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'Frankenfish': food's future

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Canadian authorities recently approved commercial scale production of genetically modified (GM) salmon eggs. The fish that they become cannot yet be sold to the public as food, but it is intended that day will come.

The fish are Atlantic salmon containing an extra gene from Chinook salmon. The gene enables them to grow twice as fast as non-GM salmon.

Fish farming has a bright future. Health experts recommend we eat more fish to reduce heart disease and obesity. Wild fisheries cannot sustain the catch levels needed to meet growing demand, so it makes eminent sense to commercially farm them.

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But fish farming is not something that just anyone can do. Like any type of farming, economic viability requires efficiency. Indeed, in its early days fish farmers lost a lot of money as they struggled to understand the variables and to drive down costs to allow them to compete with wild fisheries.

Through improved knowledge and technology, production costs are now at a point where quite a range of species can be profitably farmed. But fish farms also compete with each other, both domestically and internationally, just like farms that grow soybeans, cattle or carrots. So there is never any letup in the quest for increased productivity.

Besides saving wild fisheries, more efficient fish farms can have other environmental benefits too. Because excreta from fish farms are a source of pollution in coastal waters, those with greater feed conversion efficiency will utilise less feed, leading to less waste and less excreta for each tonne of fish produced.

In the future, fish may be genetically modified to reduce the environmental impact of their excreta. I mention this because it is already a reality with pigs. A strain of pigs in Canada has been engineered with genetic material from a mouse to reduce phosphorous in its faeces.

Known as the Enviropig, these pigs excrete 20-60 percent less phosphorus than normal pigs. Phosphorus in piggery waste can be quite a problem if it leaches into ponds, streams, and rivers because it stimulates increased algal growth and has other adverse effects.

Unfortunately for those concerned with the health of waterways, anti-GM activists mounted such a fierce campaign against the Enviropig that the program was halted prior to commercialisation. Its major commercial supporter withdrew support in 2012 and the University of Guelph killed the pigs, from the 10th generation of the project, when it couldn't find a new partner to fund the project.

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Had the Enviropig made it onto the market, it would have become the first genetically engineered animal in the food system. The fast-growing salmon may now have that honour.

Already the opponents are preparing to prevent that though. The term "frankenfish" is being bandied about and there are wild claims that the fish will escape fish farms and endanger wild Atlantic salmon. The claim of insufficient testing is being made, a claim that is still made today despite genetically modified crops being grown commercially for 20 years.

There is an entire industry fixated on preventing food from genetically modified sources from reaching our plates. Australia's own veteran anti-GM campaigner, Bob Phelps, has made a career of it for more than 20 years. The mere mention of genetic modification is sufficient, without needing to know more, to prompt some people to froth at the mouth.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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