Dispatches from Euro Fed Lipid Congress, Montpellier

The road to fish-oil equivalent GM camelina

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Omega-3 fatty acid, Genetically modified food, Genetic engineering, Gm

Rothamsted Research has achieved omega-3 levels comparable to fish oil in its first GM camelina harvest, something which has been surprisingly well received by the public, its senior researcher says. 

Speaking at the 12th Euro Fed Lipid Congress this week, Dr Olga Sayanova of the UK research group said she had been “pleased​ and “surprised​ by the media and public response to the UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) approval of its field trials​ back in January and its first harvest last month, something she put down to good communication. 

"We know that for many years – in Europe especially – the public attitude was a bit negative, if I can say so. What we noticed was that by talking to people and explaining our work we actually managed to change their attitude from negative to at least listening," ​she told NutraIngredients at the event in Montpellier. 

She suggested that a similar dialogue would be key to the success of the proposals for pan-EU regulation of GM crop cultivation​, currently being discussed by the European Parliament. 

“I think we need to have all the options opened. We need to produce the plants and grow the plants but what is also important is to monitor the development of this technology and here I think science and the public can go together, because we can't close our eyes [to] new technologies but we can't also put pressure on societies saying this is the only way. So I think dialogue will be the best solution.​ 

The first harvest of the camelina seeds, which are then processed to produce oil, confirmed EPA levels of up to 12% and DHA of 14%, as predicted in a paper published last year in the Plant Journal​. 

“Peacefully and without interference”​ 

Unlike the research group’s GM wheat trials, which were vandalised by activists in 2012, Sayanova said the trials at its base in Hertfordshire had been conducted “peacefully and without interference​. 

She said in the past the term genetically modified had been associated with“bad science”.

A co speaker at the event said he did not like the term genetically modified, preferring instead ‘genetically optimised’. Asked if she agreed with him and others who favoured terms like genetically engineered and edited​, she said: “I'm not sure it makes a big difference because the idea is that we don't change the whole metabolism of plants, we're just aiding several very carefully selected activities which are present naturally. 

“We don't bring anything alien out; we just select natural activities and add to them and the plants. So in a way we can say genetically modified.​ 

Asking for alternatives

Asked by an audience member whether algal oils, which had not been genetically modified, might not be a better option, she said that algal oils were a "promising" ​option the group was also researching. However currently this was still far too expensive for production on a commercial scale. 

As a result she said the public was presented with two options if it wanted to avoid adding further pressure to marine stocks: stop consuming omega-3 oils – which she said was unlikely to happen – or look to these GM crops. She suggested the public’s awareness of this sustainability case was one of the main reasons for the seeming acceptance of the trials.  

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