America's Tea Party Coming To BritainFreaky Frankenstein Fish
by Ian R Thorpe.
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: fish, farm, farming, food, crisis, science, scientists, g.m. genetic, modification, engineering, gene, agriculture, industry,fisheries, biotech, salmon, FDA, American, government
A prospectus inviting people to invest in a biotech startup company repeats an attention - grabbing claim made by UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Cue the armageddonists: It's the end of the world, carbon is choking all those fish and drilling for oil is destroying their habitat, oh woe, woe, we must all kill ourselves to save the planet. But wait, what was said is the catch has stagnated not declined. If there is a shortage of fish leading to increased prices in markets it is due to increased demand, i.e. more people chasing the same amount of fish.
"Commercial aquaculture is the most rapidly growing segment of the agricultural industry, accounting for more than $60bn sales in 2003. While land-based agriculture is increasing between 2% to 3% per year, aquaculture has been growing at an average rate of approximately 9% per year since 1970," says the blurb, quoting United Nations public relations material.
The prospectus for the US company AquaBounty then offers this snippet from the UN Agriculture and Fisheries people to reel in anybody tempted by the idea of investing in their GM fish farming scheme: "The traditional fishery harvest from the ocean has stagnated since 1990."
What can be done to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite for fish and alleviate the problems caused in the third world by western factory ships plundering traditional fishing grounds and depriving the local population of their main source of protein and fats? Well we can invest in fish farming which is what this biotech startup is all about.
Forecasts estimate the next ten years will see the consumption of farmed fish outpace global beef consumption by nearly 10%. That is roughly in line with the increase in global population so we are effectively in a situation in which we have to keep running faster just to stay in the same place.
In trueentrepreneurial spirit the biotech startup has identified an opportunity and in the true spirit of scientific advance neither they nor the United Nations experts have spared one second's thought for possible unintended consequences.
The company, AquaBounty, whose shares are traded on London's Alternative Investment Market, thinks it has come up with an answer. And if, as looks increasingly likely, the US government food and drug administration approves their idea, the implications for global food production will be enormous. Welcome to the Brave New World of "GM salmon".
The company's business plan is based on selling genetically modified salmon eggs that will hatch into fish genetically programmed to grow to maturity in half the normal time received a boost last month when it announced that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted approval for the project to go ahead.
If everything now goes according to plan Aqua bounty's GM salmon will become the first GM-engineered animal marketed for human consumption. Dramatically speeding up the time it takes to harvest a mature salmon could stimulate a huge rise in production, making salmon plentiful and cheaper for American consumers, GM enthusiasts say. The European Union's ban on GM foods which was implemented after a huge public backlash at the rush to GM remains in place.
AquaBounty expects to receive final approval to sell the fish for human consumption by the end of this year, meaning GM salmon could be on supermarket shelves within three years. The company's share price rose sharply on the strength of the announcement. But the euphoria the company and its investors experienced following last month's developments quickly evaporated amid a furious backlash from consumer groups in America.
"The controversy over this genetically modified fish farming project puts paid once and for all to the myth that US consumers are happy to eat GM food," Eve Mitchell, European food policy adviser at Food and Water Watch Europe, which opposes GM food commented. "Consumers are not happy, and in fact jammed up the White House telephone lines last week protesting any approval. Quite understandably the salmon industry is not happy either, as people will simply avoid all salmon rather than risk getting this stuff. Only those who stand to gain financially think this is a good idea."
Predictably, corporate fish processing interests (Big Fish?) have waded into the row. Local radio stations from Ireland to Canada carried interviews with angry fishermen who fear that initial reluctance to consume GM salmon will be overcome by economics. "Genetically modified food is just a bad deal," a commercial fisherman in Charleston, South Carolina, said in an interview with his local radio station. "This will attack our marketplace. It'll come on the market so cheap that people will buy it, because we're all on a budget."
AquaBounty executives are keen to play down these fears. The company is more interested in selling its technology into the emerging markets of Chile, China and Asia rather than competing with the American and European fishing industries. "The global salmon market is very, very large and the opportunity is in areas that cannot raise salmon," Stotish told UK Sunday newspaper The Observer. "We don't believe it will threaten any national markets, particularly for the high-value premium markets."
AquaBounty is also struggling against warnings that its pioneering product threatens the natural food chain. The company says it's genetic technology ensures that more than 98% of its salmon cannot reproduce. In addition, the eggs it produces (which are all female thus ensuring the GM fish cannot reproduce among themselves) will be sold only to strictly monitored growers operating fish farms under licence from the FDA..
Biological and physical containment minimises chances of interaction with wild salmon. At present about 95% of the world's salmon is already produced in fish farms, a statistic the biotech industry and GM science enthusiasts point to in support of their pet scheme. Helen Wallace, of the anti-GM group GeneWatch, has some major serious concerns however.
She writes on the organisation's web site: "AquaBounty admit that they expect more than 1% of their fish to be able to reproduce," Wallace said. "If, as they intend, they end up producing large numbers of eggs, that's a large risk." Escaped GM salmon could "outcompete" its wild counterpart by reproducing earlier and threatening its food supply. Some researchers have suggested that even a small number of escaped GM salmon could cause extinction of wild populations in as little as 40 generations.
With potentially weak constitutions, the new salmon might then struggle to adapt to life outside captivity. Food and Water Watch goes as far as to suggest the GM salmon "may only last long enough in the wild to prevent natural populations from reproducing, leading to a total extinction of salmon in open waters".
