However, the parties at the forefront of this research, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) and Australian firm Nuseed, say the crop will first be used in aquaculture before it debuts in food or dietary supplements.
Dr Surinder Singh, chief research scientist and plant oil engineering group leader at CSIRO's Agriculture and Food division presented CSIRO's research on canola oil-derived omega-3 at the recent NutraIngredients Omega-3 Summit, held from 20 to 22 February in Singapore.
Rising demand, falling supply
Singh first addressed the issue of demand outstripping supply in the omega-3 category, saying: "The major source of omega-3 has always been fish oil, but over the years, we've gradually come to realise that fish oil supply is pretty much static at around 900,000 metric tonnes.
"These figures clearly show that in the coming years, the omega-3 deficit will keep on increasing, particularly as more and more people want to meet the RDIs (recommended daily intakes) for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids."
He then pointed out that in light of a growing number of people from populous countries and regions such as China, India and South East Asia looking to meet these targets, the demand for fish and fish oil would only increase, therefore compounding the issue of stagnant supply.
Indeed, sustainability has become a pertinent problem in the omega-3 sector, with non-fish sources slowly gaining popularity while at the same time having the quality of omega-3 they produce called into question by researchers and consumers alike.
Regarding CSIRO's research, Singh said, "I can say at the outset that one hectare of this DHA canola crop we have developed yields the same amount of DHA you would get from 10,000 salmon — that's the power of our technology.
"Plants do make omega-3 naturally, but these are short-chain omega-3 fatty acids — predominantly ALA (alpha linoleic acid) and SDA (stearidonic acid). What we are concerned about is getting marine-type long-chain omega-3 fatty acids built into plants, so we can get those plants to make them."
Unlike EPA and DHA, ALA and SDA have limited human health benefits, as well as very low conversion rates to DHA in the human body.
Singh continued, "This is one of the drivers of our project. Our strategy is to take genes from microalgae — one of the primary producers of EPA and DHA — and transport them into canola, which is one of the world’s premier oil seeds.
"We picked canola because it has decades of breeding and commercial optimisation. It is already a GM crop in many geographies, grown in many regions across the world. Most importantly, there are 10 million hectares available for canola cultivation, as it stands.'
Singh then presented results from a 2005 CSIRO study involving a model oil seed crop, Arabidopsis seed, which is a relative of canola. Using a proof-of-concept hybrid pathway consisting of fish, worm and algae genes transplanted into the Arabidopsis seed, the researchers were able to get the plant crop to produce both EPA and DHA.
Since then, CSIRO has conducted an extensive gene discovery effort based on the Australian National Algae Culture Collection (ANACC), in order to produce a suitable plant-based alternative to fish oil.
CSIRO's crop development in this area began in earnest in 2010, with Nuseed one of the first companies to be involved in the project.
While the omega-3 canola oil has been permitted as a food and ingredient in Australia and New Zealand, its USDA approval, which it received last year, allows only for the cultivation of the canola crop in the US.
It is also currently undergoing regulatory assessment in Canada.
Nuseed has announced commercial brands for the canola oil, specific to key end-use markets: Aquaterra for aquaculture feed uses, and Nutriterra for human nutrition application.
Downstream aquaculture and human trial work on product has begun, and a commercial launch in the US has been planned for this year.
Singh was positive in his prediction of the product’s future, saying, "The unique profile of Nuseed oil ensures it will easily fit with current market practices and meet the needs of multiple end-market applications on a commercially viable basis."