Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

CEPA review shines light on GMOs

June 15, 2017
Standing Committee report recommends welcome changes to CEPA

VANCOUVER/HALIFAX:  Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society welcome the report of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, tabled in Parliament today, recommending a broad range of reforms of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). Several of the recommendations would open a very welcome window into the approval process for genetically modified organisms, say the groups.

Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society first raised their concerns about the secrecy surrounding the development of genetically modified food animals in a court case challenging the approval of GM salmon manufacturing on Prince Edward Island. “Our court case exposed significant problems with CEPA, with both transparency and the risk assessment process,” said Mark Butler of Ecology Action Centre.  “We appreciate the Committee’s work to address the concerns we raised in that case.”

Recommendations tabled by the Committee today would open up the process for approval of GM organisms, requiring public notification of applications for new substances or living organisms and providing opportunities for public input throughout the process.

“This is especially important today, as developments in genetic manipulation tools such as CRISPR make the manufacture of modified organisms much cheaper and easier,” said Karen Wristen of Living Oceans Society. “Applications for approval of new substances are likely to increase dramatically and CEPA just isn’t designed to respond to such rapid change.”  The recommendations made today include new provisions for public input and a suite of new triggers for reassessment of substances that will help ensure that the regulatory regime can respond to new and emerging technology and environmental science.

“It is very gratifying to see the Committee recommending unprecedented openness in this regulatory process,” added Butler. “Despite being the first GM food animal in the world to receive approval for human consumption, the approval process under CEPA involved no public consultation with Canadians, none.”

“We call on the government to implement these changes to CEPA at the earliest possible opportunity and to allocate the funding necessary to make this regulatory regime functional” said Wristen. “CEPA must be able to respond to the complexity and speed of 21st century genetic research.”



Contact Information

Karen Wristen, Living Oceans Society, Vancouver:  604-788-5634

Mark Butler, Ecology Action Centre, Halifax:  902-266-5401


Media Backgrounder

Genetically Modified (GM) Fish in Canada

The federal Ministers of the Environment and Health approved the commercial production of a genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) Atlantic salmon trademarked as “AquAdvantage” salmon. The decision was disclosed in a notice published in the Canada Gazette on November 23, 2013. The decision allowed the biotechnology company AquaBounty to proceed with its plan to produce GM salmon eggs in Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada for shipping to Panama for grow-out and processing.

The GM salmon was later approved by Health Canada for human consumption (May, 2016), making it the first GM animal approved for human consumption in the world. The Canadian approval represented the first regulatory approval for this genetically modified species worldwide.

GM Atlantic Salmon – “AquAdvantage” Salmon

Genetic modification (also called genetic engineering or rDNA technology) is a controversial technology that allows for the transfer of genetic material directly from one organism to another (across the species and kingdom barriers) at the molecular level, and is dramatically different from animal breeding, posing new risks and unpredictable impacts on the organism and ecosystems.

The GM AquAdvantage salmon was engineered by introducing a growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and genetic material from ocean pout (Zoarces americanus - an eel-like species) into the eggs of Atlantic salmon (Salmon salar). The company claims the GM fish grow faster than other farmed or wild salmon.

GM Salmon Legal Challenge

Two Canadian environmental groups – Ecology Action Centre (NS) and Living Oceans Society (BC) – asked a court in Canada to decide if the federal government violated its own law when it permitted the manufacture of the GM AquAdvantage salmon. Lawyers with the charitable organization Ecojustice filed a judicial review application with the Federal Court on Dec. 23, 2013 and served notice of the lawsuit on all parties, including the fish manufacturer AquaBounty, in January 2014.

The legal challenge asserted that the approval was unlawful because it failed to assess whether the GM salmon could become invasive, potentially putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk.