Such concerns are genuine but if we take a look at the history of the fish farming industry there are far more humble threats posed to the environment ' in the interests of science.' Salmon farming and other branches of aquaculture are know to have caused environmental damage in areas where the industry has been introduced. The farmed fish, not living in a natural environment, are prone to disease, build up of unconsumed food and excrement on the sea bed promotes algal blooms (which are a known contributor to ocean acidification, one of the alarmists great demons) and from a human point of view the use of antibiotics in feeds to contain diseases but some very undesirable things in the human food chain. Is it any wonder antibiotics are no longer effective on many infections when out systems are bombarded with them from so many directions?
There is also the usual loonytoons economics of any industry dependent on science. Farmed salmon require special foods and each pound of marine farm feed requires three pounds of wild caught fish (problems associated with salmon farming). This statistic alone destroys the economic case for rapid expansion of the fish farming industry. The only reason salmon and trout farming took off is because both these game fish were relatively expensive due to scarcity. Farming has in fact brought the price down so much that it is no longer economically viable to farm fish as a business in the developed nations. So those who wring their hands, wail and gnash their teeth about the environment shoot themselves in the foot again by supporting this advance for genetic science. How does it benefit the planet for us to fly farmed fish halfway round the world from South America or Asia so it can undercut the cod, haddock, herrings and other wild fish that proliferate in northern waters and provide thousands in the fishing industry with their livelehood.?
Such concerns strengthen the case of GM sceptics in the wider battle between pro-GM groups and an increasingly confident organic movement. GM crop production is promoted aggressively on the grounds that it can help eliminate global hunger and bring down food prices. There is little evidence to support this. Though corporations involved in GM such as Monsanto claim their technology can create drought resistant strains of food crops but though the crops may not die in prolonged dry periods vast amounts of water are still needed to swell the fruits, grains and tubers and produce a good yield. As well as the impending food crisis the world faces a water crisis caused by extraction of ground water from rivers and aquifers. All fruit and vegetable crops are mostly water and cereals require watering though they are dry when they reach the table. We are pumping water out of the ground faster than nature can replace it so what is the point of introducing GM crops which will accelerate that process when we have no way of synthesizing water to make up for the shortfall.
Opponents claim the promised GM revolution that saw crops made resistant to potent herbicides – something that could dramatically reduce farmers' spraying time – has resulted in the rise of superweeds across vast tracts of US farmland. The enthusiasm of the scientific academy for GM technology now is reminiscent of their enthusiasm for DDT in the 1950s. DDT was seen as a cure all pesticide that would dramatically reduce destruction of food crops by insects. It did that but the science fans, though they knew of its toxicity to mammals did not bother to find out how long the chemical stayed toxic. Uncontrolled use of DDT in the Americas and Africa caused environmental and humanitarian disasters. That is what happens when people narrow their perspective to avoid seeing the big picture.
Having reiterated the case against DDT we have to remember that when the pesticide was banned there was a huge increase in fatalities from Malaria. While DDT had harmed livestock and humans it had been very effective in controlling malaria carrying mosquitos, one of the deadliest pests to humans. Ah well, nobody ever said life would be simple.
The problem with many scientific advances particularly those connected with our efforts to control nature is that for every problem they solve another, equally as bad, is created.
One must wonder where this desire to play God is leading. Nobody has ever made a real need - based case for GM salmon, instead objections are diverted by the usual sneering from those people who accuse their critics of religious superstition but who are themselves trying to turn science into a religion with its creeds and dogmas sacrosanct and unquestionable.
A goat that produces a spider's web protein thus paving the way for silk to be produced on dairy farms is under development. GM goats have also been raised to produce human breast milk and a special protein to help people whose blood cannot flow smoothly. And then there is the GloFish, a genetically modified fluorescent zebrafish that, according to its sales blurb, would grace any aquarium and comes in three "striking colours" – starfire red, electric green and sunburst orange. Cui bono, one must ask. Why do we need to make silk from goats or a designer zebra fish? "Because we can," is the olny answer the Church of Science can offer.
In spite of the the rush by corporate forces to spread GM's reach and scope, some governments are standing firm. As mentioned about the European Union has imposed a ban on further GM development mainly because of public opposition but also because cases of environmental damage have been proved. In the far east Muhyiddin Yassin, deputy prime minister of Malaysia, one of the most technologically advanced nations in the region, recently announced his government would not be releasing genetically modified male Aedes mosquitoes capable of sterilising female mosquitoes. "We must consider several aspects of the proposed release, including its impact on the environment," Yassin said. "In addition, the release of the mosquitoes must be endorsed by several international organisations."
For GM sceptics and those suspicious of the indecent haste with which the science community is trying to impose this development on us, the U-turn was a cause for celebration, a sign that politicians still accept that the technology carries massive risks. But the ultimate victory in the argument about genetically modified food comes down to the invisible hand of the market. Both sides agree it is significant that none of the big GM technology companies such as Monsanto is attempting to create GM meat or fish, preferring to focus on more lucrative GM crop production.
Helen Wallace has said, "The process of genetically modifying animals has been a commercial failure, too many scientists and small biotech companies have genetically engineered animals just because they can, without thinking through the technical, economic, marketing, animal welfare, environmental or social issues."
And that is, is it not, the factor that makes so many of us suspicious of science. Far too often the scientists fall down because they are far more interested in showing off how much more clever than we mere mortals and nature itself they are than in meeting any real need, solving any real problem or creating something that will be a true benefit for many people.
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