The Canadian government has approved the commercial production of GM salmon eggs, making it the first government to do this for any GM food animal. This is not good news, and I think the Canadian government knows it.
Firsts in many fields are often publicly celebrated by governments, keen to show themselves as world leading. But rather than fanfare, the Guardian says the decision was buried in an official paper.
Why were the Canadian authorities not trumpeting this very newsworthy story to the press?
GM animals are a controversial issue, with much debate over the ethics, environmental and animal welfare implications of the practice. I am not as shy as the Canadian government when it comes to talking about the Genetic Modification of animals. It is wrong.
Why? Well not for some abstract reason, although I think it is perfectly valid to argue that you are opposed to GM animals on moral grounds and I do find it morally unacceptable that we feel we can play with the lives of sentient beings in this way just to ensure the supply of cheap animal products.
GM is not some squeaky clean, painless science, it does involve suffering for some of the animals involved, with invasive procedures and early death part of the package. The salmon in question are being touted as growing twice as fast as the natural fish. Growth enhancement is one of several reasons given for genetic modification of farm animals.
While I do not know the results of the company in question so cannot comment on this particular case, speaking about GM in general, enhancing growth rates can cause harmful side-effects. In farmed fish we have seen breathing difficulties, reduced swimming ability and reduced tolerance to disease. Any escaping into the wild could have a serious negative effect on wild fish stocks.
Scientists are also trying to increase disease resistance. What could be wrong with that? Well, we should be going after the cause of these diseases. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation stresses that industrial livestock production plays an important part in the emergence and spread of diseases. Also, the European Medicines Agency has said that in animal production systems with a high density of animals, the development and spread of infectious diseases is favoured.
We have pushed animals to their limits, cramming them into sheds in stressful environments, making them more susceptible to disease, so our reaction is to develop a solution that means we can push them beyond their natural limits. We need to stop farming against nature.
Another is looking at producing animals that have lower levels of saturated fats and higher Omega 3 fatty acids. But reduced levels of saturated fat and improved levels of omega-3 fatty acids can be achieved by replacing factory farmed chicken and grain-fed beef with free range chicken and pasture-fed beef.
We do not need GM farm animals, we need to stop overeating meat and milk and get the animals that produce them back on the land, where they are less susceptible to the development and spread of infectious diseases. And we do not need GM fish either.
The Food and Drug Administration in the United States is expected to make a decision on the sale of GM salmon in the near future. It is likely they will follow suit.
EU politicians will meet this week to discuss the issue and I for one will be following their progress closely. Let's hope they are not as keen as the Canadian government to make the potentially disastrous error of taking a step that could pave the way for GM animals to enter our food chain.