Santa Monica’s City Council sent a clear message to its congressional representative, Henry Waxman, this week: keep “Frankenfish” in the lab and off our dinner plates.

Rep. Waxman has a key role to play in stopping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from approving the first genetically engineered (GE) animal allowed for human consumption. It’s an Atlantic salmon crossed with the genes of two other fish in an attempt to make it grow twice as quickly as a normal salmon, developed by the Massachusetts firm AquaBounty. If the FDA approves the fish — which could happen at any time — the agency may not even require it to be labeled as genetically engineered. Consumers would have no way of knowing whether they are eating a natural salmon or a transgenic farmed fish whose impact on human health and the environment is still largely unknown.

Although he is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FDA’s budget, Congressman Waxman has not yet publicly questioned the FDA’s flawed process in reviewing this fish or its failure to respond to public comments — now numbering in the hundreds of thousands — against it. In a late-night vote Tuesday, Santa Monica’s City Council urged the congressman to voice disapproval to the FDA and President Obama. They also asked him to co-sponsor a federal bill that would ban the production of GE fish even if the FDA let it slip through, H.R. 521.

Consumers who wisely choose wild-caught Pacific salmon at the store or restaurant have reason to be very concerned if GE farmed salmon is approved. In a letter sent to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg last fall, 14 California state legislators registered deep concern that “approval [of GE salmon] will lead to numerous other applications to grow this and other genetically modified fish … . California’s wild salmon runs are at historical lows and are not capable of withstanding an additional assault that could come from escaped genetically-modified farmed salmon in the future.”

Pacific Coast fisheries have been in a state of crisis for several years now; the number of salmon in the Sacramento River fell from 800,000 in 2002 to under 40,000 in 2009. Farmed salmon also threaten wild stocks, escaping by the millions each year from pens in the open ocean. There, they compete for resources, spread disease, and reduce biodiversity. GE salmon could be even more dangerous if they escape, since their quick growth and voracious appetite (think salmon on steroids) may make them likely to out-compete wild fish for food, habitat, and mates.

In their letter to the FDA, state legislators also pointed out that California law prohibits the rearing of GE salmon or any transgenic fish in our ocean waters. FDA approval could preempt California from enforcing this law.

Experts, including scientists at the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, believe that insufficient research has been done on the risks of raising or eating GE salmon. Too few studies have been conducted on the dangers to human health or the environment, and those that have been were conducted by AquaBounty or its contractors, not independent scientists. In an e-mail on GE salmon sent last fall, one expert at Fish and Wildlife commented to a colleague that “Maybe they [the FDA] should watch Jurassic Park.”

It would be a mistake for Congressman Waxman to allow the approval of GE salmon on his watch, particularly at a time when efforts to restore our wild salmon fisheries are in full force. The rapid approval of GE salmon would open the floodgates for other transgenic food animals to be approved under the same flawed process. With their resolution, Santa Monica’s City Council is asking the congressman to lead on this issue — and he can, by co-sponsoring H.R. 521 and voicing his disapproval with the FDA and the president.

We need federal and state investment in protecting and restoring our wild fisheries. We don’t need a science experiment that uses our plates — and our environment — as a Petri dish. The City Council has done Santa Monica residents an important service by passing this resolution; Congressman Waxman should follow the council’s lead.

Renée Maas is the Los Angeles-based senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy organization. Conner Everts is executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance and a Southern California Steelhead fisherman.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *