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The Food and Drug Administration on Friday lifted an import alert that banned genetically modified or GE salmon. Pixabay

By Jessica Corbett

The Trump administration has lifted a ban on importing genetically engineered or GE salmon, which critics have long called "Frankenfish," in a move that consumer advocates charge "runs counter to sound science and market demand."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the decision on Friday, more than three years after approving GE salmon as the first biotech animal authorized for commercial sale and consumption in the U.S.

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In 2015, the FDA approved genetically engineered salmon, the first ever GE animal to be approved for human consumption anywhere in the world. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians called for sufficient consultation with Tribes to assess the environmental impact of GE salmon production, a legal requirement the FDA did not honor.

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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Ana Santos Rutschman

The world of food and drug regulation was rocked earlier this month by the news of a change in leadership at the Food and Drug Administration. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned and will step down in early April. His temporary replacement is Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute.

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By George Kimbrell

One year down, three to go. Trump and his enablers are hell bent on destroying or selling to the highest bidder the federal agencies they are charged with running in the public interest. In the past year, they have been unrelenting in their attacks on food safety, environmental protections, climate change, government transparency and so many other values we hold dear. We are in the midst of the most significant environmental and public health challenges imaginable. We're no longer dreading the harm the Trump administration could do to our health and environment—we're living it.

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By Jessica A. Knoblauch

A U.S. District Court judge took the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to task on Jan. 10 for withholding government documents related to the agency's approval of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. The judge's decision is a big win for public transparency, but it's also a small step toward finally doing a proper evaluation of the risks posed by GE animals—which could one day end up on our dinner plates.

In 2015, the FDA approved GE salmon made from the DNA of three different animals: Atlantic salmon, deep water ocean eelpout, and Pacific Chinook salmon. The GE version is intended to grow faster than conventional farmed salmon, reportedly getting to commercial size in half the time.

Even though this is the first time any government in the world has approved a GE animal for commercial sale and consumption, so far the FDA has taken a lackadaisical approach to evaluating the salmon's potential for harm to wild salmon and the environment. If the GE salmon were to escape, it could threaten wild salmon populations by outcompeting them for scarce resources and habitat, by mating with endangered salmon species, and by introducing new diseases.

The world's preeminent experts on GE fish and risk assessment, as well as biologists at U.S. wildlife agencies charged with protecting fish and wildlife, heavily criticized the FDA for failing to evaluate these impacts. But the FDA ignored their concerns, so in March 2016, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the agency.

As part of the lawsuit, the FDA is required to compile a record of documents that illuminate the path the agency followed to reach its decision to approve the GE salmon—much like a student is required to show their work for a math problem in middle school. A complete record is essential in all cases. But it is especially important here because the FDA has so far refused to release most of the documents related to its decision, despite repeated requests for that information from Earthjustice's diverse set of clients under the Freedom of Information Act.

The public has a right to know how the agency came to this seemingly ill-informed decision, especially because the FDA's approach will likely serve as a precedent for the assessment of future GE food animals. Withholding that information is illegal because government agencies like the FDA are funded by taxpayer dollars, which means that any records they create, with only limited exceptions, can and should be available to the public and to citizens seeking to hold the government accountable in court.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge agreed, concluding that: "the government is wrong to assert that these types of materials … should be excluded" from the record. The FDA is now required to fully complete the record with all relevant documents no later than July 2017. In addition to working to ensure the timely completion of that process, we will thoroughly review the full basis for the agency's decisions.

"There's no way to know what exactly is in these documents until we see them," says Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy. "But they will undoubtedly provide a far more complete picture of how we got here, including information that raises legitimate questions about the agency's decision."

Jessica Knoblauch is a former award-winning journalist who now serves at the helm of Earthjustice's editorial team, which tells stories through the organization's blog, quarterly magazine and website.

By Samantha Henry

Netflix's recent, original feature film Okja has triggered a bit of disruption amongst both those in the film industry and enthusiasts in the food movement.

The movie targets several issues concerning the current state of our food system, and could be a great watch for those curious about where our food system could soon be headed.

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The Takagoyama Nature Zoo in the city of Futtsu, Japan euthanized 57 snow monkeys who were found to have hybrid genetic make-ups. The zoo mistakenly believed all 164 of its resident primates were pure Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), which are endemic to Japan. When the zoo discovered through DNA testing that 57 of them were actually of a hybrid breed, rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), which is common throughout Southeast Asia, they culled the hybrid monkeys.

