This year in Britain, we heard there’d be no GM (genetically modified, genetically engineered, biotech) crops. It didn’t last. A new GM crop might soon be field-tested here. Eventually this crop might reduce pressure on overfished seas. A land plant to conserve the sea? Yes, really.
Approval hasn’t yet been given but I think the field tests will happen. The well-respected Rothamsted Research (‘where knowledge grows’) has applied for permission to test an oilseed plant that grows omega-3 fatty acids. You can see more at the Rothamsted information page about this new GM oilseed.
You might know that fats and oils are glycerides built from glycerol and fatty acids. Some fatty acids are essential in human food because our bodies need them, but can’t make them. The essential fatty acids include omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Here’s a list of non-GM foods which give us omega-3 fatty acids. Items on that list, likely to appear as raw ingredients or value-added products in my own grocery basket, include oily finfish such as Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), brown trout (Salmo trutta), rainbow trout (Onchorynchus mykiss) and skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), and shellfish such as brown crab (Cancer pagurus), blue mussels (Mytilus edulis) and oysters (Ostrea edulis). These seafoods are sources of EPA and DHA.
People like me, in rich countries, are buying oily finfish partly because we’ve learned about the essential fatty acids. It tastes good too. A lot of the oily finfish in our grocery baskets is from fish farms, except the skipjack tuna which is always wild-caught.
Aquaculture is important worldwide, including in Europe. This can put pressure on wild stocks. Small wild marine fish eat algae and bioaccumulate omega-3 fatty acids. People catch those small fish and turn them into fishmeal and fish oil to make pellets for aquaculture. The pellets feed carnivorous, oily finfish such as the farmed species that I said feature in my grocery basket. So as we eat more and more farmed fish, we’re exploiting more and more wild fish. This isn’t sustainable.
There are some obvious responses that don’t require GM. We could farm algae and eat them or use them as ingredients in fish food.
We could grow, trade and eat more walnuts, hazelnuts and other omega-3 oilseeds such as flax (linseed, Linum usitatissimum), butternut squash (Juglans cinerea), hemp (Cannabis sativa) and pecan (Carya illinoinensis). But since those oilseeds don’t contain EPA or DHA, you’d need to be more of a nutritionist than I am to judge whether they make adequate substitutes for oily finfish.
Could those non-GM responses be used in cost-effective ways? Maybe. But biotech offers another possible solution. It offers the new GM crop likely to be field-tested at Rothamsted. You can scroll down this blog post and follow a link to watch a film explaining why this is better than any non-GM plant.
Until the new GM crop gets a name, I’ll call it ‘Omega Camelina’. It’s a false flax (Camelina sativa) engineered so that its seeds contain EPA and DHA. C. sativa is an oilseed crop related to oilseed rape (rapeseed, canola, Brassica napa). Those plants make useful oils but they don’t make EPA or DHA.
Here’s the science about Omega Camelina. Johnathan Napier and other scientists at Rothamsted used the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to insert genes from a marine alga called Ostreococcus tauri into C. sativa. They also put in tissue-specific promoters so that the fatty acids would end up in the plants’ seeds.
Prof Napier and his team say, ‘Currently, the primary dietary source [of EPA and DHA]… is marine fish; however, the increasing demand for fish oil (particularly due to the expansion of the aquaculture industry, the major consumer of these oils) places enormous pressure on diminishing marine stocks… Such over-fishing and concerns related to pollution in the marine environment have triggered an urgent search for a completely new source of omega-3 [fatty acids]… any potential new source… should be both sustainable and capable of meeting any increased demand. An appealing approach… is metabolic engineering of a crop plant with the capacity to synthesize these fatty acids in seeds. The scalability of agriculture-based production systems, in conjunction with modest running costs, highlights the potential of transgenic plants as ‘green factories’… [C. sativa has] low input costs and [it’s relatively easy to engineer its genes.]’
You can watch this film of Prof Napier explaining Omega Carolina. He says that he’s annoyed because without GM, ‘plant oils can’t substitute for fish oils.’ They don’t have the kinds of omega-3 fatty acids we need. That pretty much destroys the claims about eating plant foods to get those essential nutrients.
The International Centre for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) is pleased about Omega Camelina because it could help marine conservation. What do you think?