A field trial has successfully produced camelina oilseed plants which are genetically engineered to make omega-3 fish oils.
Scientists said the first year results of the experiment at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, demonstrated an ‘important proof of concept’ that a crop plant can be engineered to synthesise the fatty acids in seeds.
The oils have been shown to benefit human health and help protect against coronary heart diseases.
Researchers have been working on the project in the laboratory for the last 15 years in order to find out if plants can produce the fatty acids in a more ‘sustainable way’.
Dr Olga Sayanova, the senior Rothamsted Researcher who developed the GM camelina plants, said: “Finding a land-based source of feedstocks containing omega-3 fish oils has long been an urgent priority for truly sustainable aquaculture.
"Our results give hope that oilseed crops grown on land can contribute to improving the sustainability of the fish farming industry and the marine environment in the future."
Professor Johnathan Napier who led the camelina programme said developing the omega-3 fish oil trait ’is probably the most complex example of plant genetic engineering to be tested in the field’.
Fish do not produce these oils but accumulate them through their diet in the wild or through fish oil and fishmeal in farmed fish.
About 80 per cent of all fish oil is consumed by the aquaculture sector.
Researchers believe one day the GM oils could be found on the shelves of high street health shops and in margarine.
NFU chief science and regulatory affairs adviser Dr Helen Ferrier said: “This is a very exciting trial and we are glad to see positive results as a step towards sustainable production of a particularly valuable feed crop given the nutritional importance of eating fish.
“The research shows a potentially highly productive relationship between agriculture and aquaculture in the future to ensure there is a sustainable source of fish. It also shows the potential for direct consumer, societal and environmental benefit from biotechnology."
Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, criticised the trial.
“This is at least the third time that scientists involved have ‘broken the news’ about this particular GM crop," he said.
"It is not even necessary - there are several other sources of omega-3 fatty acids besides oily fish, including the higher levels found in organic milk.
"There are oily fish which meet Marine Stewardship Council standards for environmental sustainability. So even if this GM omega-3 crop actually works outside the laboratory, and even if people can absorb omega-3 from it (no work on that has been done yet) this may simply be bad news for British organic dairy farmers and some British inshore fishermen."
The trial was a stark contrast to Rothamsted’s recent GM wheat experiment.
The £2.7m trial (including site security) saw cadenza wheat genetically engineered to repel aphids, however the plants did not repel the pests in the field.