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Look to GM plants and algae to meet omega-3 demand, researchers urge

By Caroline Scott-Thomas+


Food and supply chain of different omega-3 sources
Food and supply chain of different omega-3 sources

Increasing demand for long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA means industry must consider land-based sources including microalgae and genetically modified plants, say researchers.

The research review, published in Current Opinion in Biotechnology , says that there is increasing concern about sourcing omega-3 oils from wild fish, presenting potential sustainability issues for the industry, even as evidence of their health benefits has mounted. In addition, average consumption of EPA and DHA is well below recommended doses, raising further concern about future sourcing, the study’s authors said.

“Concern about the ability and sustainability of wild fisheries to meet increasing demand of VLC-PUFAs [very long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids] has moved efforts towards land-based production, including farmed fish, genetically modified plants, and large-scale production of microalgae,” they wrote.

GM plants

The researchers, from the Algae Biotechnology Laboratory at the University of Queensland, Australia, said that genetically modified plants may play an important role in the future as a source of VLC-PUFAs for both aquaculture feed and human nutrition.

“However, the harvested amounts of VLC-PUFAs in transgenic plants are generally lower compared with the natural producers,” they wrote, adding that to date, there has been minimal market penetration of plant-based omega-3s, “mostly because there are still considerable commercialization barriers to overcome”.

Microalgae: ‘a viable and sustainable source’

For microalgae, however, the researchers claim they are cost effective and capable of meeting market demand, without the consumer acceptance and regulatory issues associated with GM plants.

Efforts have already moved toward large-scale production of microalgae, and many species have already been studied for their high EPA and DHA content.

“Microalgae and microalgae-like protists appear as a viable and sustainable source of EPA and DHA, and other [fatty acids], as they do not require freshwater or arable land and have the ability for high fatty acid accumulation under adverse conditions,” the researchers wrote.

They concluded: “To meet the increasing demand for EPA and DHA, further developments are needed towards land-based sources. In particular large-scale cultivation of microalgae and plants is likely to become a reality with expected reductions in production costs, yield increases and the adequate addressing of genetically modified food acceptance issues.

“…The future will likely see a combination of the above sources, offering the chance to develop more sustainable production of omega-3 fatty acids.”

According to FAO figures cited in the study, nearly 53% of marine fish stocks were close to being entirely exploited in 2008, while 28% were considered overexploited and just 1% was recovering from depletion.

More than 70% of global omega-3 supply currently comes from Peruvian anchovy fisheries, but concerns about depleted stocks led the Peruvian government to cut quotas in 2012 by 68%, to their lowest level in 25 years.

Market research organisation Packaged Facts estimated in 2012 that the market value of products containing EPA and DHA would reach $34.7bn by 2016, representing a compound annual growth rate of 6.4% since 2011.


Source: Current Opinion in Biotechnology

Volume 26, April 2014, Pages 14–18, 10.1016/j.copbio.2013.08.003

“Towards sustainable sources for omega-3 fatty acids production”

Authors: T Catalina Adarme-Vega, Skye R Thomas-Hall, Peer M Schenk

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