Aquaculture’s hammer: a tool for the future

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Part I – There is nothing to fear

Genetic engineering, and the countless accomplishments achieved using this technology, is currently ranked among the three most hotly debated topics in the public sphere. And, despite the overwhelming evidence of the advantages, safety, and benefits of using genetic engineering, the public perception is swayed into the illogical and unreasonable response of fear and loathing for anything associated with the technology.

As a scientist, I find I am constantly trying to educate the public on the facts – climate change is real and happening before our eyes, vaccines have absolutely nothing to do with the incidence of autism, and when you eat a GMO the genes are not transferred into your DNA. The public sphere is so saturated with illegitimate and nonsensical information that it is no wonder that citizens are concerned. How does the average civilian discern between the real information and the junk science lurking behind the smiling faces of a non-profit organization? More than ever, the onus is on those in the position to know better – the geneticists, the molecular biologists – to extend the truth so that global societies can continue to benefit from the magnificent technology that we have created.

For example, many do not know that the first-ever FDA approval of a GMO was in 1982, when a bacterium was engineered to produce human insulin, alleviating the need for processing the protein from the pancreas of slaughtered livestock, which in the past led to impure preparations, allergies, and extreme cost for the diabetic. Using the exact same technology in 1995, a Hawaiian scientist developed the first genetically modified crop – a papaya resistant to ring-spot virus, which ultimately rescued an entire region of small farmers from bankruptcy. Seeds were distributed to farmers at-cost, and today the Rainbow Papaya is regarded as the saviour of the industry in Hawaii, where it remains the most cultivated variety.

Over the last 20 years, scientists have created a tremendous toolbox and devised countless solutions to real human problems. Yet, many of these technologies are not deployed because we have let misguided fears shape a system where the best solution is often legally and practically impossible. Currently, at least 8 crops in the US are genetically engineered for improved performance, including alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybean, squash and sugar beet. Just last month, in Canada, the first GMO potato (that resists bruising and produces less acrylamide – a carcinogen – when fried) has been approved for human consumption.

We all agree that better medicine and successful farmers are a positive force for the world. There is no fundamental reason to feel opposed to genetic technologies. For over 25 years, genetically engineered crops have proven their utility, and continue to do so without a single substantiated case of harm to people. Solving problems like disease resistance, production of high quality medicines, or foods destined to serve the malnourished, we need to have all of the tools on the table. Researchers simply need the best utility belt. Our challenge is to create new, safe and powerful technologies that can solve problems for people.

Part II – Feeding the world requires all the tools 

Genetic modification is a natural process that has been happening for billions of years – it is one way of increasing biodiversity in organisms so that they may obtain new adaptations to changing environments, predators, food sources, etc.

Mimicking nature, people have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years by selective breeding, cloning and cross-breeding – from the wild boar, to the wolf, to the aurochs – humans have unknowingly been playing with the genetic code since the times of the Ancient Greeks. With the advent of biotechnology, what we can now use genetic techniques to achieve the same result in a fraction of the time, and in a much safer and more controlled environment.

For the purposes of growing food, we can employ this technology to vastly improve performance, including heightened nutritional qualities, increased yield, more efficient use of water or fertilizer, tolerance to environmental stresses, disease resistance or increased growth.

Genetically engineered crops are subjected to scrutiny for safety to people and the environment, and research has shown that GE crops present no new health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding. However, applying the same technology to a fish has been met with considerable repulsion and opposition.

Pound for pound, the recently approved GE salmon (AquAdvantage) from AquaBounty Technologies Inc. is the most environmentally sustainable salmon available for production. Compared to non-GE Atlantic salmon, it reaches market size in about half the time with a more efficient feed conversion rate, and is grown entirely on land. Furthermore, rigorous containment measures such as biological (e.g., the fish are sterile) and physical (e.g., redundant layers of netting, concrete walls, and microfilters) barriers ensure these fish will never see the light of day.

Like any application of genetic engineering, the GE salmon will provide significant benefit to society. It will enable the building of land-based recirculation farms close to consumer markets, reducing transportation and the associated carbon footprint. It also enables the growth of a domestic salmon farming industry that is well regulated with respect to food safety, is traceable, and is environmentally sustainable.

Unfortunately, once something negative is purported by the media, reversing the opinions of the public is a long hard and uphill battle. Since the first announcement of the GE fish, there have been an unwavering and steady stream of claims that the fish pose an environmental and human health danger. These claims have been tirelessly refuted by scientific studies, and world-renowned scientists have publicly supported the GE salmon.

Negative accusations are not restricted to the GE salmon – these unsubstantiated accusations are directed against the technology of genetic engineering. In a society where we stand to benefit tremendously from the significant advancements in science and technology, why is there such a fear and loathing response by the public? People fear what they don’t understand, and what is clear from the nature of the claims, is that people do not understand genetic engineering.

Experts agree that the gap in the demand and supply for fish must be bridged by aquaculture – whether that be ocean-grown salmon, land-based closed containment-grown rainbow trout, or pond-grown tilapia. There is not one single answer to feed the planet, nor one single technology. The aquaculture “tool-belt” is as diverse as it is dynamic, and through continuous research and innovation the industry will – and needs to – continuously evolve. The AquAdvantage salmon stands to provide land-based aquaculture with a sustainable and economical tool.

A longer version of the article was published in Fish Farming Expert.