For nearly 30 years, Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) have benefitted millions across the world with their fast growth.

Aquaculture is the most rapidly 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 precent 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, GIFT, is providing small-scale farmers with an income and households with a sustainable source of food and nutrition. Developed as part of a pioneering selective breeding program that began in 1988, GIFT is fast growing and adaptable to a wide range of environments. Today, it is produced in at least 14 countries, helping to reduce poverty and hunger.

In 1988, WorldFish and partners from the Philippines and Norway established the Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia project to breed a faster-growing strain of Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) suitable for both small-scale and commercial aquaculture. Researchers pioneered a systematic breeding method 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. 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.

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 resulting in an improved strain that grew up to 85% faster than the fish used at the beginning of the breeding program.

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.

From the breeding center in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija, the Philippines, GIFT seeds were given to the Philippines, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Vietnam. These introductions and transfers were carried out in an environmentally and socially responsible way according to internationally accepted guidelines for introductions and transfers (ICES 1994). 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.