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Mark Lynas and GMOs: the Case of Genetically Engineered Salmon

Posted On January 16, 2013 by

When I was rambunctious kid, my mother always told me it was more effective to get someone’s attention with a whisper than a shout. Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, the well-known anti-GMO activist, got everyone’s attention by changing his long-held position on genetically-modified foods. But he didn’t scream it from the rooftops or otherwise perform a media-grabbing stunt like his famous pie-throwing incident. He calmly, thoughtfully, and yet forcefully explained in front of an academic audience in London how he had come to this change of heart.

In short, Lynas maintained he “had discovered science”. Over the course of an hour, he minced no words while eviscerating what he called the anti-science NGO community that has long opposed the development and deployment of GE crops – and of which Lynas was a leading figure for over a decade. The foundation of his argument was that there is now a scientific consensus that there are no health effects of genetically-engineered crops and after 3 trillion meals eaten with no demonstrable evidence of harm, “the GMO debate is over”. While many have countered Lynas’ treatise, there remain a host of unanswered questions about the environmental risks of GE animals – especially fish – should this technology proliferate beyond plants. Scientific consensus has not yet emerged and it is needed if a skeptical public is to accept GE fish.

Lynas’ criticism of NGOs stung, for in all we do at Ocean Conservancy, we pride ourselves in being science-based, including having practicing scientists on our staff and respected scientists on our leadership team and Board of Directors. With science at the foundation, our team of policy experts, lawyers and communications professionals works on some of the biggest ocean challenges of our time. Among others, these include overfishing, ocean acidification, marine debris and the future of our seafood supply.

But what about GMOs and our government’s recent recommendation to approve the first-ever, genetically engineered animal for human consumption?  Since 2010, Ocean Conservancy has been a vocal advocate for additional science before this engineered version of farmed Atlantic salmon is allowed in our seafood supply. We have also advocated that the fish should be labeled (if approved), so consumers can decide for themselves whether they want to consume it. Unlike Lynas, who rails against those who see evidence that GMO plants pose a health risk, our focus instead has been on the environmental consequences should GE salmon escape into the sea. Leading academic scientists, some at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and just last week, seven member of the U.S. Senate, conclude there is cause for concern.

Nonetheless, the federal Food and Drug Administration has recommended approval. The clock is now ticking, with public comments due to the FDA by February 25.  At Ocean Conservancy, we will continue to advocate for a full Environmental Impact Statement – including a state-of-the-art quantitative risk assessment – before the fish is approved. Given the uncharted territory that GE salmon represent for the future of seafood, a commitment to more robust science is essential if the public is to have confidence that these new fish won’t threaten our ocean.

One might think that Lynas’ conversion at the Oxford Farming Conference would obviate the need for further debate about GE salmon. Indeed, he concluded his talk by stating “now is the time for you (the anti-GM lobby) to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably”.

For fish, especially, I remain unconvinced. And like many others, I want additional scientific analysis before GE salmon is served up at my local fishmonger.