Can a shrimp smile? It’s tough to say whether the gangly, blue-legged crustaceans lurking within the massive aquaculture tanks are actually happy, but they certainly appear to be content. Perhaps it’s because they are well-fed and blissfully unaware of what lies just outside the laboratory: the harsh, dry environment of Israel’s Negev Desert, which is not a natural habitat for any form of aquatic life. It may also be because the tank contains an all-female population, devoid of males, which tend to be territorial, aggressive, and create stressful conditions that don’t promote optimal growth.
Regardless of their state of mind, these placid crustaceans are the products of a unique gender-bending technique that promises to make them a delicious link toward a sustainable global food chain. Or, the technique could be the latest in a long line of developments that force us to take a careful look at the benefits and costs of achieving sustainability by intruding into the basic biology of the food we end up eating.
In truth, the creatures in question are not shrimp; rather, they’re a species of freshwater prawns, known to biologists as Macrobrachium rosenbergii. Commonly known as giant river prawns, they are a beloved staple of traditional Southeast Asian cuisine. Their flavor and amenability to simple aquaculture techniques made them a traditional cash crop for Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese farmers, who raise them in large outdoor ponds.