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Getting smarter with shellfish?

The largest bay in my county harbours some of the their finest native beds in the country, maybe even Europe, but it’s in the county to our south, not too far from the home of Irish Marine Research, where they will be celebrated amid enthuasiastic accompaniments of Guinness next week.
I won’t be going to Galway International Oyster Festival, which starts tomorrow and finishes on Sunday. I cannot find any grá for their taste or texture, but I do admire the science they inspire, especially when it leads to places like Clew Bay being mentioned in the same breath as the great American Midwest in terms of global food production.
Irish-born and -raised Donal Manahan is the director of The Wrigley Institute for Environmental studies at The University of Southern California (USC), where a concept know as ‘hybrid vigor’ is driving researchers to explore the possibilities of mass producing bigger and faster-growing oysters. Hybrid vigor is the term referring to the process of inbreeding a species, to produce a small weak offspring, but then crossing that weak offspring with another similarly inbred strain to remarkably produce a specimen which is bigger and stronger than its original grandparent stock.
It worked for corn, but as Manahan points out, if rainfall patterns change as some predict, the corn-producing regions of the world, such as the American Midwest, may not be so productive in the future. In their outdoor seawater nurseries, USC researchers are employing this technique to grow oysters twice as fast and twice as big, tempting us in Ireland to consider the further potential of our small but emergent aquaculture industry.
Manahan predicts that oysters could be the next great food, and what a food they would be. The nutritional power of an oyster, which is low in calories, is quite impressive and reads like a nutritionist’s waiting-room wall-chart. Oyster farming is also more pleasing to those who are concerned with the ecosystem impacts of aquaculture. Unlike their salmon-farm counterparts, which attract constant criticism in Ireland and further afield for their large energy input requirements and subsequent waste output, oyster farms tend to efficiently mop up excess nutrients in the system and not make a mess.
While Galway shouts loudly about its shellfish, we might be quietly celebrating in years to come if oysters, once the preserve of monied diners and fishermen who knew good hiding places in the West’s shallow bays, achieve the same penetration in global diets as staple mass-produced foods such as corn.

This article appeared in The Mayo News, edition 21/09/2010

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