A genetically-modified plant that produces seeds packed with fish oils is set to be grown in open fields in the U.K. 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, southern England, 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.

Testy over trial

Environment minister Owen Paterson, who will make the final decision after public consultations and advice from experts, 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. Mr. 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 per cent of the oil in the seeds is EPA and DHA, a similar proportion to that in fish oil.

Mr. Napier said camelina cannot cross-pollinate with oilseed rape, a common U.K. 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 oilseed rape as the carrier plant, the field trials will be the first in the world to use plants to grow the special oils. Mr. Napier said harvesting the oil direct from algae would be much more expensive and require large amounts of water and energy. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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