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GM plants 'would bring health benefits'

PUBLISHED: 10:02 16 November 2007 | UPDATED: 08:17 28 March 2014

November 2007: AN EU-funded study claims that genetically modified plants which produce essential omega-3 fishoils could be the only way to ensure people get enough of these
nutrients.

The plants, which
would be used as feed for farm animals, could increase omega-3 in human


diets without adding to pressure on rapidly declining fish stocks, according to the study.

Fatty acids found mainly in oily fish such as tuna,
salmon and mackerel, can give protection against cardiovascular
diseases and slow mental decline in elderly people and are essential


for the healthy development of a baby's brain in the womb.

Experts
recommend that we eat about 450mg of omega-3 oils every day, but most


adults manage barely half that amount. Among teenagers, the figure


drops to just 100mg a day. Low-income families get about 50mg a day


less than average.

A five-year EU-funded
project called Lipgene brought together almost 200 scientists and


economists to look for ways to increase the levels of the oils in


people's diets. An analysis carried out for the project found that the


costs of increasing omega-3 consumption across Europe would be paid


back many times over in reduced healthcare costs.

Ian Givens,
of the University of Reading, one of the Lipgene scientists, said that


part of the answer lay in increasing omega-3 fish oils in popular


foods. Only 30% of Britons regularly eat oily fish, but 80% eat


poultry.

"The target we set ourselves was for a 200g portion of meat to


contain 300mg of EPA and DPA (fatty acids) together - we've achieved that. If that


strategy was adopted on a widespread basis, that poultry meat in the


amounts it's currently consumed would provide the population with


120-130mg a day," he said.

Givens increased the omega-3 levels in his
chickens by adding the oils, taken from fish, to their feed. However,
this method may not be sustainable given the depletion of fish stocks


around the world.

Johnathan Napier, of Rothamsted Research
Institute in Hertfordshire, said that the only sustainable way to
increase omega-3 in people's diets was to turn to GM technology. "There


are no naturally occurring plant species that have the capacity to


synthesise these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which is why we have


to take the GM route - there is no alternative."

EPA and DHA are
normally made by microscopic marine algae which are then eaten by small


fish, passing the fatty acids into the food chain. Napier took genes


from algae and inserted them into linseed and oilseed rape crops so


that these produced the oils. The GM plants can be used as feed for


chickens or other animals. Napier said that fields of GM crops for


animal feed could be grown within five years.

Another advantage
would be a source of fish oils free from mercury contamination. The


scientists said concerns among the public about GM crops would need to


be addressed, but Givens was confident of support. "When the issues


about sustainability of fish oils and the worldwide picture becomes


clearer, and also when people are able to see what the benefits to them


are, I suspect mindsets will change."

Napier said that
environmentalists would need to consider the sustainability aspect. "If


you're reducing the pressure on natural fish stocks, that's got to be a


benefit. You can't always be a nay-sayer, you've got to come up with a


positive solution."

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