Australian scientific collaboration set to break world’s reliance on fish for long chain omega-3

12 April 2011. Press release

A pioneering Australian research alliance is leading the international race to break the world’s reliance on fish stocks for its supply of the vital dietary nutrient, long chain omega-3.

Today (Tuesday 12 April) three Australian organisations announced a $50 million dollar research collaboration which will use leading edge gene technology to develop and commercialise vegetable oil which will contain the same high quality, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) rich long chain omega-3 that traditionally comes from fish.

This collaboration brings together Nuseed (a wholly owned subsidiary of Nufarm Ltd), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
Already as part of the project, CSIRO scientists have made a significant breakthrough by enabling canola plants to generate long chain omega-3 oils that contain DHA, something that up until now has only been found in beneficial quantities in ocean-based algae and the fish that eat it. Some land-based plants, like flaxseed, can produce shortchain omega-3 oils, but are unable to produce the more beneficial long chain omega-3 oils containing DHA.

The three parties have signed two major agreements to develop and market plant made ‘DHA-rich’ long chain omega-3 oils, utilising world leading gene technology. The first agreement is a multi-year collaborative research project to achieve a series of development milestones and complete a broad range of studies. The second agreement is a global exclusive commercial license to Nuseed for existing and co-developed long chain omega-3 intellectual property.
DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) long chain omega-3s are fatty acids which have well-documented roles in heart and brain health, child and infant development, treating inflammation and other health functions. The awareness of their health benefits and inclusion in diets – either as supplements or used to fortify processed foods – has grown exponentially over the last decade.

The Global Organisation for EPA/DHA (GOED) currently value the total long chain omega-3 market at $US18.6billion.
The primary source of these long chain omega-3s is fish, and as demand continues to grow faster than can be sustainably supplied from wild fish stocks, the race is on to find potential new sources which can satisfy burgeoning consumer demand. This is why the long chain Omega-3 Oil Research Collaboration has been created.

The CSIRO and Nuseed, with the financial support of the GRDC, have come together to undertake the research and trials to develop the highest quality of long chain DHA omega-3 in oilseed plants at levels equal to or better than fish oil.

The CSIRO has long led the way in research aimed at developing plants, through the transfer of genes from one plant (microalgae) to another (canola), which can produce the omega-3 fatty acids typically found in fish oil. The first phase of the project is to assess milestones, obtain regulatory approval, and launch a canola based product in Australia. The new collaboration aims to be trialling elite canola lines as early as 2013 and have seeds commercially available by 2016.

Dr Bruce Lee, Director of the CSIRO’s Food Futures Flagship said, “We are excited about the potential of this partnership. Our scientists have shown that it is possible to produce the same quality long chain omega-3 oils as that found in fish, and at a level that is commercially viable. By being able to produce long chain omega-3 oils in canola we are developing a nutrient that is important for human health in a sustainable plant resource.”
“CSIRO has had a long history of ground breaking research in omega-3 nutrition and plant genetics, providing the scientific  basis to develop plants containing long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids typically found in fish oils, such as EPA and DHA.  Now we are much closer to seeing the results of this important research turned into a product that is available to consumers and industry,” said Dr Lee.

The GRDC provided financial support to assist in the development of the technology to make the production of the special canola possible and Nuseed has joined to support the next stage of development, regulatory approval and global commercialisation.
Nuseed’s General Manager of Global Seeds, Brent Zacharias said, “As an emerging global seed and traits company we are in a strong position to collaborate with CSIRO and GRDC to achieve the research milestones and deliver a high quality product to the world market.”
GRDC Managing Director John Harvey said, “Plant-based omega-3 oil production is a sustainable, long-term solution to the growing demand for omega-3 oils.  This alternative long-chain omega-3 canola oil will provide Australian growers with an exciting new variety for domestic and international grain markets.”

Media contacts
Lisa Michalanney
Porter Novelli
02 8987 2111/ 0421 067 953

About the Omega-3 Oil Research Collaboration
This collaboration brings together three of Australia’s leading organisations in grain research. The CSIRO through its Food Futures National Research Flagship providing investment, the research science behind omega-3s and developing transgenic omega-3 canola; Grains Research and Development Corporation (GDRC) providing investment; and Nuseed providing investment and development, including regulatory and breeding expertise to the collaboration.

Company background information
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world. CSIRO applies its world-leading scientific knowledge to create jobs, national wealth, a healthy and sustainable environment and improved living standards for all Australians. CSIRO is enhancing Australia’s food production systems through an integrated ‘farm-to-fork’ approach. CSIRO is delivering science to enable increased productivity and efficiencies at the farm level, improving  the quality and yield of Australian crops, developing innovative food processing technologies, creating new valueadded foods, and developing the nation’s livestock, aquaculture and fishery industries.

Nuseed, a wholly owned subsidiary company of Nufarm is a global seed company committed to the breeding and production of high performance planting seed including canola, sunflower, grain and forage sorghum. Nuseed is committed to the development of elite seed products that drive value both on the farm and through the agrifood chain.  Nuseed is a member company of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED).

