GM plants 'would bring health benefits'

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 thesenutrients.

The plants, whichwould be used as feed for farm animals, could increase omega-3 in humandiets 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 cardiovasculardiseases and slow mental decline in elderly people and are essentialfor the healthy development of a baby's brain in the womb.

Expertsrecommend that we eat about 450mg of omega-3 oils every day, but mostadults manage barely half that amount. Among teenagers, the figuredrops to just 100mg a day. Low-income families get about 50mg a dayless than average.

A five-year EU-fundedproject called Lipgene brought together almost 200 scientists andeconomists to look for ways to increase the levels of the oils inpeople's diets. An analysis carried out for the project found that thecosts of increasing omega-3 consumption across Europe would be paidback many times over in reduced healthcare costs.

Ian Givens,of the University of Reading, one of the Lipgene scientists, said thatpart of the answer lay in increasing omega-3 fish oils in popularfoods. Only 30% of Britons regularly eat oily fish, but 80% eatpoultry.

"The target we set ourselves was for a 200g portion of meat tocontain 300mg of EPA and DPA (fatty acids) together - we've achieved that. If thatstrategy was adopted on a widespread basis, that poultry meat in theamounts it's currently consumed would provide the population with120-130mg a day," he said.

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

Johnathan Napier, of Rothamsted ResearchInstitute in Hertfordshire, said that the only sustainable way toincrease omega-3 in people's diets was to turn to GM technology. "Thereare no naturally occurring plant species that have the capacity tosynthesise these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which is why we haveto take the GM route - there is no alternative."

EPA and DHA arenormally made by microscopic marine algae which are then eaten by smallfish, passing the fatty acids into the food chain. Napier took genesfrom algae and inserted them into linseed and oilseed rape crops sothat these produced the oils. The GM plants can be used as feed forchickens or other animals. Napier said that fields of GM crops foranimal feed could be grown within five years.

Another advantagewould be a source of fish oils free from mercury contamination. Thescientists said concerns among the public about GM crops would need tobe addressed, but Givens was confident of support. "When the issuesabout sustainability of fish oils and the worldwide picture becomesclearer, and also when people are able to see what the benefits to themare, I suspect mindsets will change."

Napier said thatenvironmentalists would need to consider the sustainability aspect. "Ifyou're reducing the pressure on natural fish stocks, that's got to be abenefit. You can't always be a nay-sayer, you've got to come up with apositive solution."