panama, not adequately.”

She added: “If Environment Canada feels that it’s too complex to monitor safety in Panama, will they just exclude that consideration because it’s not enforceable or will they recognize that there’s a global risk and therefore Canada needs to take responsibility for the GE salmon eggs that we could approve?

“We don’t want to be the source of global risk to wild salmon stocks.”

Internal records from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, released previously to Postmedia News under access to information laws, have included departmental scientists saying: “There is a potential risk of fish migrating back to affect Canadian fish stocks.”

Both AquaBounty and Environment Canada declined to say whether the company has filed a formal application to manufacture GE fish eggs for commercial purposes at the company’s facility in P.E.I.

Health Canada also said the department does not disclose whether it has received an application to approve the AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption in Canada.

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