Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Environmental Risk of Genetically Engineered Fish

December 15, 2011

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—Good morning.  We’re holding this hearing today to discuss the potential environmental risks of genetically engineered fish.  The hearing could not be timelier: as I speak, the FDA may be finalizing approval of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption in the U.S. This is truly ground breaking and for many, this is concerning.   The “AquaAdvantage” salmon has been engineered to grow faster and heartier than its natural counterpart by mixing genes from three different fish species, so its filets can quickly get from the fish pen to your dinner table.

Yet, concerns abound with opening the door to the creation of genetically engineered animals for food. Food safety is an obvious point of contention, but a more insidious consequence of these fish is the havoc they could wreak on our natural fish stocks and aquatic ecosystems.  Were these fish ever to escape into the wild, the impacts could be disastrous. 

At a minimum, the escaped fish would have effects similar to invasive species by competing with other fish for food, territory, and mates, or by otherwise altering the food chain.  Worse, if genetically engineered salmon were to escape into wild habitats, they could mate with wild fish, passing their artificially engineered DNA into the wider gene pool and fundamentally altering the naturally-occurring species as a whole. 

Now, AquaBounty, the company that developed these genetically engineered fish, has made significant investments to minimize the risks.  In their application to the FDA, they’ve touted techniques that render the fish sterile and infrastructure that thwarts escapement.  They’ve even decided to breed far from our shores, all the way in Panama, to alleviate these concerns.  But even the establishment of a “Salmon Republic” may not be enough, evidence suggests that AquaBounty’s sterilization process is not 100 percent effective, and history shows that no aquaculture containment measures are foolproof or immune from human error.

Moreover, approval of these genetically engineered animals would be precedent setting, likely ushering in a wave of aquaculture operations here and around the world for raising genetically engineered food fish. Production on such a large scale would make the risk of genetically engineered fish escaping into the wild a near certainty.  

It’s clear to me that we need to operate under the assumption that these fish will escape, and that warrants a thorough examination of the harm this could cause.  Ultimately, I’m very concerned that these fish haven’t received the scrutiny that’s due.

Hopefully, this hearing will serve as a call to reason and bring greater attention to the legitimate concerns fisherman, consumers, scientists and legislators have.  An astounding eighty percent of our seafood comes from abroad and certainly that demonstrates a need we have as a country to produce our own seafood.  Nonetheless, we must proceed with caution.  This is about the precedent that may be set.  There is potential in genetically engineered animals, but we need to make sure that we fully understand the risks involved, so that we do not live to regret unleashing the environmental equivalent of a Pandora’s box.