Nov 2, 2023

Aquaculture—Camelina as a Platform Crop for Omega-3 Oil Production

Aquaculture Camelina as a Platform Crop for Omega-3 Oil Production cover image

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to human nutrition, and two main components, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found primarily in fish oil. Small fish, such as mackerel herring and sardines are rich in omega-3 oil and this nutrient reaches health-conscious consumers who eat fish, including salmon, or take dietary supplements. The EPA and DHA present in fish oil support heart health, ease inflammation, and reduce certain risks of chronic disease, with long-term consumption having proven benefits for overall health.

As such, fish oil is in high demand in the world we live in today. But as natural fisheries are becoming depleted, threats to global food security continue to arise. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, over 90% of the world's fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. And on top of that, changing weather patterns and ocean temperatures are affecting ocean life and disrupting the marine food chain.

The presence of microplastics in the ocean is also negatively affecting marine life. According to research, an average of 60% of wild-caught fish contain microplastics in their organs, which can impact the nutrition of fish for human consumers.

Seeing how dire the situation is for marine life and wanting to ensure global food security while also meeting the global demand for omega-3 fatty acids, we have embarked on a journey to sustainably produce omega-3 oil from a land-based source—in collaboration with Rothamsted Research.

Developing advanced technology to source omega-3 fatty acids from Camelina oil

Based on our commitment to support natural fisheries and encourage the sustainable production of farmed fish, we believe Camelina sativa can be harnessed as a platform crop for producing oil that is rich in EPA and DHA oil and closely mimics the benefits of fish oil.

At the end of 2020, we entered a collaboration with Rothamsted Research to create a land-based solution to supplying this heart-healthy oil for use as an ingredient in commercial fish feed, especially for farmed salmon. We are supporting efforts underway at Rothamsted to develop the innovative technology needed for successfully scaling up Camelina-based omega-3 oil. Together, we're determined to create the fish oil alternative the world needs today.

As a world-leading UK-based nonprofit research center that focuses on strategic agricultural science to the benefit of farmers and society worldwide, Rothamsted Research has the necessary capabilities, expertise, and technology approach to help achieve this goal.

For the last decade, the Rothamsted team led by Professor Johnathan Napier, Ph.D., Science Director, has not only demonstrated the production of DHA+EPA oils in Camelina seeds but has also carried out multi-year field trials and multiple feeding studies using these Camelina produced omega-3 oils on different fish species, including salmon. They have also published research showing that the omega-3 oils produced in Camelina closely mimic the heart-healthy benefit of omega-3 in human clinical studies.  

We are supporting the Rothamstead team as they conduct further field testing, seed scale-up, nutritional studies, and ongoing research to improve the DHA+EPA trait. Our collaboration is driven by a unique vision to develop Camelina as a commercial crop for the land-based, sustainable production of omega-3 oils, which are not only essential for human health and nutrition, but also for crop diversification to growers.

Why Camelina oil is a suitable alternative to fish oil

In 2020, Professor Napier was the lead author of a paper published in Nature describing how agtech innovation could help aquaculture become greener. The research featured in that paper depicts how overfishing and the decline of marine diversity can only be addressed by taking a sustainable approach to aquaculture. The omega-3 oil produced in Camelina is a stepping stone towards supplying sufficient omega-3 oils both as a nutrient for farmed fish and as a healthy oil for human nutrition.

Over the last decade, Professor Napier and his research team at Rothamsted have successfully produced DHA+EPA omega-3 oils in Camelina seeds. Our partners at Rothamsted have achieved this feat by using genetic engineering techniques to reproduce the omega-3 biosynthesis pathway from algae to Camelina.

This approach has proven to be effective in achieving high levels of both EPA and DHA in the seed oil of Camelina. In fact, the omega-3 oil produced in Camelina not only matches but also exceeds the levels of EPA and DHA found in fish oil derived from mackerel or cod liver. Additionally, multi-year field trials and multiple feeding studies carried out by the Rothamsted team have shown that the DHA and EPA in Camelina oil are equivalent to the natural omega-3 fish oils.

But Camelina's ability to produce high levels of omega-3 fatty acids is not the only thing making this plant suitable for producing fish oil alternatives. What makes it even more valuable, at least through a sustainability lens, is its high technology upside potential, fast growth cycle, and robust agronomics.

Last but not least, we believe that Camelina is a better platform for producing omega-3 oils as an alternative to canola and soy because its seeds are easier to segregate from these major seed export crops during production, harvesting, and processing. And we believe that these attributes make Camelina an ideal platform crop for producing land-based omega-3 oils that have the potential to contribute positively to human nutrition, global food security and make a significant difference in the sustainability of aquaculture.

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