Consuming salmon –choosing between antibiotics and genetic engineering
When it comes to farmed salmon, the news coming out of the United States isn't good. For one, large retail chains are taking farmed salmon off the shelves as the fish have been subject to excessive amounts of antibiotics. At the same time, genetically modified salmon has just been approved for sale and consumption to the general public.
The world's oceans are overfished, and the demand for fish is high, leading to a boom in the fish farming industry. Fish farming in the oceans, called ocean aquaculture, is extremely lucrative but competition is great. Here, processes are streamlined, more fish are cramped into the pens and fish food is laded with chemicals and hormones to make the fish grow faster and bigger.
Farmed fish subject to intolerable living conditions
To maximise profits, farm operators try to increase the density of fish – even going beyond a reasonable level without increasing the space allocation. Not only does this create distress and intolerable living conditions for the fish, it also increases the risk of the spread of diseases and parasites.
Chile is the world's second largest producer of farmed salmon. In 2008, to fight and prevent disease in their fish stocks, Chilean farmers used almost 350 times more antibiotics than Norway, the world's largest producer.
Although using antibiotics to fatten animals is not new, it carries the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both the animals and the people who subsequently consume them. Large retail chains in the US have acknowledged the dangers and have taken the antibiotic-treated salmon from their stores, either partially or completely.
However, on a related matter, we now have the ability to modify salmon through genetic engineering. The US Food and Drug Administration has recently approved a genetically engineered salmon as fit for public sale and consumption – without any legal requirement for it to be labelled as such. Called AquAdvantage Salmon, this salmon grows faster and larger than normal salmon; there is already strong opposition against it in the United States, from environmental groups as well as conventional fish farmers. Labelled by some as “Frankenfish”, the fish is the first genetically modified animal in the US to be deemed fit for human consumption.
The company responsible for the fish, AquaBounty Technologies from Massachusetts, currently raises the AquAdvantage Salmon in Panama using fish eggs from Canada. Opponents have expressed fears that the fish may escape into the wild and multiply.
For now, the question of whether and when AquAdvantage Salmon would eventually find its way on the consumers' plate is uncertain. In any case, the import of genetically modified foods is one of the issues on the agenda in the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US.
Perils of fish farming in the ocean
A danger of ocean aquaculture comes about if the farmed fish escape; they carry with them diseases, parasites and genetic abnormalities resulting from the stress of living in confined spaces and being fed with antibiotic- and hormone-laden feed. There is also evidence of sea lice that have grown resistant to traditional antibiotics, developing into “super lice” that can infect both the captive and wild fish populations.
The increasing prevalence of ocean aquaculture pose a threat not only on our health and ecosystems, but also for the fishing industry in general. This is the viewpoint held by the US organisation Food & Water Watch, calling the industry “dirty”' and “costly”. More details on about the risks of ocean aquaculture is found in the organisation's report (pdf).