Science & Environment

Novel crop launched in the UK

Ahi Flower Image copyright NAtures Crops International

A new plant has been launched in the UK which its developers say could provide farmers with a reliable and profitable crop.

Ahi Flower has been bred from a weed, commonly known as gromwell or wheat thief.

It's a member of the borage family and has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

While omega-3 fatty acids play vital roles in the body, the benefits of taking supplements remain unproven in the peer-reviewed literature.

Greg Cumberford, vice president at Natures Crops International, which has spent 12 years developing the plant and re-branding it as the trademarked Ahi Flower, says it is an alternative to fish as a source of omega-3s.

"Our bodies actually convert (it) to EPA, which is one of the two main omega 3's found in fish oil," he explained.

The Ahi Flower has been approved in the US and the EU as a novel food, and its developers are targeting the multi-billion pound global market in dietary supplements.

With concerns about the long term sustainability of relying on fish as a source of omega-3s, other sources are being investigated and developed.

Philip Calder, professor of nutritional immunology at the University of Southampton points out that no plant produces the same omega-3 types that we currently get from fish: "If we had plants that produced the fish type omega-3's, which are EPA and DHA, then those plants would be very good replacements for fish.

"But at the moment we don't have plants which make both EPA and DHA."

While he says that plants which produce omega-3's which we can convert into EPA, like flax or Ahi Flower could be useful, Prof Calder points to algae and algal oils which also produce omega-3 fatty acids.

"Feeding them to animals like chickens means that meat and eggs can be enriched in the important omega-3s," he said.

The Ahi Flower has been developed using conventional breeding methods, but scientists at Rothamsted Institute in Hertfordshire are holding field trials of a genetically modified crop which also aims to provide a plant-based source of omega-3s.

Synthetic genes which produce both EPA and DHA have been added to the camelina plant.

But the health benefits of supplementing a balanced diet with additional omega-3s are not clear, with conflicting evidence in the peer-reviewed literature.

But Greg Cumberford from Natures Crops International predicts a big market for ahi flower, telling me it's versatile, as unlike fish oil it has a neutral taste and smell. It's going to be added to functional foods, like salad dressing or omega boosts for smoothies as well as being used as a supplement.

All of which could be good news for British farmers.

Lincolnshire farmer Ben Jackson has grown two fields worth on a corner of his farm, he admits he put it out of the way in case it was a disaster.

He said: "We were looking for a new crop which didn't need any specialist equipment."

And while his grandfather may have been horrified by a field of what is basically a weed, Mr Jackson said: "What he would consider a weed is through science and innovation in agriculture, hopefully, a commercial and viable crop."

If it makes money, he'll grow it again.