The main legal arguments of the case were based on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, including:

  • That the federal Ministers of Environment and Health acted unlawfully in purporting to complete an assessment of whether the GM salmon is toxic or capable of becoming toxic without obtaining all information required by law;
  • That the Minister of the Environment had no jurisdiction to publish a notice setting out the permitted uses of the GM salmon eggs, based on an incomplete toxicity assessment of the GM salmon;
  • Alternatively, the Minister of the Environment failed in her legal duties by permitting unassessed uses of GM salmon, such as its grow out in Canada, to proceed.

Public Information on GM Salmon Assessment

In Canada, the process for assessing the GM salmon is cloaked in secrecy. Environment Canada and the company AquaBounty refused to acknowledge that an assessment of the GM salmon was even underway. There were no public consultations on the GM salmon in Canada.

Additionally, Health Canada failed or refused to confirm that it was assessing the GM salmon for human consumption.

When the decision to approve the manufacture of the GM salmon was made public in late November 2013, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) posted a document summarizing a meeting that discussed the risk assessment: "Summary of the Environmental and Indirect Human Health Risk Assessment of AquAdvantage Salmon". Under pressure to produce documents in the court case, the government released a heavily redacted version of the full risk assessment in January, 2015.

The lawsuit proceeded through an initial judicial review and an appeal, but was unsuccessful in having the Minsters’ decisions set aside. Courts in Canada tend to defer to the expertise of government, particularly in the sciences. With respect to the procedural arguments, the Court rejected both the government’s and the environmental groups’ interpretations of CEPA, leaving Canadians with a most unsatisfactory approval that could be applied to facilities and procedures (such as grow-out) for which no risk assessment has been conducted.

AquaBounty planned PEI-Panama-US route for GM salmon; now plans Canadian production

The biotechnology company AquaBounty maintains a research and development facility at Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The company originally proposed to produce the GM salmon eggs in PEI, to ship them to Panama for grow out and processing, for export into the U.S. consumer market as “table-ready” fish.

In the wake of the Court of Appeal decision, however, AquaBounty has unveiled plans to build a grow-out facility at Rollo Bay in PEI. A decision on that application is currently before the PEI government.

Environmental Risks

The DFO summary risk assessment recognized that GM salmon may pose a risk to wild salmon, but placed emphasis on containment measures in reaching its conclusions.

The DFO summary risk assessment made mention of AquaBounty’s intent to produce sterile (triploid) female GM salmon for export and grow-out, but recognized that up to 5% of those fish may be able to reproduce. The Canadian approval also allows for non-sterile GM salmon to be used in egg production.

If fertile GM fish were to escape from confinement, they would pose a significant environmental threat, according to the risk assessment. GM salmon may be able to survive and breed in the wild. GM salmon are capable of breeding with brown trout (Oke et al., 2013).

The effects of an escape of GM fish into the wild, including potential interbreeding with wild salmon, could be irreversible. The full environmental impacts of GM fish will only be known if an escape happens.

Atlantic salmon populations around the world, including many populations in Canada, are endangered.

Any risk of GM salmon escaping into the wild is unacceptable, especially when their potential to become an invasive species has not been properly assessed and the future of Atlantic salmon is already threatened.

Opposition in the food and aquaculture industry

  • The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance says it does not support the commercial production of the GM fish, and the largest producer of farmed salmon, Marine Harvest, “does not support the introduction of GM salmon”.
  • Several major U.S. grocery chains signed a pledge not to sell any GM fish, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. U.S. polls show that 91% of consumers do not want to eat GM fish.

Public opposition in Canada

75 organizations in Canada say they oppose GM fish, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Wild Salmon First, the Fundy Baykeeper, and the United Church of Canada. For the full list of organizations:

Canadian Aquaculture Industry Association, “CAIA Position: Genetically Modified Salmon” September 10, 2010.

  “Marine Harvest, WWF call for proper GM salmon labelling“ Fish Information & Services, Decebmer 4, 2013.

National survey “Re: Attitudes Toward The FDA’s Plan on Genetically Engineered Fish”, Lake Research, U.S. September 20, 2010.