(Photo: John Harvey / Flickr)
Big biotech companies that develop genetically modified (GM) organisms have spent more than half a billion dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying in the past decade, raising concerns about an upcoming Federal Drug Administration (FDA) decision that could approve GM salmon for human consumption, according to consumer group Food and Water Watch (FWW).
But the biotech industry has not wooed everyone in Washington. On Thursday, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) introduced legislation that would ban the GM salmon - sometimes called "frankenfish" - if the FDA approves it.
The GM salmon, which have additional genes that cause the fish to grow faster and larger, would be the first GM animal food approved in the United States. The FDA could reach a decision as early as November 23.
Begich was one of ten lawmakers who signed a letter to the FDA in September asking the FDA to halt the review of the GM salmon. The lawmakers expressed concern about the FDA's review process, which considers the product a new drug for animals instead of a new animal for human consumption, according to the letter.
Begich said the FDA never responded to the letter, and he is not the first government official to feel ignored by the FDA during the review process.
Earlier this week, FWW released internal documents from the Department of the Interior to Truthout showing that federal wildlife officials are concerned about the GM salmon proposal and the FDA's failure to consult the Fish and Wildlife Service about the potential for the salmon to escape and threaten endangered populations in the wild.
"The FDA seems to be on its own timeline and hasn't even responded to a letter signed by several lawmakers," Begich said. "We will move ahead without the agency, taking steps to ban frankenfish and keep humans and our wild salmon safe."
In September, The FDA found the salmon safe for human consumption.
Groups like the FWW and the Consumers Union testified against the FDA's findings, arguing that the FDA had not considered enough data on the potential health and environmental consequences of GM salmon.
Begich also introduced separate legislation that would require GM salmon to be labeled as GM if it is approved.
A Thomas Reuters poll conducted in September shows that 64 percent of Americans are unsure if GM food is safe, and 93 percent of those polled want GM foods to be labeled.
Food companies do not have to notify customers about GM ingredients, and it's unclear if the FDA could require special labels for the GM salmon.
Begich's legislation, which is co-sponsored by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Patty Murray (D-Washington), may have a tough road ahead.
The FWW, which opposes the GM salmon, is concerned that the heavy political influence of the biotech industry carries more weight in Congress and the FDA than that of concerned scientists and consumers.
A new FWW report details a steady increase in political spending from biotech companies and describes a "revolving door" system of former legislators, who left office and returned to Washington to lobby for companies advancing the technology.
"Over the last few months, our coalition has collected approximately 200,000 petitions from consumers who oppose FDA approval of genetically engineered salmon," said FWW director Wenonah Hauter. "Yet sadly, each of these consumers would have to pay nearly $3,000 to match the biotech industry's lobbying influence."
Since 1999, the top 50 companies holding agricultural or food patents have spent more than $572 million in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, according to the FWW report.
Total industry lobbying expenditures doubled from around $35 million in 1999, a few years after GM crops hit the market, to more than $70 million in 2009.
Since 2000, the percentage of corn grown in the United States that is GM has exploded from 7 to 70 percent, and now 93 percent of the soybeans grown in the US are GM, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
GM crop producers were among the most extravagant spenders, with Monsanto spending more than $53 million and CropLife America spending $21 million during the past decade.
"This kind of money speaks, and when you have a hundred different lobby firms, and you're spreading a lot of cash around, you build relationships and influence," Hauter told Truthout.
Hauter said biotech companies raised a lot of money for the midterm elections, putting pressure on Congress and, indirectly, the Obama administration to support GM projects like the salmon.
Aquabounty Technologies has spent a decade developing the GM salmon currently under FDA review. The company has proposed to breed the salmon in an inland facility in Canada and then raise the fish in another facility in Panama.