Whitehall funds hush-hush production of GM fish

By Severin Carrell and Geoffrey Lean

01 April 2001


Three government ministries are financing the development of genetically modified fish for the dinner table, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

They have already spent 2.6m on unpublicised British research to create fast-growing fish for human consumption despite warnings from official advisers that these will inevitably interbreed with wild species, with incalculable consequences. A further 457,000 has been spent by the European Commission in Britain.

The research focuses on fish such as carp and tilapia, a staple in Asia which is becoming increasingly popular in Britain. But the techniques will be soon applied to widely eaten species such as salmon and cod.

The news comes at a time when consumers are increasingly turning to fish, as they become more anxious about the safety of meat. The research is being partly financed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already under heavy attack for its bungling of the foot and mouth outbreak.

It has funded several projects to develop GM fish, but yesterday refused to answer detailed questions on its research despite repeated promises of openness by the minister, Nick Brown.

The biggest spender is Clare Short's Department for International Development, which has given at least 2m to at least six projects to develop GM carp and tilapia in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Africa.

Ms Short yesterday told the IoS that she wanted to help poor countries gain access to genetic technologies being exploited in the West. "It would be wrong to block research which might bring real benefits to the poor" she said. "It is not right for Western governments and pressure groups to decide for them."

The third ministry is the Department of Trade and Industry, which has spent at least 329,000 on research on carp, salmon, goldfish and zebra fish via the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The EC has funded tilapia programmes at Southampton University.

The IoS revelation will cause a new storm over Britain's food. Alan Simpson, a senior Labour MP, said: "Ministers have failed to learn the lessons of BSE and foot and mouth."

A source close to the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the official GM watchdog, said he was very concerned. "Releasing transgenic native specimens would tend to be very, very high risk. One can be absolutely certain that GM farmed salmon and trout put in sea cages would escape, and in large numbers."

Kevin Dunion, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, added: "If these GM fish crossbreed with natural stocks, no one knows what the ultimate consequence will be"

The research includes projects at Southampton and Stirling universities to create fast- growing strains of tilapia, based in part on controversial techniques developed by a US company to create GM salmon for fish farming. A/F Protein has applied for permission to market a salmon which grows four to six times faster than normal and claims to have orders for 15 million eggs of the modified fish.

The Southampton project has also involved trials of tilapia in Hungary. The fish are supposed to be sterilised to prevent breeding with their natural cousins, but Professor Neil Maclean admits that only 95 per cent were successfully neutered and that it was impossible to guarantee total sterility. But, he insisted: "Transgenic fish programmes will be a great improvement on the current exploitation of Atlantic salmon,".

Programmes also include:

* An 861,00 DFID project led by Stirling's institute of aquaculture, and the University of Wales, Swansea, to "genetically improve" carp, with scientists and governments in Bangla-desh, India, and Vietnam

* Research on carp, salmon, goldfish and zebra fish at Southampton, Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities

* A Maff project at Southampton to create disease resistance in zebra fish and tilapia.

* A 300,000 DFID project at Southampton to produce "improved reversibly sterile" tilapia.