Washington - The march toward domesticating the last wild food source may be about to take a major step forward in Washington - for better or worse.
Following a series of hearings last week the U.S. government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to approve for human consumption a genetically engineered species of Atlantic salmon.
The debate here has focused on whether raising this salmon in aquaculture operations would pose a hazard to human or environmental health. However that debate turns out, though - and the FDA has already decided the fish is safe to eat - the genetic modification of a fish to make it easier and more efficient to raise for human consumption is a significant milestone in the ongoing, and contentious, effort to expand aquaculture to feed a growing population.
Fish farming - which produced only one million tonnes of fish in 1950 - has since emerged as an 80 billion dollar-industry producing over five times that amount of fish with operations around the world, and that acceleration is primed to start moving even faster.
Meanwhile, over a billion people depend on fish for the protein in their diets, and with the human population booming that number is set to rise. A large part of that population is also becoming more affluent, and thus eating more and more of the predatory fish - like salmon - that advanced-economy consumers tend to prefer.
In that sense, the development of a faster-growing, more farm-friendly salmon seems almost inevitable.
It took generations and generations to breed land animals like cattle and sheep into the domesticated food sources we know today. But, through genetic engineering, in just the time it took for research and testing, a company called AquaBounty has developed a salmon - called the AquAdvantage salmon - that reaches its full size in half the time a normal salmon takes, with the help of a gene from the Pacific salmon and a gene promoter from the ocean pout.
Food safety groups see something decidedly fishy about this interference with natural processes, but it looks more than likely that the GE fish will eventually be in U.S. grocery stores. This raises several interesting issues in the context of the growth of aquaculture.
Much more dangerous than the spectre of a GE salmon escaping into the wild - AquaBounty has said its salmon will all be sterile females and grown in inland tanks - are the other difficulties associated with farming salmon sustainably.
Some fish, like tilapia, are well suited to being domesticated and raised in a farm setting. Others, like salmon, are much less so. While producing farmed salmon takes some pressure off depleted wild populations, salmon, which are carnivorous, require large amounts of feed to grow, and feed fish are taken from the wild at increasingly unsustainable rates.
Yet salmon remains one of the most popular fish among consumers - a popularity that is beyond what wild populations can sustain. Rather than searching for other, more aquaculture-appropriate species to fill that demand, then, it seems AquaBounty has decided to make salmon a bit more aquaculture-friendly.
Typically, three pounds of feed fish is required to produce one pound of farmed salmon. Since AquAdvantage salmon grow faster and thus have shorter life spans, they would presumably require less food - AquaBounty says that its fish will require 10 percent less food per pound of salmon produced.
But feed conversation ratios, the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of farmed fish, is not the only obstacle to raising salmon sustainably - even leaving ecological and ethical concerns over genetic modification aside.
The ocean pens in which most farmed salmon are raised are notorious for allowing large quantities of antibiotics and additives leak out and damage the surrounding environment, as well as leading to farmed salmon escaping and potentially spreading disease to and contaminating the gene pool of wild salmon.
But AquaBounty maintains that their faster-growing fish will "enhance the economic viability" of operations that raise salmon inland, thus mitigating these potential pollution and escape problems.
The say their efforts, which also include work on transgenic trout and tilapia, are helping to build a more efficient and sustainable aquaculture industry.
In any case, it is becoming clear that GE animals may have an increasingly large part to play in feeding a crowded planet. Randall Lutter, a visiting scholar at the think tank Resources for the Future and former FDA official, points to the "enviro-pig" said to be under consideration at the FDA which would have very low levels of phosphorous in its waste and thus help mitigate the pollution associated with run-off from pig facilities. A GE cow resistant to mad cow disease is also said to be under review.
Though no country has yet approved a GE animal to be sold for human consumption, Lutter thinks approval of the AquAdvantage salmon might open a path. "Genetic engineering of farm animals, if regulated in a manner that adequately protects animal health and food safety and preserves incentives for research and development, offers the promise of low-cost solutions to a number of social and economic problems," he says.
Some consumer groups fear that the reviews of the possible health and environmental effects of the GE salmon were not thorough enough. They point out that the data related to the salmon shows that up to five percent of the GE eggs produced might be fertile.
Possibly of more pressing concern to feeding a growing population with a dwindling supply of fish, though, is the argument that we simply should not be relying on farming salmon. "We all know there is a great appetite for salmon, but the solution is not to ‘farm’ genetically-engineered versions to put more on our dinner tables; the solution is to work to bring our wild salmon populations back," says Jonathan Rosenfield, a conservation biologist and president of the SalmonAID Foundation, a coalition of commercial, tribal and conservation interests. "The approval of these transgenic fish will only exacerbate the problems facing our wild fisheries."
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