Macaques photographed in Japan.mari_sixx / Instagram

In 2013, Japan's environmental laws were revised to make holding or transporting invasive species including hybrids illegal, in an attempt to protect the indigenous environment and native species. Culling of rhesus macaque is allowed under this law, which designates them as an "invasive alien species."

An Office for Alien Species Management official said the culling was unavoidable because the hybrid species might escape and reproduce in the wild, BBC reported.

The monkeys were culled through lethal injection over the course of about a month, ending in early February. The zoo operator then held a memorial service for the hybrid monkeys at a local Buddhist temple.

Questions remain as to whether other steps could have been taken such as sterilization, IFL Science pointed out. Transplanting the common hybrids into another region may have also been a possibility; they are native to Burma, India, Thailand, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and China.

"There are many zoos in the country, which rear animals that became classified as invasive species after the law was created," an Environment Ministry official said, according to Phys.org. Zoos can apply for exceptions to keep the hybrid species.

"Preventing exposures to foreign animals is very important," said Tomoko Shimura of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. The Chiba prefecture where the zoo is located has been culling the hybrids since 2005.

Japanese macaques are brown with white faces and are the only indigenous primate in Japan and most northern living nonhuman primate on Earth. They are also known as snow monkeys and have developed a hot tub culture by warming themselves in hot springs. The area around the zoo is designated as their wild habitat.

In the U.S., concerns over protecting native species' genes have arisen in relation to genetically engineered (GE) salmon produced by AquaBounty, Inc. and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015.

Fears relating to GE salmon include the possibility they will mate with native species, introduce new diseases and/or compete for resources and habitat.

By Reynard Loki

Editor's note: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms—either plant- or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based—would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.

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Soy was one of the key agricultural crops found to have decreased nutritional content when grown in a high C02 environment. Bigstockphoto

Bigger isn't always better. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Many anti-environmentalists throw these simple truths to the wind, along with caution.

You can see it in the deceitful realm of climate change denial. It's difficult to keep up with the constantly shifting—and debunked—denier arguments, but one common thread promoted by the likes of the Heartland Institute in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate, the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition, illustrates the point. They claim carbon dioxide is good for plants, and plants are good for people, so we should aim to pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere than we already are.

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Center for Food Safety (CFS), Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth-U.S. commend Ecojustice, Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society for challenging the Canadian federal government’s approval of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered (GE) salmon.

The groups are asking the court to invalidate the assessment of AquaBounty's GE salmon, and require the government to comply with the law before permitting the production of GE organisms.

AquaBounty alleges that it will grow the GE salmon eggs in Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) and then transport them to Panama, where they will grow to full size and then be shipped back to U.S. markets. However, the approval would also allow the production and grow out of the genetically engineered salmon elsewhere in Canada. The controversial GE fish has been proposed for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the agency has yet to make a final decision.

“This case is an important step in preserving native salmon populations and the environment from an unwanted, untested, novel threat," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for CFS. “The short-sighted and unlawful approval by Canadian officials must be addressed, and we commend our colleagues in Canada for holding their government, and AquaBounty, accountable.” 

“Unfortunately, it looks like the Canadian government, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is failing to acknowledge the real threat GE salmon poses to the environment,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Today’s challenge of the approval of GE salmon is an important effort to protect the public in both Canada and the U.S. from this unnecessary risk.”

The main legal arguments of the case are based on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The groups assert the approval is unlawful because, among other reasons, it failed to assess whether genetically engineered salmon will become invasive, putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk. The groups also alleged the government acted unlawfully in purporting to complete an assessment of whether AquAdvantage salmon is toxic or capable of becoming toxic without obtaining all information required by the law.

In addition, the groups allege the Minister of the Environment had no jurisdiction to publish a notice setting out permitted uses, based on the incomplete toxicity assessment of AquAdvantage salmon. The groups are asking the court to invalidate the assessment, and require the government to comply with the law before permitting the production of these genetically engineered organisms.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that Canadian and U.S. regulators are asleep at the wheel and are failing in their duty to conduct proper assessments that put people and the environment first,” said Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth-U.S. “It’s therefore not surprising that polls show the majority of consumers don’t want this risky fish.”

Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth-US have long opposed the potential approval of GE salmon, successfully spearheading U.S. campaigns for over thirteen years. Most recently, in response to the latest FDA proposal, CFS filed extensive legal and scientific comments detailing why the proposal was contrary to sound science and responsible governance. Nearly 2 million people have filed objections to the FDA’s proposed approval.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD and GMO pages for more related news on this topic.