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GM in Aquaculture

08 June 2015

The use of genetically modified organisms in the food industry is a highly controversial topic. In this article, for TheFishSite, Sam Andrews discusses the sustainability aspects of GM in aquaculture but also the questions around what negative effects GM fish could have on wild stocks.

Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years with selective breeding. Since the 1970s we have been able to modify DNA, creating cisgenic (adding recombinant DNA from the same or similar species) and transgenic (adding recombinant DNA from a another species with which the organism can’t naturally breed with) species.

In the public domain, genetically modified organisms for use in the food industry is a highly controversial topic.

On one side, there are concerns surrounding their potential impacts to both human and environmental health. On the other, there are those who argue that the use of GMOs in aquaculture isn’t just of benefit to the industry, but for food security and even with regard to reducing our impacts on the oceans.

In industrialised aquaculture salmon is the leader in terms of net production. Salmon, like many of the species preferred in western diets, are carnivorous fish. Feeding them requires fish, which tends to come from wild populations.

Given concerns surrounding global exploitation on levels of wild marine species and projected growth in aquaculture, this practice is somewhat unsustainable.

GM may reduce dependency on wild populations for feed and, with forage fish supplies often forming ‘boom and bust’ cycles, alternate feed sources could bring stability for aquaculturalists.

Created by the biotech company Aqua Bounty Technologies, AquAdvantage® salmon contains a growth hormone from chinook salmon and a promoter from an antifreeze gene found in ocean pout, enabling AquAdvantage® salmon to grow year round, not just seasonally. Growth time to marketable size is reduced from around three years to just eighteen months, reducing the amount of feed required.

Sourcing alternative food sources for carnivorous fish is another option for reducing dependency on wild populations. Whilst some aquaculturalists have moved towards a vegetarian diet for their salmon, work by researchers such as Kelly Weaver (University of Miami) suggests that their omega-3 content is severely reduced.

Alternatively, Stirling University’s Mónica Betancor has created genetically modified camelina plants that can produce eicosapentaenoic acid - one of the two omega-3 nutrients that are of benefit to human health – in their seeds. By adding oil extracted from the plants to fish feed, omega-3 was replenished whilst feed efficiency, growth rates, and fish health remained unaffected.

GM and Disease

As with all forms of intensive farming, disease has been a long-running issue in aquaculture, and one that is largely tackled with vaccines and antibiotics. But their use is not without cost to aquaculturalists, and the overuse of antibiotics in particular is an area of public concern. Research into disease-resistant GM fish may offer a way to reduce antibiotic and vaccination loads.

For example, research conducted by Weifeng Mao (Chinese Academy of Sciences) has resulted in a transgenic grass carp with enhanced immunity to Aeromonas hydrophila infection, an opportunistic pathogen that can cause tail/fin rot, ulcers, and haemorrhagic septicaemia.

Reducing disease-risk is not the only way in which farmed species are being bolstered, with work being done to increase resistance to stress and thermal tolerance, typically with the aim of producing warm water fish that can be farmed in colder waters.

GM Escapes

Unfortunately, we do not really know what the long-term impacts to wild populations could be, nor to the wider ecosystem, in terms of GM escapees. A precautionary approach to GMOs in aquaculture is warranted, and indeed possible. For example, to minimise the risk of interbreeding with wild species, one could ensure that GM species are sterile (e.g. triploid).

Indeed, Aqua Bounty Technologies claim their salmon is sterile, and thus the risk of breeding with wild populations is minimal (although 100% sterility cannot be ensured). However, this approach does not deal with the risk of GM individuals outcompeting their wild counterparts.

In laboratory experiments conducted at Memorial University Newfoundland, hybrid offspring from GM salmon and wild brown trout (closely related species that are known to interbreed in the wild) were able to outcompete both GM and wild salmon for food, resulting in stunted growth for the salmon.

Whether this could occur to such a scale as to cause problems for wild populations outside a lab is questionable, as is the breeding capacity of hybrids. Escapees are well documented, but the volume of escapism that would be sufficient to cause long-term damage is unclear. Arguably, the safest, albeit more costly, solution would be to prevent escapees in the first place by using land-based closed-containment systems.

Whilst such steps may reduce environmental risk, they do little to allay fears regarding risk to human health - and indeed, the health of the farmed animals themselves. As with environmental risk, there is currently still a lack of research able to demonstrate the risks to human/animal health. Whether this is because of the paucity of studies in the area, or because there really are no risks, is yet to be resolved. Until such time as these wider issues are addressed, public concern may prove an obstacle for widespread industry implementation.

June 2015

Sam Andrews

Sam Andrews
Freelance journalist

Samantha is a marine conservation biologist/ecologist. She holds an MSc in Marine Environmental Management, an Advanced Graduate Diploma (3/4 of a Masters) in Fisheries Management, and is currently undertaking a PhD focusing on marine spatial management for conservation and sustainable ocean use. She has worked closely alongside Government, NGOs, and the fishing industry to help improve the ways in which we interact with the ocean. When she is not doing science, she works as a marine science communicator.

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