Genetically modified crops grown to contain health boosting omega-3 fish oil have been given the green light by Defra in British trials which could see nutritionally enhanced food coming to British tables
Genetically-modified food which boosts health could be on British dining tables by the end of the decade after the Government gave the green light for the first field trial of nutrient enriched crops.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs today granted permission for Rothamsted Research to grow plants enhanced with the same omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, in a decision branded a ‘milestone’ by scientists.
The first seeds will be sown within weeks in secure fields in Hertfordshire and will be harvested in August.
The GM crop, where the plant’s DNA has been combined with genes that produce fish oil, is among the first of a new generation of so-called ‘nutraceuticals’ – plants whose genetic structure has been altered to boost dietary supplements.
If successful the plant oil will be fed to fish, such as farmed salmon, to boost their uptake, but it could eventually be used in oils and spreads such as margarine.
Professor Johnathan Napier, lead scientist of this project at Rothamsted Research, said: “Omega-3 doesn’t occur in any other plant species but there is a real pressing need for it for health reasons.
“The way that fish currently acquire their omega-3, from algae, is not sustainable. So we are trying to find another source.
“Being able to carry out the field trial with our GM plants, means that we have reached a significant milestone in the delivery of our research programme.
“And just because we are talking about fish doesn’t mean there couldn’t be lots of other applications. This is something that could reduce our dependency on fish or supplements in the long term.”
Omega-3 fatty acids have been widely linked to health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease, cancers and neuro-degenerative diseases.
Although omega-3 is often described as fish oil, it is in fact made by microscopic marine algae that are eaten or absorbed by fish.
Farmed fish grown in cages are unable to absorb sufficient omega-3 in their diets so they have to be fed on smaller fish which critics claim is unsustainable.
The Rothamsted Research scientists have copied and synthesised the genes from the algae and then spliced them into a plant called ‘Camelina sativa’, known as “false flax”, which is widely grown for its seed oil.
Although the main aim of the research is to produce GM crops that could be made into food for farmed fish, the seeds could eventually be used in other foods, such as margarine.
It is the first crop to be given permission since a wide-ranging report, commissioned by the government, gave the green light to GM in March.
Sir Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor recommended that Britain should begin production after finding GM crops were not only safe, but more nutritious than current crops.
GM crops are already widely used in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and India. Around 85 per cent of all corn crops in the US are now GM.
Sir Mark has warned that Britain risks falling behind if it does not begin GM production soon.
Professor Cathie Martin, the John Innes Centre, which has been producing enhanced tomatoes in green houses said: “Modern diets contain low levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids
“Diets with high omega-3 are strongly associated with health and protection from a range of chronic diseases including cardiovascular diseases,
“Cultivation of crops that produce oils high in omega 3 offers a sustainable supply of these health beneficial products for the first time.”
Prof Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research Council, which is helping fund the research said: “This research is seeking to provide an alternative source of omega-3 oil for the aquaculture industry that is seeking new ways to maintain and increase its sustainability.
“After many years of laboratory research this project has reached the point where only a field trial will show scientists if this could work in real world conditions.”
However anti GM critics claim that omega-3 fish oils have been implicated in raising the risk of prostate cancer, and it is not clear whether GM-derived fish oils will be safe for human or animal consumption.
Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk