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HeS-NewsAquaBounty Technology’s genetically modified salmon just got a hefty financial boost from the USDA: The agency awarded the Massachusetts-based company $494,000 to study technologies that would render the genetically tweaked fish sterile. This would reduce the likelihood they could reproduce with wild salmon, should any escape into the wild — a scenario that has many environmentalists concerned.

The Atlantic salmon, which is branded with the name AquAdvantage, has been genetically altered with a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a “genetic on-switch” gene from an ocean pout that will allow the fish to grow all year round, reaching market size much faster than traditional salmon.

In mid-2010, AquaBounty’s salmon appeared to be on the fast-track for approval by the FDA, which would have made it the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. But the process has since been stalled. Lawmakers in states like California and Alaska have been actively introducing legislation that requires the fish to be labeled as a GMO product or to prohibit its production entirely. Then, this June, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit the FDA from using funds for approval of the salmon.

The same bill the House voted on (an Agriculture Appropriations amendment) is currently stalled in the Senate. Now the USDA grant is raising eyebrows. Upon FDA approval, the company would sell salmon eggs to aquaculture operations looking to farm the fish.

Colin O’Neil, regulatory policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group focused on genetic engineering, says this is the first time they’ve heard of the USDA being involved with the genetically engineered fish.

If the FDA was so assured of the scientific merits of this application, they would have approved it by now,” he says. “The mere fact that it has taken this long tells me that the jury is still out.”

The grant comes on the heels of the company’s interim report released on Friday, which announced a net loss of $2.8 million, and a reduction of three board members. In other words, it’s clear that AquaBounty is under the gun to roll out their business,” as Paul Greenburg put it in a recent article.

Stotish says the delays in approval are because of groups who have “intimidated regulators with threats of lawsuits” and “misled the public. ” He adds that the company remains optimistic that congress will not shrink from what he calls “their commitment to science-based regulation,” and that it will “stand up to the pressure from the anti-technology groups.”

According to O’Neil, however, a great deal of the scientific community is actually weighing in on the side of caution. “It would be reckless for the FDA to approve genetically engineered salmon given the large number of environmental, human health, animal welfare and economic risks that have been raised by scientists, members of Congress and members of the FDA’s own Advisory Committee,” he says.

Health-e-Solutions Comment: This is very disappointing news that we, the taxpayers are supporting the development of GM salmon and assisting this company in bringing it to market. With so much skepticism about the safety of GM foods, even from the scientific community, it seems irresponsible for the FDA and the USDA to support financially a company bringing the first GM animal to market.