First GM crops enriched with nutrients ready for harvest
The first genetically modified crops, enriched with nutrients to improve health, will be harvested within weeks following a landmark field trial in Britain. In a major step towards GM food, a crop of camelina (false flax) has been spliced with genes which make Omega-3 so that its seeds will produce an oil rich in fatty acid normally only found in fish.
It is the first example of a new generation of so-called ‘nutraceuticals’ – plants whose genetic structure has been altered to introduce health-boosting properties. If future trials are successful, the plant oil will initially be fed to farmed fish, such as salmon, to boost their Omega-3 content and make food healthier for shoppers. But it could also be added to oils, used in spreads and yoghurts, or taken as a supplement.
“It is only a small trial but it’s a major step forward,” said Professor Jonathan Napier at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire where the crop has been growing for the past three months. “Fish get fish oil from their diet when they swim in the sea but when you put them in a cage they can’t do that and you have to feed them smaller fish, otherwise fish would have no more Omega-3 in them than chicken.
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 it is often described as fish oil, Omega-3 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.
The Rothamsted Research scientists have copied and synthesised the genes from the algae and then spliced them into a plant called ‘Camelina sativa’ which is widely grown for its seed oil. The crop has been planted in the Hertfordshire commuter town of Harpenden, just 30 minutes by train from Central London.
The site is a mix of high security and informality. Two perimeter fences, each 8ft high surround the crop, which is guarded by CCTV, security staff and Alsatians. While the plants were flowering in July, the crop was completely covered to deter insects and avoid cross-pollination.