A new breed of genetically modified, fast-growing "super fish" developed in Britain will be on sale around the world in as little as three years' time, scientists have predicted.
Geneticists at the University of Southampton believe they are close to proving that GM tilapia – the world's second most popular fish for eating – can be safely farmed without damaging the environment or other fish species.
The GM fish grow up to three times larger than normal after being bred with growth-hormone genes taken from chinook salmon as part of a £1.12m programme funded by the Department for International Development (DfID).
The British research is running in parallel with a major multinational research programme funded by the European Commission, which is intended to override resistance from environmentalists and consumers by proving that GM fish is safe.
Government agencies such as English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage have warned ministers that farming with fertile GM fish will inevitably lead to escapes and interbreeding with native species. That, in turn, could lead to new breeds of disease-resistant GM fish surviving in the wild.
The Independent on Sunday can reveal the Commission has spent nearly 7.5m euros (£4.6m) on 11 projects to develop fish such as tilapia, salmon, medaka and rainbow trout since the mid-1980s.
That research is expected to increase substantially. A group of geneticists, including scientists at Southampton, have now applied for EU grants to turn carnivorous salmon and trout into vegetarians to overcome another major objection to industrial-scale farms, as fish farming contributes to over-fishing at sea purely for fish food.
The DfID research steps up a gear early next year when the Southampton team holds trials in northern Thailand to prove its GM tilapia are fully sterile by mixing them with wild fish in a special self-contained facility.
If these trials succeed, UN experts believe British scientists will be among the first to offer low-cost GM fish for commercial farming in the Far East, the Indian subcontinent and possibly Africa.
The world's leading GM fish company, a US firm called AquaBounty, is expected to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to market fast-growing GM salmon next year. But the firm believes it will take until 2003 or 2004 before commercial farms are licensed.
Professor Norman Maclean, head of the Southampton research team, predicted his GM tilapia would be on sale in three to five years. However, it could take 10 years before food shortages and environmental problems with conventional fish farming would overcome consumer hostility.
The Commission insists it has no plans to support the commercial farming of GM fish, claiming the research is to ensure EU scientists can keep pace with global developments in the field. However, MEPs in the ruling Socialist group have called for a significant increase in EU funding of GM fish research.
Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South and a leading critic of government support for GM technologies, said: "We should recoil in horror at this research. The ecological consequences of a mistake are so far-reaching we should not be continuing with trials without subjecting them to rigorous public scrutiny."Reuse content