Fish-free fish oil - no more taking the mackerel? Photo: Bill Abbott via Flickr.com.
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GMO 'fish oil' crop trials - how to respond?
24th January 2014
Rothamsted Research has applied to field trial GM Camelina plants that make long chain omega-3 fatty acids - an important nutrient currently available only from fish. This poses a dilemma for those who have so far opposed GMO foods.
Long chain omega-3s are not readily available, especially to poor people or those in hot countries far from the sea. There is also a global crisis of over-fishing.
The application to trial the GM Camelina oilseed - a species similar to the well-known oilseed rape - is certain to receive Defra's permission and we can confidently expect the crop trial to begin shortly, in time for the 2014 growing season.
Established GM campaigners have lost no time to oppose the application. Helen Wallace, executive director of Genewatch, spoke today on the BBC's World at One to denounce it as a "desperate attempt" by the GM industry that would bring "no real benefit to health" and was "not a sustainable solution".
Rather than representing a genuine benefit to people suffering from poor diet and nutrition, she insisted, it was merely "tinkering". She went on to warn of "unintended side effects" that might result from the genetic modiciation, with possible dire consequences for health.
Her conclusion was clear and firm - the crop trials should not take place.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential
But the facts of the matter are not quite so clear and simple. Long chain omega-3 fatty acids are not strictly essential in the diet, no. But omega-3 fatty acids are, and most people eat nowhere near enough of them.
Modern diets are over-rich in the omega-6 fatty acids abundant in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils like soy, corn, sunflower and safflower. The far more fragile omega-3 oils are relatively scarce and most of us eat much less of them that we should.
Moreover the vegetable omega-3 oils that we do get - linseed, hemp seed and green leaf vegetables are good sources - are of the short-chain variety, predominantly alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA.
And ALA is many metabolic steps away from the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA for short, that are needed to maintain good health - especially in the brain, nervous tissues, heart, and immune system.
Our bodies can and do extend the ALA into EPA and DHA, but it is a long and metabolically 'expensive' process requiring the well-functioning of numerous enzymes.
Moreover not everyone can produce enough of the long chain omega-3s. Some are genetically disadvantaged. Others may suffer from mineral deficiences that cause a shortage of key enzymes essential to the elongation process.
Fish oil - a valuable nutrient
That's why millions of people take fish oil as a nutritional supplement, or make a point of eating oily fish like mackerel or herring. The EPA and DHA is especially beneficial for babies and children who need far more of it than adults to build a healthy brain and nervous system.
But it's beneficial to get additional EPA and DHA right through life, and those who do are likely to enjoy better cognitive, nervous and cardiovascular health - something to think about as ever more elderly people are afflicted by Alzheimer's disease.
There is however a serious problem. The seas are unable to provide enough fish to feed the world. Of course it's not helpful that the biggest consumer of the world's fish catch is not actually people, but ... fish.
That is, high value fish like salmon kept in fish farms and fed on low value 'trash' fish turned into fishmeal. These in fact eat an astonishing 80% of the world's fish oil production.
But fish is also expensive and in many parts of the world, either not affordable or simply not available at all. And that's not to mention the vegetarians and vegans who choose not to eat fish on principle.
Fish may also be contaminated with heavy metals like mercury from coal fired power stations, bio-concentrated in marine ecosystems. There are also growing fears about radioactive contamination to Pacific fish from Fukushima.
There are real benefits to be gained
So if crops were to provide us with the EPA and DHA that we need without needing to catch and kill fish, that surely creates a real benefit for us, and the quality of our diet.
It could also reduce the world's dependence on wild-caught fish and relieve pressure on dwindling fish stocks. The EPA/DHA rich oilseeds could make a real contribution to both health and environment.
This is in stark contrast to the direction of the GMO industry to date. Two very specific interventions characterise the current generation of GM crops: resistance to herbicides like glyphosate and glufonisate; and built-in pest resistance using Bt toxins from Bacillus thiriguensis.
GM crops so far - a disaster
Both have had serious and undesirable consequences. Herbicide resistance allows farmers to spray the growing crop with herbicides to control weeds.
