Saturday, July 18, 2015

Producing Omega-3 Oils in GM Plants

Aside from tasting good, oily fish such as salmon are good for you because they contain special types of fish oils - called omega-3 oils - that are known to reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing the risk of atherosclerosis. However, salmon do not actually make the oils. Omega-3 oils are made by single-celled algae, which are eaten by small herbivorous fish, which are in turn eaten by small carnivorous fish and so on up the food chain. Eventually the omega-3 oils end up in the salmon.

The demand for wild-caught salmon is leading to a depletion of salmon stocks worldwide. An alternative choice food choice would be farmed salmon, raised in enclosed bays or in pens in the oceans. Increased consumption of farmed salmon could reduce the demand for wild-caught salmon and thus prevent wild salmon from being overfished. Unfortunately, farmed salmon contain lesser quantities of omega-3 oils unless they are fed a steady diet of small fish such as wild-caught anchovies. That leads to a problem; feeding farmed fish wild-caught fish to boost their omega-3 content may just lead to overfishing of those other smaller species. And from the fish farmer's point of view, feeding farmed salmon a diet of wild-caught fish is expensive.

A solution may be on the horizon, but not everyone is going to like it because it involves genetic engineering and the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A team of scientists in England has managed to genetically modify an oil-producing plant related to rape (the plant that produces canola oil) so that it produces high yields of omega-3 oils. The new GM plant contains genes from several other plant species, including a moss and an alga. It produces enough omega-3 oils that farmed salmon could be raised on a diet of GM fish chow.

So here's the dilemma; do we want to raise farmed salmon on GM chow, producing a healthy food alternative to wild salmon and reducing the fishing pressure on wild salmon populations? Or do we want to continue to shun GMOs and deplete the world's oceans of fish?

Sometimes our choices are not all that easy.

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