GE Salmon Growing in the Dark in South Dakota

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Food & Water Watch Blog

GE Salmon Growing in the Dark in South Dakota

Last week, the Washington Post reported some unwelcoming news to AquaBounty Technologies, the producers of genetically engineered (GE) salmon : grocery stores are lining up to sign a pledge saying they won’t sell the fish if, or when, it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

This action by some of the nation’s largest retailers, including Meijer, HEB, Target and Trader Joe’s , reflects widespread consumer opposition to GE salmon.  But where consumers see potential health concerns, environmental problems and a lot of hype surrounding the benefits of this fish , the state of South Dakota apparently sees dollar signs.

The Post reports the governor saying the state is making “concerted efforts” to bring AquaBounty to South Dakota, and it appears that South Dakota State University (SDSU), the largest public research institution in the state, is helping out.  

The school maintains very close ties to the biotech industry. SDSU President David Chicoine is also a director at Monsanto, which pays a handsome salary , and he owns around 10,000 shares in the company, worth around $1 million. The school’s vice-president and director of research, Kevin Kephart, is an advisor to the South Dakota Biotechnology Association , the state level affiliate of BIO, a biotech lobby group whose members include AquaBounty and which spent around $8 million in 2012 lobbying on issues, including GE salmon.

Kephart is also a personal supporter of AquaBounty, adding his name to a letter addressed to President Obama to pressure the government to speed up approval of GE salmon. 

The most recent biotech connection at SDSU was revealed by an open-records request we filed with a federal agency, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which showed that AquaBounty was planning an experimental field trial of GE salmon at SDSU. Though USFWS has refused to allow these experimental field trials until the fish has been given regulatory approval and found to be safe through an environmental review, Food & Water Watch still wanted to know why SDSU, a taxpayer funded institution with a mission to serve the public, was partnering with Aquabounty.

We filed a records request to SDSU, but the school has refused to release any records related to its discussions with AquaBounty regarding the field trial, claiming they are exempt from public disclosure. 

This troubling lack of transparency appears to be how things operate at SDSU. Back in 2011, Food & Water Watch asked the university for funding records related to the university’s research projects. SDSU fought our request for more than a year, even working with a private law firm—presumably with taxpayer dollars—before finally granting the records.  By contrast, other land-grant schools openly publish their research grant awards or provided us records in a timely fashion.

If SDSU wants to follow the governor’s lead in pursuing AquaBounty, it should at the very least, walk in the light of day so the public can know where and how public resources are being spent. Because SDSU appears to be doing everything in its power to keep its relationship with AquaBounty out of the public eye, Food & Water Watch filed a legal complaint in South Dakota last week to force SDSU to hand over the records. 

SDSU’s partnership with AquaBounty on a field trial doesn’t serve the public interest, and it won’t answer the many lingering safety questions surrounding GE salmon; it’ll just add to the pile of studies that AquaBounty has produced, designed or funded.  Even federal regulators at the Food and Drug Adminsitration are basing their decision on scientific studies submitted by AquaBounty, which loves to boast that GE salmon is the most studied fish in the world. Unfortunately, the company fails to note that it is producing most of the science itself. 

Unfortunately, our public institutions increasingly are depending on partnerships with the private sector, putting industry goals ahead of public-interest research.

Food & Water Watch examined the biasing impact of industry funding on scientific research at public universities in our report Public Research, Private Gain, with a special section about SDSU.   

While we fight with SDSU to get our public records, we can’t lose sight of the battle: convincing the FDA to protect consumers from unnecessary risks associated with GE salmon by clicking.  Tell them how you feel here .

Tim Schwab

Tim Schwab is a food researcher at Food and Water Watch. With a background in journalism, Tim worked as a reporter and as a researcher on a variety of projects before joining Food and Water Watch. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He can be reached at tschwab(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

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