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When the first genetically modified animal fillet arrives at the neighborhood supermarket, chances are it will be neither beef nor chicken.
It will be salmon.
Or, arguably, supersalmon: fish that grow from zero to 10 pounds in just 14 months - half the normal time.
They will look and taste like any farmed salmon, says a Massachusetts company that proposes to sell them. They will be essentially identical to those packaged fillets that sell for $5 a pound or so.
The difference will be in the salmon's invisible genetic code and in the quite-visible profit margins back at the fish farm.
Whether this is good news or bad is just one of the global issues being bandied about on Seattle's streets and in meeting rooms during this week's World Trade Organization (WTO) conference.
Supporters call it the "blue revolution," a triumph of genetic engineering that promises to help feed the world while reducing pressure on depleted fish populations.
Critics warn against what they call "Frankenfish," a biological disaster comparable to nuclear energy or toxic wastes. All the environmental risks surrounding salmon farms - pollution from wastes, escaped fish breeding with wild fish - are compounded by genetic engineering, they say.
"We'll be in the streets trying to draw attention to the risks of genetically altered foods," says Mark Ritchie of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota.
And while the debate rages, the key decision lies with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which must decide whether to allow so-called transgenic salmon on the U.S. market, perhaps as soon as 2001.
Supersalmon genetics were discovered somewhat by accident about 20 years ago, when a researcher in Newfoundland froze a tank full of flounder. To his amazement, the fish survived.
Further research led to a protein that prevents flounder and other fish from freezing, a genetic adaptation to the icy waters off Canada.
The 'antifreeze' gene
As gene-splicing techniques were developed, Canadian scientists located the "antifreeze" gene. Then they attempted to introduce that gene into Atlantic salmon in hopes that salmon farms could be developed in colder waters.
The antifreeze splicing was not perfected, but the scientists discovered the same gene can be used to control growth. The genetic material is injected into salmon eggs, a process that occurs under a microscope. It alters the way the fish's growth hormones work, enabling those hormones to be produced by the liver as well as the pituitary gland. That change greatly accelerates growth - by up to 600 percent in the early months and 200 percent overall.
That discovery has been patented by Canadian institutions where the discovery was made. The two scientists, Garth Fletcher of Newfoundland and Choy Hew, now of Singapore, are the co-founders of A/F Protein, based in Waltham, Mass.
During the past seven years, that company's technicians have perfected the genetic technique, employing it successfully with trout, tilapia and other fish as well as salmon.
Fast-growing genetic versions of chinook salmon, pride of the Pacific Northwest, are coming close behind the Atlantics, says Elliot Entis, president of A/F Protein.
And about 10,000 to 20,000 of the supersize Atlantics are swimming in tanks in Eastern Canada, awaiting FDA approval, Entis says.
For genetic engineers, fish have several advantages over mammals or other animals. A spawning female Atlantic salmon will produce 5,000 to 15,000 eggs. And because fish eggs don't have to be carried by a mother, the task of implanting and cultivating fish in captivity is greatly simplified.
The implant will be successful in only a small proportion of the fish, Entis says - perhaps 20 to 30 of 10,000.
"But those fish become progenitors. The normal genetics take over. You follow up with crossbreeding, watching to see what works."
A new race of fish
Several generations later, you have created a new race of fish, with potentially huge economic implications.
From Puget Sound to the coasts of Maine and Norway, salmon farms are in trouble. Wholesale prices have dropped to around $2 a pound while costs and controversy have mounted. Dozens of farms have gone bankrupt.
By switching to fast-growing supersalmon, fish farmers can double their production while greatly reducing their feed costs per pound of fish produced. Entis predicts higher profits and lower prices at the fish market.
But there is likely to be an equivalent increase in controversy.
"There are no free lunches," says Ritchie, the Minnesota critic. "The idea that there is always a technological fix has become a pattern. We saw it in nuclear energy and now in transgenic technology."
Fish are prime targets for genetic engineering in part because seafood has traditionally been underregulated, he says. Witness the repeated cases of overfishing around the globe.
"There has been no testing of transgenic foods," Ritchie says. "No laboratory tests with rats and primates. Why are they so unwilling to test these products?"
Entis argues that there is nothing to test. His company's fish are indistinguishable from normal farm salmon, he says. Even the level of growth hormone is essentially the same. The difference is not the amount of growth hormone but in how that hormone is converted into actual growth.
Critics also warn that farmed fish consume vast amounts of fish food, and that they damage the natural ecosystem by producing unnatural concentrations of wastes, disease and antibiotics.
Fletcher, the Canadian scientist, argues that genetic engineering holds promise for improving fish in other ways, such as increasing resistance to disease. Other scientists hope to use transgenic food to help vaccinate people against diseases.
The greatest fear is that farmed fish will escape from their floating pens and breed with wild fish or prey on them.
"They're creating very, very large fish that will become predators of other fish," Fletcher says. "There has been no research into the implications of farmed fish as alien species, which already are considered a major cause of endangered species."
Those fears were heightened earlier this year when juvenile Atlantic salmon were found in a Vancouver Island river, suggesting that escaped salmon had successfully reproduced.
Entis concedes that it is impossible to prove that there is no risk in farmed salmon.
"But we have reason to believe that the risk is exceedingly low," he says.
Basic genetics suggests that escaped fish are highly unlikely to survive in the wild beyond one generation, he says.
"Salmon have existed for millions of years. In the process of evolution, many genetic mutations occur, but the odds of any one mutation being successful in nature are very, very small."
Still, to be absolutely safe, transgenic salmon also are rendered sterile, Entis explains, so they cannot reproduce in the wild.
Sterilization should answer the greatest concerns over salmon farms, says Fred Utter, a fish geneticist at the University of Washington. "If these fish are sterilized, the issues are confined to the immediate generation."
But that is unlikely to satisfy the critics.
Scott Cameron, a biologist and assistant dean at Washington State University in Vancouver, watches from the sidelines, wondering how to resolve a fundamental clash between technology and ethics, between science and politics.
Humanity faces some hard numbers, he says. "In the past 25 years, we have doubled the world's food supply using a combination of technologies that include genetics. And we need to double it again in the next 25."
A single gene used in wheat is credited with feeding 100 million people and has affected a quarter of the world's food supply, Cameron says. Similar technology has been applied to soybeans, corn and other grains.
And now fish.
"I hear both sides of this debate, and I find I have one foot on the boat, the other on the shore," Cameron says. "But I keep coming back to the same question: How do we feed all those people? If not biotechnology, then how are we going to do this?"
Ross Anderson's phone-message number is 206-464-2061.
ecoglobe's viewpoint: The "food for the world" argument is flawed. Higher crop or fish output will require an equivalent higher nutrient input. It is an emotive argument that denies all other environmental problems. And even if output could be increased, for how long can we continue to grow - on a planet that has physical limits, runs out of resources and is increasingly polluted?
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(2 December 1999)
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