Oils could provide feed for farmed fish and ultimately be used as a health supplement in human foods such as margarine
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 announced on Friday. 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 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 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 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."
But if the field trial is approved, as is likely, it could spur protests such as those that accompanied a field trial of GM wheat at Rothamsted Research in 2012, when hundreds of campaigners gathered at the site and threatened to destroy that crop.
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. Along with an independent group in Australia, who are using oil seed rape (canola) as the carrier plant, the field trials will be the first in the world to use plants to grow the special oils. Napier said harvesting the oil direct from algae would be much more expensive and require large amounts of water and energy.
He said Rothampsted Research had patents related to the GM camelina: "Our research is 15 years of taxpayer-funded research, so we have some intellectual property to give a mechanism to recover some of that."
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."
But concerns over human health risk were dismissed by Colin Lazarus, a scientist at the University of Bristol who has worked on putting genes for fatty acids into lab plants. "We have 15 years of experience on the other side of the Atlantic, where people have been eating GM foods willy-nilly and loving them," he said. "There is no rational concern for human health."
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.
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