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

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.

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


"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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