News-men holding fish

Back in the 1960’s Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame allegedly tried to breed chickens with three legs for his restaurants. This was thankfully unsuccessful, well before the potential for genetic modification became apparent. It now seems likely the first ever genetically-modified meat will be a fish, not a chicken and could be hitting the shelves next year if the US Food and Drug Administration gives approval. GM-modified plants have of course been around for some time (although banned by the EU) but this GM salmon is likely to be the first meat to be approved for human consumption. Not surprisingly it’s been called the ‘Frankenfish’ by Friends of the Earth who are mounting a campaign against it.

Scientists have already proved they can grow meat tissue under laboratory conditions.

Sooner or later this was bound to happen and open up a whole raft of ethical and scientific arguments about changing the natural world. Scientists have already proved they can grow meat tissue under laboratory conditions for a disgusting-looking beefburger, but that’s entirely different to creating a new sentient life form before killing and eating it. Just you wait until world religious leaders start debating the ethics let alone the EU bureaucrats.

Hybrid fish is far more suitable for farming as it grows twice as fast as it’s ‘real’ cousin in the ocean.

The ‘AquaAdvantage’ salmon has been created by inserting genes from other fish species into the DNA of an Atlantic salmon. The resulting hybrid fish is far more suitable for farming as it grows twice as fast as it’s ‘real’ cousin in the ocean, promising higher yields and lower costs for salmon farmers. This is of considerable interest to protein-hungry populations like China where plans are afoot for an inland salmon farm on the edge of the Mongolian desert, no less. Just like farmed prawns, you don’t want to know what they’ll be fed on.

The FDA have concluded the GM salmon is ‘as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon’ and does not threaten the environment. Owners of Scottish rivers which have been decimated by sealice infestation from salmon farms would doubtless disagree. Meanwhile the UK salmon farming industry is wondering whether consumers would be prepared to eat GM-modified, farmed salmon.

An FDA approval could persuade UK producers to apply for a production licence, encouraged by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s recent support for GM foods. Government scientists have already endorsed GM plants to increase food crop production but they’ve not yet been brave enough to endorse GM-modified animals.

A ‘YouGov’ poll in June found just 21 per cent of people said they supported the production of GM food, while 35 per cent opposed it.

Some GM plant stuff is already included in livestock feeds but taking the logical next step and running the risk of introducing a nasty like Mad Cow disease directly into the human food chain is a bit too rich. There is also little backing for the move from the public. A ‘YouGov’ poll in June found just 21 per cent of people said they supported the production of GM food, while 35 per cent opposed it. And that was without their being asked if they would make a distinction between GM-modified plants and animals.

The ‘AquaAdvantage’ salmon has been developed by a Canadian Company called AquaBounty. Whilst the Company insists it will only produce sterile, female fish several campaigners who’ve watched ‘Jurassic Park’ point out escapes are inevitable and will place wild stocks under threat. Salmon can – believe it or not – change sex when put under stress e.g. raised in a cage. Campaigners are suggesting it would be better to properly-manage the stocks of wild salmon but developing countries who need cheap protein and don’t have wild salmon don’t give a stuff.

FoE have pointed out that approval will ‘set a precedent for other genetically-engineered animals, including cows, chickens and pigs, to enter our food system’ and are urging supermarkets to pledge for only GM-free seafood. Kroger, owner of several US supermarket chains, have not committed so are being targeted by FoE supporters tweeting about their products.

FoE have some unlikely supporters in Alaska as well. Apart from exporting lots of lovely oil and natural gas their Alaskan neighbours have an important commercial and recreational salmon fishing industry. Alaskan US Senators have been listening to sceptical scientists who maintain escapees will interbreed with wild stocks and then scoff all the young wild salmon in the ecosystem. Senator Mark Begich has said ‘Well-managed, wild salmon are one of our nation’s richest resources and these fish pose a real risk to ocean ecosystems’. He must have been talking to the same Scottish Ghillie who gave me an hour-long lecture on the evils of salmon farming.

The fun of salmon fishing is trying to outwit a wary natural predator, not simply haul in an overdeveloped hybrid so I’m sympathetic. This years’ Company fishing competition was the usual catalogue of ones that got away, apart from Peter Naylor who smugly landed a 38lb’er.

When I was about six years old the first supermarket opened in my home town. I can still remember my parents curiosity and our first visit to this self-service heaven. Also how a salesgirl in the Macfisheries shop (remember them?) told me fish had fingers just like mine, so cutting them off was cruel. I played right into her hands and insisted my parents continued to buy whole fresh fish from Macfisheries and not frozen fish fingers from the supermarket. Not that it helped Macfisheries, who went belly-up in the 1970’s.

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