Aquaculture III – GMOs

QUESTION: We continue our look at aquaculture, and specifically in this column the development of genetic engineering in seafood production.

Previously, Sinjan from Johannesburg asked:

A few years ago I read that aquaculture was the answer to the problems associated with commercial fishing, but lately I have been hearing differently. What has happened?

ANSWER: A hot topic today is the development of genetically engineered farmed fish. Specifically, salmon have been altered using DNA replacement technology which allows them to reach maturity much faster than the unaltered version. Quickly many benefits spring to mind, first and foremost that more fish can be produced, relieving pressure from wild stocks. Too, claims have been made (though Deep Blue is finding it hard to source the studies) that the genetically altered fish use 10 – 30% less feed to achieve this growth. This would theoretically reduce pressures on the wild stocks used in the production of aquacultural feeds. Proponents of GM fish are quick to extrapolate production out into a future where the protein requirements of the starving masses are met by GM salmon. That is an interesting proposition.

Of course there are concerns (aren’t there always?). Many are alarmed about food safety. Visions of science gone mad, of the genetic material transferring in some way to the human host are proposed along with claims that GM fish will increase allergic responses among consumers. Slightly unequivocal comparisons to the supposed ill effects of growth hormones are sometimes drawn. Additionally many worry about the environmental effects if, and perhaps when, escapes occur.

Stated plainly, food safety is of utmost concern. Before any policy implementation occurs it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that any new food item is rigorously studied and that health is placed above profit. The importance of the foods we eat, the air we breath and the water we consume is often pushed down our list of concerns by the pressing challenges of daily life. But we re certainly finding out more-and-more that they are of vital importance, and that they are in fact the foundation on which all of our other achievements are based.

From an environmental perspective we must be sure that solid systems are put into place to make sure that escapes are kept to an absolute minimum, and that promises regarding the non fertility of the GM fish are stringently kept. As with invasive species, much damage can be done when any new creature is introduced into an environment – they are often not subject to nature’s sublime scheme of checks and balances.

One of the trickiest facets of this discussion is whether or not it should be required that product labels state the presence of genetically altered fish. It is an intriguing question. On the one hand, if, as proponents of GM fish propose, these fish are identical to non GM fish – with just an altered growth switching mechanism – then it seems no explanation would necessarily be required. But from the perspective of the consumer, it would be nice to know. Many consumers incorporate ethical standards into their purchasing behavior and it seems fair to provide them with as much information as possible.

Reed McFarland – European Coordinator

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