A GM plant lined up to produce Omega-3 fish oils

The Guardian reports, 24th January 2013 : “A genetically-modified plant that produces seeds packed with fish oils is set to be grown in open fields in the UK within months, scientists have announced. The oils could provide feed for farmed fish, the researchers hope, but they could ultimately be used as a health supplement in human foods such as margarine.

Fish oil could soon come from GM crop

Fish oils – specifically omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids – have been shown to cut the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Photograph: D. Hurst/Alamy

Fish oils — specifically omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids — have been shown to cut the risk of cardiovascular disease and are a popular food supplement. But about 80% of the fish oil harvested from the oceans every year is actually fed to other fish being raised in aquaculture. With many fish stocks already over-exploited, the government-funded researchers from Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire have spent 15 years developing the new GM [genetically modified] plant and hope to have permission for field trials by March, with planting to start shortly after if approval is given.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson will make the final decision after a public consultation and advice from experts on the independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. Paterson is an enthusiastic supporter of GM crops and earlier this month [January 2014] said: “The longer Europe continues to close its doors to GM, the greater the risk that the rest of the world will bypass us altogether. Europe risks becoming the museum of world farming. If fish are fed on the oil from GM plants in future, they might not need to be labelled as GM-derived, because cattle today are widely fed on GM soya, but are not required to reveal this on labels.”

Professor Jonathan Napier, who is leading the trial said: “The field trial is still an experiment. After that, if it is successful, you could grow plants either for animal feed or ultimately you could imagine a situation where it is used for human nutrition. If we can explain the benefits, maybe people will agree this is a good thing to do. It was possible, he added, the plant-produced oil might overcome one of the major downsides of edible fish oil: the strong taste. “We have not tasted it, but we have smelled it and it did not smell fishy,” he said.

The particular fish oils that benefit the health of both fish and humans, called EPA and DHA, are not in fact produced by fish themselves but instead accumulated by eating marine microbes. Napier’s team therefore took up to seven genes from algae that produce the fish oils and transplanted them into oil seed plants called camelina. It naturally produces short-chain oils and has been grown as a food crop for centuries in southern and eastern Europe and is used a biofuel crop in North America. The GM camelina has passed laboratory and greenhouse trials and about 25% of the oil in the seeds is EPA and DHA, a similar proportion to that in fish oil.

Napier said camelina cannot cross-pollinate with oil seed rape, a common UK crop, and that there are no wild relatives of camelina at the 300-hectare Rothampsted site, where 200 square metres of the GM crop would be planted for the next four years. On the question of environmental impact of the GM camelina, Napier said success would have clear benefits for the overfished oceans, while on the question of safety, he said: “The scientific consensus is that there is no evidence of problems to human health.”

However, Helena Paul, director of campaign group GM Freeze, said: “This would simply replaced one problem, over-consumption of fish stocks to feed fish, with another, additional demand for land for feed for animals, rather than for growing food for humans.” She also pointed out that a GM flax crop, called CDC Triffid, was originally grown on a small-scale in Canada in 2001, but was later found to have contaminated some non-GM crops.

Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association which promotes organic farming, said the demand for GM fish oil supplements was likely to be limited: “People buying health supplements are among the least likely consumers to be interested in a GM product. This seems to be yet another GM product searching for a market which does not exist. Eating a healthy balanced diet gives people enough omega-3 without any need for additives in processed food.”

Only five field trial of GM crops have been permitted to date in the UK, and none for a trait that enhances the nutritional value of the crop. The Rothamsted wheat was modified to provide resistance to aphids, while three potato trials aimed to provide resistance to disease. A pea trial tested a gene for drought resistance.

Source: The Guardian, 24th January 2014. For the full text see: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/24/fish-oil-from-gm-crop


Camelina sativa

Camelina sativa

Marinet Notes: Camelina is a genus within the flowering plant family Brassicaceae [Brassicas, to gardeners]. The Camelina species, commonly known as false flax, are native to Mediterranean regions of Europe and Asia. Most species of this genus have been little studied, with the exception of Camelina sativa, historically cultivated as oil plant. Therefore relatives in the agricultural plant community are brassicas, like oil seed rape, and flax.

Regarding alternative sources of Omega-3, obviously fish are the best natural source, and this is an added incentive to ensure that wild stocks are sustainably harvested – this is not just an argument advocated by groups such as Marinet, but also a legal requirement under the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Marinet is currently working on a new programme of work for 2014 which addresses the need for the seas to be managed sustainably, based on work by a Marinet member.  We will be advising our members, and the public, of this shortly.

If you are a vegetarian, then there are plant sources of Omega 3, notably the seeds of oil flax and chia seeds, see http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/plant-sources-of-omega-3s.aspx

The natural world, if properly managed and protected by us, will meet all of our needs.  We do not need to commence altering the genetic structure of life.

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