Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production sector in the world, providing almost half of the global fish supply. By 2030, it is estimated that aquaculture production will grow by 40% to satisfy global fish demand. Tilapia, now the second most farmed fish in the world, has played an important role in the growth of aquaculture and will continue to in the future.
One particular strain, Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT), is providing small-scale farmers with an income and households with a sustainable source of food and nutrition. As part of a pioneering selective breeding program that began in 1988, the GIFT strain was developed to be fast growing and adaptable to a wide range of environments.
Today, GIFT is produced in at least 14 countries, helping to reduce poverty and hunger. The continued development of the GIFT strain is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems (FISH). This story traces the history of GIFT’s development across nearly three decades and five continents.
1980s: Future food security is a concern
In 1980, the global population was approximately 4.5 billion and growing (US Census 2015). There were emerging concerns about food and nutrition security with 28% of the global population undernourished (FAO 2006).
Fish was seen as key to combatting this challenge. More than 75% of the world’s fish is consumed in developing countries. Fish is a good source of zinc, iron, vitamin A and calcium that are essential for cognitive and physical development, especially in children, and are an important part of a healthy diet.
In 1980, global fish consumption reached 50 million tons, of mostly wild catch fish and less than 10% from aquaculture. Driven by urbanization and rising per capita incomes, demand for seafood was growing and projected to increase four-fold to 232 million tons by 2030.
With diminishing wild fish stocks, aquaculture was found to be the solution to meet future demand. Scientists started focusing on improving the production traits of commercially important aquatic animal species through selective breeding.
WorldFish Principal Scientist John Benzie explains how fish contributes to improving food and nutrition security across the globe.
Driven by poor productivity in tilapia farms, WorldFish conducted reviews of the world’s tilapia genetic resources from 1980 to 1987. They found that inadequate seed supply and the deteriorating performance of fish in many aquaculture systems in Asia were major concerns.
Formed in 1988 by WorldFish and its partners from the Philippines and Norway, the Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia project aimed to develop a faster-growing strain of Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) suitable for both small-scale and commercial aquaculture.
WorldFish Scientist Curtis Lind discusses the research that happened before the start of the GIFT project in 1988.
Tilapia: The ideal candidate for selective breeding
Tilapia’s unique characteristics make it an ideal candidate for genetic improvement through selective breeding.
It can be grown in diverse farming systems and is omnivorous, requiring minimal fish meal in its feed. It has a naturally high tolerance to variable water quality and can grow in both freshwater and marine environments. Because tilapia are hardy and have good disease resistance, they are inexpensive and easy for small-scale farmers to grow for food, nutrition and income.
WorldFish scientist Dr. Curtis Lind explains that tilapia starts breeding at four to six months, enabling genetic improvements to be made in a short time. “They’re easy to breed and grow reasonably quickly, so you can produce the next generation of offspring in a short period – less than a year.”
Tilapia is a nutritious, inexpensive and environmentally friendly food. View infographic.
WorldFish and partners created an improved strain of tilapia, called the Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT), by pioneering a systematic breeding method. This was based on selective breeding programs for salmon and trout established in Norway in the 1970s.
Genetic improvement through selective breeding has been used for millennia on crops and livestock, but up until the 1980s, little had been done to utilize this process for farmed fish. “At the beginning of the breeding program, it [tilapia] was the first tropical aquaculture species to have undergone genetic improvement in this manner,” explains Curtis. “It was really quite landmark.”
Selective breeding is the process of choosing the parents of the next generation in such a way that it will result in improved performance for certain traits considered important during production and marketing. These genetic gains are cumulative and permanent.
In the GIFT method, full-sibling families of fish are reared in small, separate enclosures until they are big enough to be tagged with a microchip and moved into a communal pond. The tags allow researchers to identify individual fish and track their growth against their siblings and other individuals.
Compared to livestock, where a female cow produces one or two calves at a time, fish are better suited to selective breeding explains Curtis.
“Fish are fecund animals, meaning that they can produce many, many offspring from a single female. We can exploit that biological trait in our breeding programs through higher selection intensities, enabling more rapid genetic improvement.” The high fecundity of fish also allow an improved strain to be multiplied and scaled out quickly to many farmers.
WorldFish Scientist Curtis Lind explains how the selective breeding process used in the GIFT program works.
Improved strain reaches harvestable size faster
The first generation of GIFT were bred to grow quickly and monitored for good survival, the two factors that most influence productivity. Fast-growing fish reach harvestable size quicker, enabling a farmer to restock their ponds sooner, making their farm more productive and cost-effective.
The founding population of GIFT comprised wild Nile tilapia from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal, and farmed Nile tilapia from Israel, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.
By the end of the initial project in 1997, six generations of GIFT were produced through selective breeding. The result? An improved strain of tilapia that grew up to 85% faster than the fish used at the beginning of the breeding program.