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) is one of the world’s leading grains research, development and extension (RD&E) organisations.  GRDC invests in RD&E to provide growers with vital information, knowledge and resources to support effective competition by Australian grain growers in global grain markets, through enhanced profitability and sustainability.
The GRDC’s investment in farming practices, plant varieties, and new products has helped position Australia’s growers as the best in the world.

See Previous GMO Pundit post:

Marketing GM crops as Atlantic salmon:


  1. I am deeply concerned about this piece of news.
    The dietary supplement industry is rife with misleading or even false claims about their products, and it would be good if the nascent ‘functional food’ aspect of GM crop development could avoid this unfortunate trend.
    The US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) is particularly keen on ensuring the veracity of claims made for dietary supplements and functional foods. In the case of omega-3 fatty acids, the FDA says that “the scientific evidence is supportive, but not conclusive” regarding its supposed ability to “reduce the risk of heart disease and sudden, fatal heart attack.” [1]
    In trying to capitalize on what may well turn out to be a “food fad”, the ag biotech sector may be laying itself open to the same criticism levied against purveyors of herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines.
    The ag biotech sector would be on far more reliable footing by touting the benefits of GM high-lysine maize. It’s well-known that lysine is an essential protein which is almost entirely lacking in vegetarian diets — but, strangely, lysine maize is directed at the cattle feed market instead.
    I’d be glad to join a chorus of approbation regarding functional GM foods, but I’m not entirely sure this is the flagship product many would hope for. It might actually prove to be an Achilles’ heel.

  2. I, for one, am very excited about this but of news. The evidence for health benefits of omega 3s seems sound to me, and as a vegetarian, I know I am not getting enough. It’s not a problem, now, but should I chose to have children, the positive effects of omega 3s on fetal development have been well documented, so I will be happy to choose enhanced vegetable oil over other oils.
    High lysine maize should be better promoted, as should high methionine maize (for poultry) but people are scared of hybrids for goodness sake. I doubt the return on a specialty maize that must be isolated is worth the bother.

  3. Eric,
    Perhaps you should consider the strongly documented fact that Omega 3 fats are an essential nutrient, and that essential short chain omega three fats are inefficiently converted to long chain Omega 3 compounds like DHA. Thus DHA provides a much better source of important components of the body than shorter chain Omega 3.
    The health facet you mention is just a small part of the large long chain omega 3 story. Given the huge weight of evidence about the health important of this new initiative, there is no doubt in my mind that it is worthy of some fanfare. Besides that, if it relieves pressure on limited ocean fish stocks, it has environmental benefits.

  4. I agree, David.
    This bit of news actually gives a bit of hope for the GM industry for a skeptic such as myself.
    I actively try to avoid GM foods. The simple reason: I value my health. I was unaware that Ag biotech was even trying, much less able to accomplish something like this. Modifying any food, but especially canola, to enhance its nutritional benefits is what biotech should be doing. Other uses of the GM process, such as making a plant able to withstand herbicide application, seem potentially dangerous nutritionally in addition to healthwise generally.
    To my reasoning, modifying a crop for the sole purpose of making it more lucrative financially is waaay more potentially damaging PR-wise than modifying a crop to make it more nutritionally sound. I applaud this effort at improving canola’s nutrition. I may yet intentionally consume GM food.

  5. Dr Bruce Lee.
    I wonder if his second in command is Dr Charles Norris.
    I was going to rant about how Monsanto did it first! (wah!) But then a bit of reading about showed me that I’m too ignorant of fatty acids in general to make such a statement (short chain, not long chain…)
    I’d say that even if Eric’s concerns about the validity of the health benefits (can’t say I agree with him there, but I havent read enough to fully form an opinion) were to hold true given the enormous market and the environmental impact (I assume – unless the oils are extracted from catch that goes to food anyway) this is, if not a home run, certainly a triple (or if not a 6, then a 4 for the Australian audience)

  6. This is great! It’s the kinda stuff I’ve been throwing at anti-GMO vegans trying to win their support. What are the advantages of this over current algae-derived DHA though I wonder?
    Thanks for the heads-up!

  7. Keith, I don’t agree that herbicide resistance per se is unhealthy, in that the risk is dependent on the particular herbicide, not the resistance gene, but I think I understand what you mean.
    I definately agree that there are traits far more interesting and potentially far more beneficial that could be worked on. The omega-3 improved canola isn’t the only nutritional trait – for example, I just came across a story about high protein soy from ISU. Here’s a list (incomplete but a good representation) showing what traits are out there: Biotech traits. And of course, let’s not forget Golden Rice.
    Why don’t we have more of these traits on the market? Some say (and I agree) that the regulatory hurdles make bringing a trait to market too expensive for smaller companies and other researchers. The process needs to be streamlined and brought up to date with modern methods so the playing field is a bit more level.

