The WTOs War on Wild Salmon

Anne Veneman, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, is promoting the USDA ministerial conference in Sacramento from June 23 to 25 as a benign event to alleviate world hunger and spread the gospel of high-tech corporate agriculture.

“Technology is one of the most powerful tools we have to achieve the goals of increasing agricultural productivity, ending famine and improving nutrition,” Veneman said. “This conference will focus on the needs of developing new food and agricultural technologies. We will look at the role of partnerships and ways to share the benefits of technology.”

However, when representatives from 180 countries meet in Sacramento for the “WTO-Level Ministerial Conference on Agricultural Science and Technology,” Natasha Benjamin of the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR) will be one of thousands coming from the U.S. and throughout the world to protest the march of unsustainable industrial agriculture and genetically engineered crops and fish by participating in an alternative “festival of diverse resistance.”

Critics such as Benjamin, whose organization is the non-profit affiliate of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, an organization comprised of commercial fishing groups, charge that the conference will promote unsustainable corporate agriculture, the same type of agribusiness that resulted in the country’s worst-ever fish kill on the Klamath River in September 2001,

Genetically engineered (GE) crops are on the agenda, but not fish. And fish are the first genetically engineered animals which Aqua Bounty and other aquacultural giants are seeking to develop for food. Benjamin is scheduled to speak at a teach-in on Saturday, June 21 about the potential consequences of farmed and transgenic salmon to West Coast and world fisheries.

The teach in is one of many alternative events, including a march and rally, ice cream social, organic food fair, debate and movie showing, that the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture and many other groups are planning from June 20 to 25.

Benjamin, a marine biologist and marine policy analyst with a “passion for the ocean,” would like to see the threat posed by transgenic fish in ocean pens placed on the conference’s agenda to be debated and discussed in the open. But not only will the issue not be discussed, but the ministerial funded by U.S. tax dollars and sponsored by the USDA, USAID and the State Department, is completely closed to the public!

“Transgenic fish is not on the agenda,” said Benjamin, “but we are trying to get it on the agenda and that’s why I will be there participating in the teach-ins, debates and actions sponsored by a variety of environmental, fisheries and other organizations.”

The conference occurs at a time when commercial and recreational fisheries groups are concerned about the potential harm that farmed Atlantic salmon, grown now in Europe, Maine, British Columbia and Chile, present to ecosystems. According to a new study in the British weekly New Scientist, farms provide a greater risk to wild salmon than previously thought, since farmed fish that escape their pens are more successful at mating than the wild species.

Experiments conducted on farmed, wild and hybrid species of Norwegian Atlantic salmon by Oxford University scientist Danny Garnat and Colleagues found that farmed yearling salmon were four times successful as wild ones in fertilizing eggs. Add the genetically modified fish factor and things get even more threatening.

“Genetically engineered salmon are different from wild or other farmed fish because they are have been genetically engineered to contain a desired trait,” according to an analysis by the Center for Food Safety (CFS). “Biologists are now able to take genetic material from one organism and insert it into the permanent code of another fish.

There are already over 35 species of GE fish being developed around the world. Some of these fish contain genes from other fish, humans and insects.Some GE fish are being developed to grow faster, resist disease and tolerate different water temperatures.

At least one company, Aqua Bounty Farms, is currently requesting approval to mark its GE fish to consumers for food, according to CFS. Aqua Bounty GE Fish contain a growth hormone gene from a chinook salmon and antifreeze protein gene promoter from an ocean pout that keeps the growth hormone active.

This gene is injected into fertilized eggs. Due to the continuous production of the growth hormone gene, these fish are grow as much as ten to thirty times faster than normal salmon.

Why is Benjamin opposed to allowing genetically engineered fish for food? First, fish farms on the ocean cause enormous pollution, through the release of fish wastes and antibiotics into the water. These pollutants are put into otherwise pristine eco-systems. Also, the fish farms introduce artificial dyes into the feed to give the salmon a nice pink color designed to entice the customers in the stores.

Second, fish farms always have a certain amount of fish escape, through human error, weather, and through attacks by sea lions and other predators that damage the pens. On the average, 15 percent of farmed fish escape into the wild. For example, over 170,000 farm raised salmon in Maine escaped from a net pen after a storm several years ago.

GE fish, like other farmed fish, are sure to escape. And although the producers say they are 100 percent sterile, in nature “100 percent sterility is impossible,” she stated.

If these fish escaped, they would compete with wild fish for habitat and food, she emphasized. And nobody knows the consequences that these salmon will have if they cross breed with wild and hatchery fish.

“There is the potential for them to compete with the wild fish by taking over the habitat and forage base of wild fish,” Benjamin said. “This super salmon, if approved, would be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. It will open the now closed doors of selling other fish and animals for use as food.”

Once the FDA approves these Atlantic salmon, there will be no federal requirement to label them as “genetically modified organisms” – GMOs.

However, Benjamin is clear to state that although her organization is opposed to using GE fish for food, she is not against carefully controlled medical and scientific research with transgenic fish.

“If they’re doing good research for a cure to cancer or other disease, we don’t want them to stop. We just don’t want allow the commercialization of genetically engineered salmon. In a time of when we are struggling to rebuild salmon populations, we can’t afford another risk to salmon recovery,” she said.

Benjamin’s contentions regarding farmed salmon are supported by the recently-released report of the independent Pew Oceans Commission, which calls for immediate reform of U.S. ocean laws and policies to restore ocean wildlife and protect ocean ecosystems. The Commission calls for a moratorium on the expansion of marine finfish aquaculture (including salmon) until national policies and standards are in place.

For information on the series of alternative events and protests occurring the week of the ministerial, click on

DAN BACHER can be reached at:

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher