Societal aspects of breeding and genetics
The aquaculture industry is an extensive and diverse industry of great economic value and benefit to society. As in other food industries, biological and technological solutions are often closely coupled with economics, law, ethics and the environment. These are disciplines that we at Nofima often integrate into our projects within breeding.
- Multidisciplinary analysis and studies of ethical, economic and other societal aspects of breeding and genetics, often in close collaboration with other scientific disciplines
- Consultation concerning economic, legal and commercial aspects of the operation and development of breeding programmes
We have, for example, examined how much weight people give to ethical values in farming and breeding. Ethical values are important for the judgement of the general population and politicians, and these groups set the background conditions against which the framework of the aquaculture industry is worked out. Several of the properties that promote ethical values are susceptible to modification by breeding.
We are also working with the question of rights and access to genetic resources. This concerns, for example, whether it is sensible to balance the ownership by breeding companies of genetic innovations against the way in which those active in the aquaculture industry can obtain reasonable access to improved genetic material for farming and further development.
Breeding is one way to aid the natural ability of fish to adapt to the aquaculture situation and the challenges it brings. Breeding for disease resistance (marker-assisted selection) has, for example, contributed to lowering the incidence of the viral disease IPN in the Norwegian aquaculture industry, and thus solved a problem that had been a major challenge for fish health. Such advances will also be able to improve acceptance of the fish and the aquaculture industry. For this reason, we are examining how Norwegians value common values associated with breeding (better fish welfare and less environmental impact), and whether they are willing to pay extra tax or a higher price in the shops to stimulate a more sustainable salmon aquaculture industry. The results show, for example, that they are willing to pay extra tax to make the fish more resistant to lice and contagious diseases, independently of whether they themselves eat salmon or not.
Access and rights to genes
The aquaculture sector in Norway is growing and it has particularly valuable genetic material for salmon and rainbow trout. The breeding companies currently possess these genetic resources and the innovative activity in these companies is high. How can we protect the genetic improvements that breeding companies achieve, while at the same time ensuring that other actors in the industry gain reasonable access to new genetic material for farming and further improvements and innovation?
By combining law, biology and social sciences we work with how we can balance access and protection. A compulsory parentage certificate is one possibility that we have proposed. This is a system for the verification and legal protection of genetic material of farmed salmon. Tissue samples of broodstock can be used within the system to trace back to the ancestors of each individual farmed salmon in Norwegian cages, and in this way determine who “owns” the fish genes.
Experience has shown that simple selection programmes that could be implemented and bring great benefits to the aquaculture industry, the farmed fish, and the consumers, are – even so – not in use in many parts of the world. We have therefore posed the question of why only 10% of the global aquaculture industry is based on genetically improved organisms, and why there is not a greater interest in investing in modern breeding programmes, which give a return of up to 50 times the investment. There are different requirements of protecting investments in south-east Asia, and this part of the world does not have many modern breeding programmes for farmed fish either. A study carried out by Nofima scientists in collaboration with scientists at WorldFish has made it clear that there are major deficiencies in knowledge, awareness of the possibilities, long-term public-sector support arrangements for the establishment and operation of breeding programmes, and suitable business models that can secure private ownership of genetic resources such that and private investment in breeding that are made can be profitable and sustainable.
Opportunities with genomic information
We expect major opportunities for innovation in the coming years from the use of information from the sequenced salmon genome. It may be a challenge to implement these advances in the industry in a purposeful and sustainable manner. We need knowledge about how the new knowledge, technology and genomic information can influence ownership structures, rights and the further development of the industry. We also need knowledge about how information can promote sustainable development of the aquaculture industry.