Challenging the safety of genetically modified salmon

Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society v. Minister of the Environment, Minister of Health and Aquabounty Canada Inc.
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Program area – Nature Status: Closed
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Biotechnology company AquaBounty Canada Inc. creates its “AquAdvantage” salmon by taking genetic material from Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout and inserting it into Atlantic salmon eggs. According to AquaBounty, the genetically modified salmon grows to market size faster than conventional salmon.

Ecojustice lawyers represented Living Oceans Society and the Ecology Action Centre in a lawsuit challenging the Federal Government’s decision to approve Aquabounty’s application to grow the genetically modified salmon eggs in P.E.I. and then transport them to Panama, where they will grow to full size. (Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society v. Minister of the Environment, Minister of Health and Aquabounty Canada Inc.)

The Federal Court ruled to uphold the federal government’s approval of AquaBounty's application in late 2015.  Our clients appealed the decision.

In October 2016, the Federal Court of Appeal decided to uphold approval.

Atlantic salmon populations around the world, including many populations in Canada, are endangered. Our clients assert that the effects of an escape of GM fish into the wild, including potential interbreeding with wild salmon, could be irreversible.  We are arguing that because the toxicity assessment on which the Federal Ministers of the Environment and Health based their decision did not assess whether genetically modified salmon could become invasive in the event of an escape, and thus did not accord with the requirements of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the decision was unlawful.

We believe that chemicals and products of biotechnology should be regulated in accordance with the precautionary principle, which states that when making decisions where environmental consequences are not fully understood, governments must err on the side of caution. We were involved in this case because we are committed to improving transparency in government decision-making and this case highlights the lack of information provided to the public about decisions related to biotechnology.

What does outcome mean?

Ecojustice lawyers, on behalf of Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society were in court to overturn the Federal Court’s decision that upheld the federal government’s approval to allow the production and commercial grow-out of genetically modified salmon at facilities across the country. We believed that clearer guidance was needed about the ways in which the organism can and cannot be used in other facilities in Canada. We argued that allowing a broader range of uses at other identified facilities across the country was contrary to the scientific evidence before the Ministers.

Ecojustice is disappointed in the Federal Court of Appeal's decision to uphold approvals for the use and manufacture of genetically modified salmon at any number of facilities across Canada. Decision-making under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act must be science-based and precautionary. In this case then-Ministers Ambrose and Aglukkaq did not follow key recommendations made by scientific experts. Rather than adhering to the precautionary principle, our clients believe the Ministers approved uses of this genetically modified food animal were not subject to a science-based risk assessment despite the potential for serious risks to the environment and wild Atlantic salmon in the event of an accidental escape.

Living Ocean's Society has stated publicly that it will persist in its efforts to demand labelling of genetically modified salmon so that consumers will have a choice whether they would like to consume it.  It is their hope that an increase in the number of North American retailers choosing not to sell the product will contain the extensive damage the approval may cause.

Key developments

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