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To what extent should we continue to welcome genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) into our food systems?

The question has continued to invoke impassioned responses in recent years, with GMOs simultaneously touted by some as the salvation to global food security issues while decried by others as a menace to human health, the environment, and development.

With the recent approval of a genetically modified salmon for human consumption in the US, the debates have taken on a new twist.

Aquabounty, US-based company,  has developed a genetic recipe for a species of salmon–the “AquAdvantage” salmon–that grows at twice the rate of a regular salmon. Currently, the eggs for the salmon are grown in a facility in PEI and then shipped to Panama, where the fish are raised.

The AquAdvantage Salmon has now been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) as safe to eat. The product is currently undergoing a similar review by Health Canada.

Although GMOs have been a mainstay, albeit often unseen, of our food systems for decades, the AquAdvantage salmon appears to be the first GMO food animal approved for human consumption in the world.

Given that GMOs continue to inspire fear as potentially harmful to human health (although there is presently little scientific consensus to support this), as harmful to the environment, and as ethically questionable for patenting life forms, it is no wonder that the FDA approval has prompted criticism. In light of such misgivings, many, even those who see approval of the fish as overall beneficial for the environment — the AquAdvantage salmon purportedly consumes fewer resources and is raised in land-based pens —  have called for the fish to be appropriately labeled as a GMO.

Labelling, of course, would allow consumers to decide themselves whether or not they are ready to invite GMO animals onto their dinner plates. The FDA initially indicated that it would not require the salmon to be labelled, while strongly suggesting that manufacturers such as AquaBounty do so voluntarily (though the company has, thus far, indicated it does not plan to label its product voluntarily ). It now appears that the FDA will in fact be required to come up with a label before the fish can be imported into the US.

The fish has been challenged on a different front in Canada. A group of environmental groups asked the Federal Court to overturn the federal government’s approval of the export of these eggs on the basis this approval was contrary to certain requirements under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (“CEPA”).

Under CEPA, new GMOs can only be manufactured in Canada after the federal Ministers of the Environment and Health have collected certain information and assessed whether the GMO is toxic or could become toxic to human health or biodiversity (s. 108). In essence, the Applicants argued that the Ministers of Environment and Health did not lawfully conduct this assessment and therefore at this time the eggs cannot be manufactured in Canada.

The application was dismissed in a 22 December 2015 decision (Ecology Action Centre v Canada (Environment), 2015 FC 1412), though the Applicants have since filed an appeal of the decision.

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