Science and salmon

People tend to respect and believe in science — until it tells them something they didn’t want to hear. Thus President George W. Bush clung to his billion-dollar-a-year Reading First program even after a study by his administration showed that it wasn’t improving students’ reading. Senators from states where the gray wolf was reintroduced successfully pushed for legislation delisting it as an endangered species; it didn’t matter what the Interior Department had determined.

Now eight senators from salmon-fishing states are warning the Food and Drug Administration that they will pursue legislation — already passed in the House — to keep the FDA from using any of its funding to study whether genetically modified salmon are safe for the environment and consumers. There’s plenty to question when it comes to genetically engineered salmon, but squelching scientific inquiry isn’t the answer.

The salmon have been tinkered with by AquaBounty Technologies Inc. to grow twice as fast, making them cheaper to raise and bring to market. The FDA appears to have been on a fast track to approve the salmon for human consumption despite some sketchily designed studies on consumer safety. But the bigger worries about the salmon concern the environment — and the valid issue raised by the wild-salmon fisheries about whether the genetically modified fish could escape and pollute the gene pool.

AquaBounty has outlined various safety precautions it would take to prevent that. The fish would be raised in tanks on land — mostly in the Panama highlands — rather than in the ocean pens used by the salmon-farming industry. The company would render the fish sterile and reverse the gender of the males so that all the fish in the tanks would be female. Should any fish manage to escape into the river adjacent to the fish farm, they would have a hard time surviving warmer waters downstream.


None of these are perfect safeguards, though. For example, up to 5% of the fish would not be successfully made sterile. Some might be able to survive in the river. Another concern is how the United States could police activities in Panama to make sure procedures were being followed, or how it could prevent less exacting facilities from being constructed in the future.

Although the FDA lacks the expertise to examine all these issues on its own, it is in the midst of its environmental review right now. What the senators — none from California — should be demanding is not an end to that study, but more research in the form of a joint study by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Without their analysis, we have no way of knowing whether this new fish poses a risk. The answer lies in more science, not less.