The extent to which GMOs are perceived as desirable for aquaculture and food supply has been probed by Bartley and Hallerman (1995) on a questionnaire basis. The responses were generally positive in terms of exploring the potential of transgenesis. It is clear however, that in human populations as a whole there is a severe deficiency of knowledge appropriate for making informed decisions about the value of GMOs (Dunham, 1999).
The task of instituting and managing well thought out, responsible and scientifically sound measures is made more difficult by the frequently irresponsible and inaccurate media treatment of GMOs on the one hand and the cavalier pronouncements by some authorities on the other hand, e.g. that no distinction need by made in labelling between food derived from GMOs and from non-GMOs. Such extreme differences in attitude tend to inflame public opinion.
The need for incorporation of risk assessment and risk management procedures relating to use of GMOs in aquatic species has been well brought out by Hallerman and Kapuscinski (1995).
According to Hallerman and Kapuscinski (1995), as a generality among developed countries at least, the public will support biotechnology if it yields a healthful product in an environmentally sound manner. This statement encapsulates implicitly a most significant factor - that in considering the benefits and disadvantages of GMOs, perception by the general public is a most important factor in shaping attitude of regulatory agencies (emphasis by JAB and JP).
There is at least a suspicion that some contemporary science may also be affected by perceptions. A recent furore over the alleged presence, in traditional varieties of maize in Mexico, of transgenes derived from modern strains of cultivated maize points to this. The matter is still not completely resolved but has led to Nature declaring it should not have published the original paper because of technical inadequacies (Mann, 2002).
It is perhaps dangerous to extrapolate directly from agronomy to aquaculture but it is worth noting that, in the USA, which accounts for more than two thirds of the acreage planted to crop GMOs, moves to institute a much tighter regulatory framework are in train (Soil Association 2002). Five bills were introduced in May 2002 in the House of Representatives in Washington to cover legal protection for farmers, increase GM food safety, require labelling for foods containing, or produced with, GMOs, address developing country issues and assign liability for damages. These measures appear to have sprung, at least in part, from serious dissatisfaction on the part of some farmers with GM crop plants. It is, however, relevant to note that the dominant position enjoyed by several large multinational agrochemical companies in providing both seed and agrochemicals is not reflected in the aquaculture industry which is far more fragmented. Nevertheless, the indications are already present that there is a move towards fewer and larger companies within the sector and this could have consequences for the control and use of GMOs in aquaculture species.
A fair number of countries have instituted regulatory arrangements for the culture, release and dietary utilisation of GMOs, but with considerable differences in the approaches and restrictions employed (discussed by Maclean, 1998).
At the international level the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity provides a comprehensive and rigorous framework for regulation of protection of biodiversity and argues that this be done taking into account risks to human health and specifically focussing on transboundary movements. The great majority of nations are signatories to the convention. What is less clear is the extent to which, at national and regional levels, the protocols set out are implemented and implementable through domestic legislation and effective sanctions.
Among its provisions, the Cartagena protocol has a detailed treatment of risk assessment in relation to the protection of biological diversity. Among the important and relevant general principles are:
1. Risk assessment should be carried out on a case by case basis.
2. Risks associated with LMOs should be considered in the context of the risks posed by the non-modified organisms in the receiving environment.
and in the [comparable] methodology of risk assessment:
1. An estimation of the overall risk posed by the LMO based on an evaluation of the likelihood and consequences of the adverse risks being realized.
2. A recommendation as to whether or not the risks are acceptable or manageable, including, where necessary, identification of strategies to manage these risks.
We are, thus, faced with a complex array of stakeholders; breeders and growers, geneticists, multinational companies, supermarkets, consumers, politicians and the media. All have their own agenda to follow, but critically important to all of them and to a reasonable resolution of the current conflict is the availability and use of full, sound and accurate information, particularly in the context of framing of appropriate regulations affecting GMOs