“When starting a fish breeding program, it takes three to five generations on average to see substantial improvement in a trait like growth”. Some fish species take two to three years to produce one generation explains Curtis, “so to achieve five generations of selection might take 10-15 years”. In comparison, because a new generation of tilapia can be produced in one year, major improvements can be made within three to five years.
The success of the project in improving growth showed that selective breeding was a feasible, cost effective and sustainable approach to the genetic improvement of tilapia.
Spreading the GIFT strain
From the breeding center in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija, the Philippines, seeds of the highly productive strain were given to the Philippines, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Vietnam.
These introductions and transfers of Nile tilapia by WorldFish were carried out in an environmentally and socially responsible way according to internationally accepted guidelines for introductions and transfers (ICES 1994).
The improved strain was made available to research organizations and national governments for continued work on selective breeding and distribution to farmers. GIFT is considered an International Public Good and is available to any country that agrees to responsibly use the germplasm they receive.
In 2001, the GIFT strain was transferred from the Philippines to WorldFish’s headquarters in Malaysia. WorldFish continues to improve GIFT through selective breeding at a research station provided by the Malaysian Department of Fisheries in Jitra, Malaysia.
WorldFish Scientist Curtis Lind explains how seed of the GIFT tilapia strain is distributed to farmers across the world.
Success of GIFT and GIFT technologies
The GIFT strain is now in its 14th generation since its transfer to Malaysia and has been disseminated to 16 countries by WorldFish.
A study by the Asian Development Bank found that in 2003, GIFT and GIFT-derived strains accounted for 68% of tilapia production in the Philippines, 46% in Thailand and 17% in Vietnam. In 2010, a sample survey in Bangladesh found that 75% of mono-sex tilapia hatcheries exclusively used GIFT as their brood stock.
The selective breeding method developed through the GIFT project, known as “GIFT technology”, has also been successfully applied to Nile tilapia and other tilapia species in Egypt, Ghana and Malawi, as well as to other fish species, including carp.
Benefits for the developing world
Faster-growing, hardier and more disease-resistant fish have many benefits for small-scale farmers and resource-poor consumers. They allow farmers a greater return on their investment, and in some countries genetically improved tilapia has increased the national production rate of tilapia and led to lower prices for consumers.
Evangeline Maico, a 67 year-old fish farmer from the Philippines, believes GIFT is the best tilapia strain available. “I’ve tried all the strains being promoted in our area, and so far it is the best”. She reports that it grows faster, has firmer flesh and even tastes better than other tilapia strains she’s tried. Almost a year after the first batch of fingerlings, she is stocking her cage for the third time. From her first two harvests she earned USD 267 and USD 355 respectively, noting a 55% increase in the volume of GIFT harvest compared with yields using previous tilapia strains.
In Egypt, fish farmer Mohamed Gamal was delighted with his huge jump in production after switching to the Abbassa strain, another improved tilapia strain developed by WorldFish. “Last year my production using the common strain was around 9.5 metric tons per hectare, while this year the production of the Abbassa strain reached 12 metric tons per hectare. Despite the higher price of Abbassa strain fry, farmers are eager to buy more and even reserve quantities for the coming season because of its higher productivity and better growth rates.”
Tilapia is an affordable source of protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that are vital for good health. GIFT and other improved strains of Nile tilapia have helped improve food and nutrition security in the developing world. In Africa, the contributions of improved tilapia strains are a focus of current and future research.
WorldFish Principal Scientist John Benzie explains how GIFT tilapia is farmed in developing countries and the benefits GIFT brings for farmers.
WorldFish continues to develop the GIFT strain through genetic improvements and to support development of better strains globally, building on the GIFT approach to fish improvement.
GIFT has so far been developed using classical methods of selective breeding to improve growth. In the future, WorldFish intends to use DNA-based approaches and genomic tools to incorporate other traits into the GIFT breeding program.
Genomic techniques make it possible to measure characteristics that are not easy to see in a fish explains WorldFish scientist John Benzie, “For example, whether fish are resistant to disease. In that case it means we can use molecular markers to pick the fish that are actually more resistant to disease.”
Other traits that could be incorporated include improved salinity tolerance, disease resistance, flesh characteristics, feed conversion and feed efficiency.
A bright future for tilapia
“GIFT tilapia has been improved for almost 30 years. So far, it’s been improved almost 10% each generation. There’s no sign that this level of improvement is going to decrease, so there’s still big wins that can be made through genetically improving tilapia. Not only with growth but also including other characteristics,” states John.
WorldFish’s commitment to maintaining GIFT in the future ensures that the improved strain will remain useful, valuable and available to farmers, helping to reduce poverty and hunger.