Turning flax into fish oil

14 August, 2014

I enjoy a good laugh.

So it was with some wry amusement – at least at first – that I read the coverage of the Rothamsted field trials of GM camelina here in the UK last week.

According to the ‘science’ correspondent of the Telegraph: “The first genetically modified crops, enriched with nutrients to improve health, will be harvested within weeks following a landmark field trial in Britain.

“In a major step towards GM food, a crop of camelina (false flax) has been spliced with genes which make omega-3 so that its seeds will produce an oil rich in fatty acid normally only found in fish.”

The Daily Mail went on to say: “The crops could help to alleviate pressure on the growing problem of strained fish stocks around the world and provide a more efficient source of omega-3” and help make fish farming more sustainable.

Where to begin?

Although Camelina sativa is sometimes called false flax, it is not a flax but a member of the brassica family. This means it has a lot of relatives in the plant world it can cross breed with. This is only one concern and indeed the field trial raises many more.

These include significant potential for seed dispersal by wildlife, unintended consequences of the genetic manipulation process and thus food safety issues.

Without the being genetically modified camelina seed oil is comprised of around 45% omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (LNA, or sometimes ALA), a shorter chain fatty acid found in plant oils. It is also high in healthy vitamin E.

The genetic modification process has spliced into it a gene from algae to make it produce EPA (eicosapentaenoic  acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), longer chain fatty acids commonly found in marine oils.

Fish like humans don’t actually make ‘fish oil”. It builds up in their tissues and organs from a diet of fatty acid-rich algaes, seaweeds, krill and other nutritious marine foods.

The supplement industry has for some time now been promoting algae oils as a more sustainable source of long chain omega-3s than fish oil.  Humans can convert short chain fatty acids into long chain ones and vegetarians, for example, have been shown to substantially increase their levels of DHA and EPA with algae supplements.

What is more it’s worth questioning whether long-chain fatty acids are the be all and end all of health. Evidence suggests that people whose diets are higher in shorter-chain LNA (common in Mediterranean diets) are less likely to suffer coronary artery disease and hypertension. It may also be neuroprotective helping to lower stress and anxiety and offering some protection against depression.  With fats, as with all aspects of our diets, variety is the key.

Almost none of this matters though, because the truth is camelina is being trialled specifically because we have so abused our oceans that we are running out of fish for ourselves and we certainly don’t have enough to spare to feed filthy, unsustainable aquatic feed lots.

It is being trialled because pharmaceutical manufacturers want a cheap source of omega-3s (even though taking a GMO pill is the antithesis of ‘healthy’ in many consumers’ minds).

It is being trialled because the people who have messed up the world the most are the ones who most desperately want to believe that GMOs are the deus ex machina that will make all their mistakes go away.

If you believed what you read last week, then you probably went to be bed happy in the notion that our continued good heath is assured, that mankind finally has corrected a massive defect in the Camelina sativa plant and that we can all continue to eat as much salmon as  we like. Guilt-free.

But make no mistake this public good narrative of GM is, at heart, blackly cynical and emotionally manipulative. It is carefully constructed to misdirect our attention from the fact that GMOs are being used to support and perpetuate some of the worst, most unsustainable farming practices, while the most gullible amongst us ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the magic of turning flax into fish oil. It’s the worst kind of abracadabra.

Laugh?  I nearly cried.

Pat Thomas, Editor