  8. David,
    I see your point, but still must wonder why the US Food and Drug Administration is not convinced.

  9. Well they do say the evidence is supportive but not conclusive. They are being properley skeptical and avoiding hype.
    They arn’t arguing that the benefits are non-existent, only that the jury is out on this part of the Omega 3 story.

  10. Mr. Dandelion,
    I discussed exactly the point you make with an executive of a giant multinational corporation bent on worldwide domination of everything from chewing gum to moss.
    This person was of the opinion that nearly all vegetarians would reject GM foods, regardless of positive contributions to a healthy diet. He or she claimed that vegetarianism was primarily a political statement rejecting gigantic corporate animal agriculture.

  11. Mr. Baumholder,
    That executive would be right but I think gives too much credit to them. It would be more about newage cultural influences than any principled political stance I’m afraid.

  12. David,
    There are some bad outcomes available in this scenario. One is that the FDA does not change its stance on omega 3 labeling, meaning the retailers of products will be able to make only tentative advertising claims.
    Another is that the anti-biotech people point this out and say, look, biotech still isn’t delivering on its promises.
    Yet another is that the first two occur at more or less the same time. You may rest assured that the anti-biotech people are strategizing along these lines.

  13. Eric,
    I think you are missing the point. There a plenty of other real benefits that are undisputed that mean the case for long chain Omega 3 is clear cut. It’s a definite health benefit overall. I don’t really care what the FDA says on this one aspect. It doesn’t even dent the positive value.

  14. “I don’t really care what the FDA says on this one aspect.”
    Considering the likelihood of fines or product recalls in the wake of advertising claims which the FDA considers to be inaccurate or misleading, food companies are going to care quite a bit about the FDA’s opinion.
    Anti-biotech activists will of course chime in if the FDA finds the claims for a GMO product to be inaccurate or misleading — a public relations debacle.
    While many of us might find supporting research to be convincing, that is but nothing in comparison to the power and reach of a federal agency.

  15. High Serum Omega 3 Levels Linked to Increased Risk of Aggressive Prostate Cancer
    April 26, 2011
    “The largest study ever to examine the association of dietary fats and prostate cancer risk has found what’s good for the heart may not be good for the prostate.
    Analyzing data from a nationwide study involving more than 3,400 men, researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that men with the highest blood percentages of docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an inflammation-lowering omega-3 fatty acid commonly found in fatty fish, have two-and-a-half-times the risk of developing aggressive, high-grade prostate cancer compared to men with the lowest DHA levels.

  16. Haven’t read the study yet – it appears however that the link may not be quite as strong there as it may appear in your quoted section – later in the article (not the study) it says that most of the omega-3’s were obtained from eating fish – therefore it isn’t exactly hard to posit that perhaps the increased levels of omega-3’s in the blood were caused by increased fish intake and that the increased incidence of prostate cancer was also caused by something taken in with the fish and was simply correlated with the omega-3’s.
    2.5x the risk isn’t really a very good indicator of increased risk either imo – I’ll see if I get a little time today to parse out absolute numbers and the variance around the numbers – I always find “X times the risk” statements to be vaguely fishy when they don’t reference what the basal risk is anyway – it is noteworthy that the authors of the study are quoted as saying that their findings don’t suggest that folk should avoid omega-3’s as the known benefits far outweigh the potential risk (suggesting the numbers of folk who get high-grade prostate cancer and small in the first place making 2x and similar changes in numbers relatively less hardcore than they initially sound)

  17. The full paper,
    Serum Phospholipid Fatty Acids and Prostate Cancer Risk: Results From the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial by Theodore M. Brasky, Cathee Till, Emily White, Marian L. Neuhouser, Xiaoling Song, Phyllis Goodman, Ian M. Thompson, Irena B. King, Demetrius Albanes, and Alan R. Kristal,
    is not available without a subscription. The following is from the Discussion section:

    “This study has several strengths. It is the largest prospective
    study to examine the association of circulating fatty
    acids and prostate cancer risk. The absence or presence of
    cancer was determined by prostate biopsy, which reduced
    the probability of disease misclassification. Measurement
    error due to intraindividual variability in fatty acid concentration was further reduced by pooling 2 blood draws. The primary limitation of the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial is that almost all cases were local stage, and many would likely have never been diagnosed by standard clinical practice. It is important to note that most significant associations were for risk of clinically relevant, high-grade cancer only, which was defined very conservatively as a Gleason score of 8–10. In a sensitivity analysis, we examined associations by using other definitions for prostate cancer grade. Despite smaller sample sizes, associations with high-grade tumors were stronger when they were defined as Gleason scores 8–10, compared with Gleason scores 7–10 or Gleason (4 þ 3) plus 8–10. Thus, our findings for high-grade cancer are specific to the most clinically relevant, localized disease.
    An additional limitation is that fatty acids were parameterized
    as a proportion rather than a concentration. When expressed as a proportion, a positive association with one fatty acid could lead to a falsely inverse association with another (36). However, when all the fatty acids examined were included in a single model, the results did not change.”

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