And because a crop may be sprayed to control weeds several times over a growing season, it inevitably causes far higher levels of herbicide residues in the resulting food - with reported consequences on animal health.
It also means that fallen seeds in the field can contaminate the following year's crop - unless a different herbicide is used to get rid of them. Now as crops are engineered to be resistant to multiple herbicides, it will become ever harder to find herbicides that can do the job without resorting to ever more toxic ones.
The herbicide resistance genes have also spread to wild crop relatives, creating new 'super-weeds' - again requiring the use of new and often more toxic herbicides for their control. The result is detrimental to both health and environment.
Bt toxins - not so harmless?
Bt toxins can indeed be effective in controlling insect pests. But they too are not ideal - after all they are produced within the tissues of the plant itself, and are therefore present in the resulting food, not to mention pollen and possibly even nectar, so they can kill beneficial insects like bees.
Moreover insects can acquire resistance to the Bt toxins - as has happened with aggressive strains of boll-worm in India. The answer has been to increase the number of Bt toxins in the GM crops, and even to create new synthetic toxins not found in nature.
One such example is StarStax corn, widely grown in the USA, engineered to be resistant to both glyphosate and glufosinate and expressing eight different Bt toxons, one of them synthetic.
And while Bt toxin is not meant to be harmful to humans, this notion is coming increasingly under question. The truth is that the long-term food studies that would prove that is safe to eat Bt toxins in our daily food have simply not been carried out. Safety has been assumed.
The anti-GMO movement hs won all the arguments
This dire state of affairs has enabled anti-GMO campaigners to win all the arguments as far as health and environment are concerned, as well as the battle of public perception. GM food is quite rightly seen as a liability and anti-GM movements are growing across the world.
There may be benefits for farmers - some of them at least, for a time - and GMO companies like Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences have grown rich on the proceeds. But where is the benefit for consumers or environment?
The answer is clear - there is no benefit to consumers or environment, only hazards and harm.
The development of Golden rice, engineered to express Vitamin A, has been a sop in the direction of providing consumer and health benefit.
But that's all it is - because the sought-after benefit can be achieved simply by eating a few green leaves and other vegetables, which also deliver a host of other vitamins and mineral nutrients that the Golden rice could never deliver.
This time there is a difference
The EPA/DHA Camelina is different. The long chain omega-3s are not readily available, especially to poor people or those in hot countries far from the sea. There is also a global crisis of over-fishing.
Yes, there are other possible solutions to these problems. The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids could be eaten in the form of algae, for example. And there is no actual need to feed quite so much of the world's fish catch to fish, rather than people - merely a powerful economic driver.
But to judge by the price of algae-based dietary supplements in health food shops, there is nothing cheap about growing, harvesting and preparing algae for human consumption.
And to judge by the success of campaigners to date in reforming the world's fishing and fish farming industries, we should not expect any major transformation any time soon.
Should campaigners be more open?
So maybe campaigners should be more open to the GM Camelina. Of course it needs to be tested and screened very carefully for any unforeseen and undesirable consequences of the kind alluded to by Helen Wallace.
Far more complete, thorough and long lasting tests must be performed to prove their safety before they enter into the food chain, than has been standard practice with GM crops to date.
But these are not arguments against carrying out the trials. They may actually be arguments to carry out the trials, and to ensure that the trials themselves and the subsequent food safety testing are carried out to the highest standard.
A question of principle?
Of course there are those who oppose all GMO and GM technologies on a matter of ethical or philosophical principle, or from simple conviction. They are fully entitled to that view.
But many GMO campaigners still need to work out in their own minds exactly where they stand. Are they opposed to GMO technology itself?
Or are they opposed to the way in which obnoxious, aggressive and over-powerful multinational corporations have used GMO technology, allied it with restrictive and monopolistic practices, defended it with flawed patent and intellectual property regimes, and used it to attack the environment and human health in the callous and single-minded pursuit of profit at all cost?
On the second point I know exactly where I stand.
On the first, I'm still thinking about it.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
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