Rothamsted Research in the UK wants to carry out a field trial of GM false flax (Camelina sativa), engineered to produce omega 3 oils.
The hype around this GM crop focuses on the supposed health benefits of omega 3 oils - they are claimed to help heart health.
The genes introduced into this GM crop are entirely synthetic (laboratory-made) and are based on gene sequences found in algae.
Needless to say, omega 3 oils are abundantly present in natural foods, including walnuts, flaxseeds, beans, fish, and olive oil. For those who want to take more of it, the shelves of our health food stores are groaning with omega 3 supplements, many of them naturally derived from algae.
Dairy products and meat from animals pastured on grass are naturally rich in omega 3 oils, with a healthy balance of omega 3 to omega 6 oils. Take away the grass and substitute grain feed and the omega 3 level goes down while the omega 6 goes up, leading to a less healthy ratio of omega 3 to omega 6. So low omega 3 levels in these foods are a product of industrial farming.
All this raises the question of why the genetic engineers at Rothamsted are bothering to try to force a crop to produce more omega 3 oils.
Well, as Rothamsted's press release below reveals, the resulting GM crop is destined NOT for health-conscious consumers (most of whom would not knowingly consume a GM crop) but for feeding fish in fish farms!
It's ironic that this new GM crop, if it's ever commercialised, will be a prop for the same industrial system of farming that's been responsible for removing omega 3 from our diets in the first place.
Rothamsted Research submits application to Defra for permission to carry out GM field trial
Rothamsted Research, 24 Jan 2014
* The trial will test whether GM Camelina sativa plants are able to make significant quantities of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) in the seed of the plant under field conditions
* A public consultation has begun
BBSRC-funded scientists at Rothamsted Research have submitted an application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for permission to carry out a GM field trial on the Rothamsted Farm in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. The researchers have developed Camelina plants that accumulate omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) in their seeds and the purpose of the proposed trial is to evaluate in the field the performance of this trait.
Omega-3 LC-PUFAs have been shown to be beneficial for human health and contribute to protection against coronary heart diseases (CHD) (FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on the Risks and Benefits of Fish Consumption 2011). The primary dietary sources of these fatty acids are marine fish either wild stocks or farmed fish (aquaculture). Fish, like humans, do not produce these oils but rather they accumulate them through their diet in the wild or through fishmeal and fish oil in farmed fish. Around 80% of all fish oil is consumed by the aquaculture sector and this rapidly expanding modern industry is seeking new omega-3 LC-PUFAs sources to ensure its production practices remain sustainable and nurture the essential aquatic food web (FAO GLOBEFISH).
One potential approach towards flexible and sustainable supply of omega-3 LC-PUFAs is to engineer a crop plant with the capacity to synthesise these fatty acids in seeds. Rothamsted Research, through the strategic funding that receive from the BBSRC, have over the years developed genetically engineered Camelina plants that can successfully produce omega-3 LC-PUFAs in the lab and in the glass house (Ruiz-Lopez et al.2013).
Professor Johnathan Napier, lead scientist of this project at Rothamsted Research said: "The Omega-3 LC-PUFAs that are beneficial for health are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They modulate both metabolic and immune processes and confer the health benefits in areas of CHD and neurodevelopment. Plant sources of omega-3, e.g. Flax seed, do not produce EPA and DHA; instead they produce shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids such as a-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA does not confer the health-beneficial properties associated with EPA and DHA, despite the former also being an omega-3 fatty acid. Not all omega-3 fatty acids are equivalent. We used synthetic gene sequences involved in the biosynthesis of omega-3 LC-PUFAs that have been optimised in order to be functional in Camelina plants. These synthetic sequences are based on the sequence of genes found in photosynthetic marine organisms, and other lower eukaryote species such as mosses and oomycetes."
"We have produced three varieties of plants: one where four synthetic genes have been introduced into the plant, one that five genes have been introduced in the plant, and one that seven synthetic genes have been introduced into the plant. The reason why we needed to introduce this number of synthetic genes is that the synthesis of omega-3 LC-PUFAs requires multi-step processes. In order to achieve maximum production of these oils in the seed of Camelina plants we had to help the internal biosynthetic machinery of the plant to shift from ALA towards the production of EPA and DHA", Johnathan Napier added.
Professor Martin Parry, Acting Director of Rothamsted Research said: "it will be a significant step forward, if we are granted permission to perform a controlled experiment in our already established facilities here at Rothamsted Research. We will be able to assess in "real environmental conditions" the potential of contributing a more sustainable and affordable alternative way of providing fish oil. This will potentially enable us to provide knowledge that may contribute in reducing the pressure on the marine resources. Carrying out a field experiment will be the only way to assess the viability of a solution that can bring economic benefits to the farmers, returns to the UK taxpayer,, benefits to the UK economy as a whole and the environment in general. Here at Rothamsted we are very happy to provide any further information and explanation on this area of research to the public so that informed contributions may be made to the ongoing consultation carried out by Defra."
More information on this project can be found on our dedicated Questions and Answers Section on Rothamsted Research website at www.rothamsted.ac.uk/camelina
BBSRC's Science Director, Professor Melanie Welham, said: "The challenge of producing food in a sustainable way, while minimising effects on the environment, is of great importance and we must explore a variety of tools and technologies that could help us to tackle it. This new trial will help researchers to investigate one such tool in a realistic field environment so that scientific evidence can inform future decisions on how best to meet the needs of a growing population."
Once the Rothamsted application is passed to Defra, the independent expert group, the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (ACRE), will evaluate the application through a statutory 90 day process which a includes a public consultation.
The Secretary of State will consider any representations made to him relating to any risks of damage to the environment posed by the release of the genetically modified organisms within a period that he shall specify in accordance with the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002.
If granted permission to conduct the field trial this controlled experiment will be part of our Institute Strategic Programme of Research Designing Seeds for Nutrition and Health, which receives financial support from the BBSRC.