Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

GM Fish As Controversial As Biotech Plants

by Anil Netto

on recent GM controversy
(IPS) -- As a rising demand for fish puts pressure on global supply, more developing nations are turning to aquaculture or farmed fish.

But like other farmed animals and crops, farmed fish has also become a target for controversial genetic tinkering -- and, ultimately, for ownership claims on genetically "improved" breeds.

Genetically modified (GM) rainbow trout, carp, tilapia and abalone are now being developed around the world. Cuba, for instance, is involved in GM tilapia.

But since GM food has been suffering setbacks in the market because of concerns about safety, scientists have also been stepping up efforts to produce genetically improved breeds of fish.

Saying that their works has nothing to do with GM, these scientists use biotechnology means such as sex manipulation, polyploidy, hybridization and genetic changes.

These also make the fish more amenable to patenting than the more traditional selective breeding, say some researchers. "The trend towards the patenting of fish genetic resources, and even the patenting of new breeds of fish is accelerating," observed researcher Anna Rosa Martinez, in a study commissioned by the Chennai- and Brussels-based International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF).

The Barcelona-based researcher noted that the expectations of long-term productivity increases from the use of fish genetic resources have led to the extension of property rights over them -- in a process that parallels that of plant genetic resources for agriculture.

Some of the other implications of farmed fish also raise ethical concerns, activists say. These include the potential loss of biodiversity, the threat of contamination of wild fish by farmed fish, and the outbreak of disease.

Many also worry about whether genetic research would lead to the patenting of strains of genetically improved fish and the transfer of "ownership" or commercial rights of such fish from the public to the private domain.

Much attention has focused on a species of fish known as tilapia, which is widely regarded as ideal for breeding. They grow fast, waste little food, and require little attention. Tilapia are said to be similar to rats in their ability to adapt and can take advantage of whatever they find to feed on -- and that is precisely why they can pose risks to the balance of natural ecosystems.

The International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), now known as WorldFish Centre, initiated a major international collaborative effort, the Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) project, in 1988 in the Philippines. The project was aimed at providing increased income and improved nutrition for the poor as well as transferring scientific knowledge and technology.

Wild Nile tilapia was collected from rivers in Egypt, Ghana, Senegal and Kenya. Together with four Philippine commercial strains, these were crossed to establish a broad genetic platform for the later selection program run by the GIFT-project.

In 1998, after six generations of selective breeding, the rights to the fish, which had shown 85 percent improved growth compared to wild tilapia, were handed over to the non-profit GIFT Foundation International Inc (GFII). GFII was set up to "continue the research, market the fish, and use the revenues generated to further research work on tilapia."

A Norwegian biotechnology company, Genomar ASA, started a collaborative research program with the GFII in 1999. "GenoMar then resumed all commercial rights to the GIFT foundation fish and received a copy of all the latest families," said Morten Hoyum, vice president and chief operating officer of GenoMar, responding to queries from IPS.

Since then, GenoMar has introduced state-of-the-art DNA "tagging" of the fish in its breeding scheme and is now developing the 14th generation, said Hoyum. GenoMar has maintained the full genetically diverse platform and has also done extensive research on saline tolerant fish that can be utilized in brackish water, he added.

"According to the agreements, ICLARM or now the Worldfish Centre has some fish from Generation 9 that was moved to Malaysia," said Hoyum.

The Worldfish Centre's assistant director-general for international relations, Modadugu V. Gupta, clarified that the GIFT tilapia that is with the Worldfish Centre is being given to any government that requests it.

"Genomar can claim that what they are developing started with the GIFT fish; they are further improving it under their name," Gupta told IPS, when asked why the commercial rights had been transferred to a private firm. "Likewise, many other countries which received the germplasm or fish from us are continuing their own research, further improvement. The GIFT fish is still in the public domain," he insisted.

Hoyum agrees that the WorldFish Centre, with headquarters here in Penang, has the rights to the fish recently transferred to Malaysia. This fish, however, "was just ordinary Generation 9 GIFT tilapia fish that has been available in the Philippine market as fingerlings as well. The same fish was also provided to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in the Philippines."

But Hoyum asserted that, according to the spirit of the agreement with GenoMar, Worldfish Centre "should not use the fish for commercial activities but would be free to use it for scientific and research purposes."

Genomar has already entered into commercial ventures using the trademark name GenoMar Supreme Tilapia in the Philippines, Brazil and China, a major market.

Gupta, who is also on the board of GFII, declined to furnish a copy of the agreement between GFII and GenoMar, describing it as "confidential."

As a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private members supporting a system of 16 international food and environmental research centers, Worldfish Centre has endorsed the group's intellectual property rights (IPRs) policy.

The CGIAR says it is promoting the transfer of intensified production systems for the benefit of the poor, noted Martinez, but "its IPR policy is highly controversial."

On one hand, she observed, it was designed to prevent others from obtaining intellectual property rights on genetic resources as collected and provided by gene banks. On the other, it allows for the "defensive patenting" of in-house developed technologies and products. "It legitimates the patenting of genetic resources," she said.

The Convention on Biodiversity, adopted in 1992, upholds the conservation of biological biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

But in practice, many signatory governments are driven by market principles and the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"The CGIAR should not be involved in assisting the privatization of common goods -- such as fish stocks -- removing them from continued free access by fisherfolk," Patrick Mulvany, food security policy adviser of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, told IPS.

ITDG is a British-based group promoting the use of sustainable use of technology to reduce poverty. "As a public research body the CGIAR should insist that the products of its research remain in the public domain," he added.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor October 30, 2003 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.