Once upon a time, twenty years ago, in a far away place called Newfoundland, a magician was practicing his spells. He was a rather forgetful magician and one night he left a fish in one of his tanks by mistake. The tank froze completely over, with the fish still in it!!! Fortunately (and to the magicians surprise) the fish survived as he was a flounder, and was well adapted to the icy waters surrounding this far away land!
A Fairy Tale
Rather than apologize to the flounder, the magician spent the next few years cutting him up- along with many of its friends and relatives- until he and his fellow magicians found the tiny part of the fish, called a gene, which allowed the flounder to survive freezing over.
The magicians then tried to put this tiny piece of flounder, called a gene, into a salmon, so that the salmon could live in icy waters like the flounder. Now these gene spells were rather new, and as we know magicians are forgetful and make mistakes, just like everyone else! These magicians could send the flounder gene flying magically into the salmon, but they couldn’t control where it landed! So one day, the flounder gene flew into the salmon, went whizzing round and round and crashed into the salmon’s growth hormone by mistake – CAAASSSploshhhhhh!
Rather than apologize to the fish, the magicians noticed that it began to grow bigger and bigger- much faster than any salmon they had ever seen! ‘We’re rich!’ said the head magician! ‘Think of all the money we can make!!’
The magicians went off and patented their new fish, so nobody else could make salmon grow as fast. They went to Waltham, Mass., in the United States, where everyone loves companies, and they set up a company called A/F Protein and to this day A/F Protein is the biggest corporation owning and patenting GE fish. They have up 20 000 super salmon swimming in endless circles in 136 tanks , waiting for the governments of Canada (where they grow the fish) and the US (where they take their money) to allow them to sell their salmon to salmon farmers. There are many rumors that this will happen in the next year ! And these fish will be allowed out of their tanks and into all the waters of the world.
Now these gene spells were rather new, and as we know magicians are forgetful and make mistakes…
The Moral of the Story
a) The magician’s unplanned ‘luck’ in the story highlights the uncertainty of the whole GE process. Fish frequently appear with unexpected deformities. For example, when details of deformities produced by King Salmon were leaked from secret documents in New Zealand the company came under huge pressure from the public and media. Even the Government was preparing for an Inquiry when the company killed all of its GE fish and suspended its research. Associated Press, (2000).
Another example of the uncertainty of GE is provided by Dr. Robert Devlin, a Canadian Government scientist and world authority on GE, the appearance of unexpected, unpredictable results from GE ‘…was one of the things which made me wake up.’ (quoted in Schmidt, 1999). He now feels the risks associated with GE aquaculture cannot possibly be calculated! (Golden, 2000).
b) Whilst the magician began simply making spells, he ended up making money and this is the central feature of the ‘science’ of GE, it is run and controlled by Multi-National Corporations!
Governments are key lobbyists for the GE industry, providing $billions in subsidies each year! Whilst Devlin has refused numerous lucrative offers from MNC’s, the Canadian Government is currently considering handing over its research operations to the private sector. (Schmidt, 1999)
c) The magician’s lack of concern for the fish in the story should make us wary of their lack of respect and care for the many other species that may be the intended and unintended victims of GE. While the range of risks posed by GE is huge, including social, cultural, human health and animal rights issues, I focus here on ecological risks:
a) So called ‘Conventional’, (non-GE) fish farming is already causing huge ecological problems – The pesticides, drugs and food given to farmed fish to keep them alive in confined pens ends up being washed into surrounding aquatic ecosystems.
b) Escapees – In British Columbia, Canada alone, over 1 Million fish have escaped from farms in the last decade. They take disease into the wild fish populations, as well as out competing with them directly by eating their food- and even wild salmon eggs and parr!
In some Scottish rivers, wild salmon populations have declined by 90% since intensive farming began! (Khoo, 2000). Since 1970 the Atlantic Salmon population has declined from 1.5 million to 350 000! GE will massively increase ecological risks as GE fish are often bigger, more aggressive, eat more and lay more eggs (Muir and Howard, 1999).
c) Trojan GENE – research by two US scientists, Muir and Howard illustrates how the unforeseen risks associated with GE are likely to be the most serious! Whilst many corporate geneticists have claimed GE escapees will not out compete their wild counterparts as they are slower and less well adapted to natural conditions, Muir and Howard found that just 60 GE fish introduced into a stable wild population of 60 000 could lead to complete extinction in 40 generations! (Muir and Howard, 1999).
The larger male GE fish obtained mating advantage through greater size. This led to the rapid spread of GE fish throughout the population. However, 70% of the GE fish failed to live to sexual maturity, another unintended consequence of GE. All fish eventually became extinct as the GE gene spread throughout the population and then ensured population decline as 70% died before reproducing! Muir and Howard have called this the ‘Trojan Gene Effect’.
Governments are key lobbyists for the GE industry, providing $billions in subsidies each year!
Read here tomorrow for the fifth and final article in this series.