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Andrew Gunther

Andrew Gunther

Posted: September 1, 2010 01:42 AM

News that an "efficient and environmentally sustainable" genetically modified (GM) salmon may be a step closer to commercial "release" had me reaching for a large pinch of salt -- and not, I might add, to help season the dish.

As some of you will know from my previous blogs, I am extremely skeptical about the real benefits that GM technology offers. Indeed, I have grave concerns about GM -- not only about the potential environmental and health risks associated with the technology, but also the potential control that GM gives "Big Ag" over global food production. These concerns are just as relevant to GM fish production as they are to GM soy, cotton or corn. The difference, of course, is that with fish we are dealing with a living creature, where welfare is also an issue.

On August 25th, 2010, Massachusetts-based biotech company AquaBounty announced that it had moved a step closer to gaining formal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval of its AquaAdvantage® Salmon. According to the AquaBounty website, the AquaAdvantage Salmon is genetically modified to "include a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon that provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon." This enables "shorter production cycles and increased efficiency of production."

This fish would be the first GM animal to be approved by the USDA, and would open the door to the mass production of other GM fish. AquaBounty already has plans for GM trout and GM tilapia, and once GM fish are permitted, biotech companies would no doubt push ahead with other GM farmed animals -- including pigs, cattle and poultry.

Call me a cynic but I've learned to take the claims of biotech companies with a rather hefty pinch of salt. Despite the billions of dollars thrown at the technology over the years, I think it's fair to say that most of the "golden promises" of biotech have failed to come to any real fruition. Fifteen years later, for example, we're still waiting for the promised drought-resistant GM crops that would "solve global hunger." The handful of GM products that have managed to reach the market have generally focused on herbicide or insect-resistant traits. These crops are now rapidly losing their appeal following the emergence of multiple herbicide-resistant GM super weeds, unpredicted pest and soil nutrient problems, and growing discontent among farmers over the heavy-handed business practices of some of the GM seed companies and their so-called seed police.

But I am also naturally skeptical of anyone making claims of finding a panacea, because you rarely get something for nothing. In my experience of farming, Mother Nature has a pretty reliable habit of balancing things out over the longer term. Sure, you might trick her for a while but there is always a cost somewhere down the line, even if it's eventually borne by someone -- or something -- else.

This is why AquaBounty's claim that its GM salmon will reach a marketable size in half the time caught my attention. Research shows that the Cornish Cross chicken breed puts on weight faster than its body can actually cope with. The birds can suffer from heart strain and are prone to joint and ligament problems. Again, while the breed has not been genetically modified, the point is that our desire to constantly increase growth rates and shorten the time needed to reach a marketable weight has led to these associated welfare problems. As well as some recently reported taste challenges...

According to an expert panel from the Royal Society of Canada, set up in 2001 to consider the potential impacts of food biotechnology, experiments to genetically modify fish have already resulted in health and welfare issues, including "changes to enzyme activity, gross anatomy, behavior and, in all likelihood, hormonal activity." This is why AquaBounty's claims that its GM salmon will bring about "fish health benefits" had me reaching once again for a healthy pinch of salt.

Putting the GM issue aside for one moment, the welfare of farmed fish is already a big concern. Wild salmon are migratory fish and naturally travel thousands of miles. A farmed salmon is caged and swims around in a space equivalent to a large bathtub full of water. The parallels between intensive broiler production and salmon farming are, quite striking: large numbers of animals in a small space being pushed to grow as fast as possible; the high risk of disease, leading to routine use of medication to avoid parasites and disease; the environmental pollution risk from feed and fish waste contaminating the seabed below the cages, and so on. We need to realize that USDA approval of this GM animal would undoubtedly pave the way for the future approval of GM pigs, GM cattle and GM poultry -- all of which are already on the biotech drawing board and which would entail the same health and welfare risks. And if you are expecting the public to kick up a fuss over this, think again -- current labeling rules mean that most consumers wouldn't even know they are eating a GM product.