Why the worry about GM salmon?

It is hardly surprising that politicians from Alaska and Washington State are against the production of genetically modified (GM) salmon for human consumption. After all the north-west coast of the USA is one of the world’s largest salmon producing areas and voters there would hardly be happy if their Congressmen were not seen to be opposing such a move.

But was the recent decision by the US House of Representatives to prohibit the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from giving its approval a purely political gesture, or a genuine response against a technology which could dramatically reduce the time it takes salmon to reach market size?

With words such as ‘Frankenfish’ being bandied about it seems as though it was the former, but the vote could still be enough to seriously delay what could, and should, be an inevitable step towards increasing the supply of seafood for human consumption.

But this is only the latest instance of preventing an increase in the supply of seafood for human consumption to hit the headlines this year. The practice of throwing back into the sea perfectly edible fish because of European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) rules was highlighted on British television. It is to be hoped that Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki has the clout to stop this ludicrous process, although it will not be surprising if she bows to political pressure and fails to halt it completely when the new CFP proposals are announced.

Then there was the decision by the World Wildlife Fund, a hitherto highly respected environmental organization, to plunge a knife into the Vietnamese pangasius industry. Pangasius is a very popular alternative ‘whitefish’ species which can be produced, and sold, in great quantities very cheaply.

It seems as though any method to produce more fish for human consumption is immediately stamped on by various vested interests.

Yet the world is rapidly running out of food. It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that basic foodstuffs are becoming scarcer and consequently more expensive. Why is this happening? Is it just some temporary blip which will shortly be ironed out?

Respected scientists don’t think so – and probably most of the world’s leaders don’t either, although they wouldn’t publicly admit it. The United Nations recently projected that the world’s population will increase to 10 billion people by the end of this century, 3 billion more than there are today. This projection means that food production may need to double by later in this century.

But the world is already short of food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that there were 925 million hungry people last year and this year the World Bank has estimated that the number will rise to 940 million.

Where will the food come from to feed these people and those being born in increasing numbers? Not from agriculture according to a recent article in The New York Times. The newspaper states that farm output is already failing to keep up with demand caused by a growing population coupled with the rising affluence in once poor countries. Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories – wheat, rice, corn and soybeans – has outstripped production for much of the past decade with some grains doubling in price since 2007.

Global warming is said to have caused weather disasters such as floods in the USA, drought in Australia, and massive heat waves in Europe and Russia. And instances of abnormal weather which hit agricultural output are increasing.

It is unlikely that seafood industry can do much to help ease the current food shortage, but anything to increase output would undoubtedly help. The US Senate has not yet given a ruling on the FDA approving GM salmon for human consumption. Will there be one very small step in enabling fish production to increase? It is probably better not to bank on it.

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