By Kate Kelland
LONDON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - British scientists have applied for permission to run an open-air field trial of a genetically modified (GM) crop they hope may one day become a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of healthy Omega-3 fats.
The proposed trial - likely to generate controversy in a nation where GM foods have little public support - could start as early as May and will use Camelina plants engineered to produce seeds high in Omega-3 long chain fatty acids.
No GM crops are currently grown commercially in Britain and only two - a pest-resistant type of maize and a potato with enhanced starch content - are licensed for cultivation in the European Union (EU).
But scientists at Britain's agricultural lab Rothamsted Research have developed Camelina plants to produce Omega-3 fats that are known to be beneficial to health but normally found only in oils in increasingly limited fish stocks.
The idea, they told journalists at a briefing on their plans, is initially to supply the fish farming industry - which currently consumes around 80 percent of fish oils taken from the sea - with a non-fish source of these Omega-3s.
Beyond that, possibly within a decade, the GM-produced Omega-3 oils could be used in food products such as margarine, the researchers said.
"We now have a vegetable oil enhanced with these two critical fish oils," said Johnathan Napier, a professor of plant science and head of a 15-year research project which has so far shown that the fish-oil producing plants can been grown successfully in greenhouses.
"We know it works in the glasshouse, now (we need to see) does it work in the real world?" he said.
The researchers said that although the trial would be in the open air, there was no risk of cross-pollination between the Camelina plant and other field crops grown in Britain.
The application for permission to conduct the trial, which submitted to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Monday, is subject to a public consultation and an inquiry by a scientific committee that monitors such GM plans.
A decision could be made within 90 days.
While Britain and the EU have been very reticent about the use of GM crops, they are commonplace elsewhere.
The first GM seeds were planted in the United States more than 15 years ago and so far no evidence has been documented of adverse health impacts for people eating GM-derived foods.
GM crops can also be imported into Britain and used to produce ingredients for human food and for animal feed.
While he acknowledged there is likely to be some public opposition to the idea of a GM field trial, Napier said he hoped the potential for boosting health and protecting the environment would persuade sceptics of the project's value.
"If you have a crop that has got potential health benefits and sustainability and environmental benefits, and we can articulate that clearly, then I think people will see this is an OK thing to do," he said.
Omega-3 oils found in fish are known to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attacks and strokes. (Reporting by Kate Kelland, ; Editing by John Stonestreet)