GE Fish: A Threat Disguised as a Solution to World Hunger

Superfish are no superfix for hunger

By Jean-Michel Cousteau
Thursday, July 20, 2000
Environmental News Network

Behold the "superfish," a salmon that grows six times as fast and twice
as large as normal farmed Atlantic salmon but only consumes three-quarters
as much feed before it is brought to market.

Sound like science fiction? It's not. Some 100,000 of these fish already
exist, produced by a Canadian company, and are awaiting the official
sanction of federal food agencies in the United States, the world's main
market for farmed fish. They and others like them might be in stores as
early as 2002.

This creature is the latest in a series of inventions being offered as
food to a world many believe to be teetering on the brink of starvation. The
problem is that, like many genetically altered or engineered life forms,
this salmon may end up destroying more lives than it saves.

How do you build a better salmon? In this case, part of the DNA of a
winter flounder is matched to the salmon's growth hormone to produce a mixed or
transgenic species. Over the past decade, researchers have also found a
way to alter tilapia and other fish so that they will produce human growth
hormone, or hGH. The resulting "superfish" grows faster and larger on
less feed. It's an entrepreneur's dream come true.

Yet, despite the optimism of inventors and the governmental and private
investors that support them, there are enormous environmental risks
involved in developing transgenic species.

In a major study of the effects of releasing transgenic species into the
wild, William Muir and Richard Howard of Purdue University discovered
that more than 30 percent of Japanese medaka born with the hGH gene did not
live to sexual maturity. In the market, this is not important. Fish can be
sold and eaten before they are sexually mature. But in nature, surviving to
sexual maturity is everything. The superfish may dominate the mating
game, but if they are least likely to produce viable offspring, the population
will eventually decline.

How large will these declines be? Mathematically at least, there is no

By using computer models, the Purdue scientists calculated that if 60
transgenics were released into a population of 60,000 wild fish, it
would only take 40 generations for the species to become extinct. With fewer
modified fish, the result was the same; it just took longer to get

Advocates of genetic engineering maintain that these fish can be
rendered sterile and isolated from wild populations. Both contentions are

Complete sterilization of all fish is simply not a reality. Nor is it
likely to be. No company has stepped forward to guarantee 100 percent
perfection in sterility. And nothing short of perfection is acceptable, for it only
takes one well-endowed superfish in a population of wild salmon to start the
process of decline.

The same goes for total isolation, another pipe dream. The best
containment systems are expensive enough to discourage even the most
enthusiastic investor. That leaves open-water containment, in netted farms, as
currently practiced in countries such as Norway, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand.

The biotechnology industry, across the board, has a notoriously poor
record when it comes to containing its little Frankensteins, be they pollens,
seeds or fish. So-called netcage aquaculture fits this pattern. In British
Columbia, Canada, environmental groups have filed lawsuits to stop the
practice. They charge that the cages spread disease to wild fish, dump
antibiotics and other drugs into wild habitats, and allow more
aggressive farmed fish to escape and outcompete wild species.

Despite the likely negative impact, the race is on to build bigger,
better fish. The same company is engineering char, flounder, tilapia and trout
with the same boosted characteristics. According to Greenpeace, similar
research efforts are under way in many countries, including China, Taiwan and New
Zealand. Commercial stocking has already begun in Canada, Chile, Cuba
and Scotland.

Supposedly, the rush to engineer new strains of foods ór fish included ó
is a response to world hunger. In this version of events, biotechnology is a
second green revolution. But what is the point of having more food if
poverty prevents vast segments of the human family from sharing in the
bounty? Some 786 million people are officially malnourished. But the
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has recently hinted
that there is in fact no shortage of food globally. Merely a shortage of
equity, accountability and ethics.

In wealthy countries, one can now purchase any food at any time of the
year, while rural villagers in developing nations starve. This is no
coincidence. According to the FAO, hunger in the developing world is
caused in large part by a massive shift from subsistence farming to production
for export, a shift encouraged by international lending institutions and governments.

Modern industrial agriculture, with its high costs for engineered seeds,
petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, accelerates the trend toward
exports. Small-scale subsistence farmers cannot afford to farm, and
abandon the fields to wealthy corporate agribusiness concerns. In India, the
system has reached its logical, if absurd, conclusion: rice and wheat rot in
bulging state storehouses while a third of the population is
undernourished, too poor to buy food staples.

In this market, when nearly a billion people can't afford the basics,
why is there such a rush to engineer new fish? Not to ease world hunger. No,
simply because there is money to be made by selling to wealthy consumers in
industrial nations.

And for this short-term gain, bioengineers the world over are willing to
risk damaging Earth's life system at the most fundamental genetic level.
If we were to apply our ingenuity to designing and nurturing a more
equitable social order, and stabilizing both our numbers and our
material appetites, I believe we would find that we still have enough to
get by, without tampering with the very codes of life.
John Foss
Executive Director
Sustainable Fisheries Alliance
Small Family Fishers Association
2442 NW Market #154
Seattle, WA USA 98107

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