The development of new health food crops
Peter Lapinskas (1994)
Presented at: Society for Economic Botany (UK Chapter) meeting, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 17 April 1994

There is undoubtedly a huge range of potential new foods yet to be found in the plant kingdom, and the search for these is an exciting field of research. However, once a promising new product has been found, the story is far from over. There are many years of rigorous testing in trials and laboratory experiments before one can be sufficiently sure both of its efficacy and the safety of it to be released as a new product. In parallel with this work, the supply of raw material for the product has to be secured, so that when it is launched, we can be sure that no shortages will develop and that it can be supplied at an affordable price.

Efamol, with its roots in the seed trade, has taken the view that botanical sources of supply can be made both cost-effective and reliable, provided that resources are put into developing the source plant, and optimising production techniques. A good example of this approach is the evening primrose (Oenothera spp). which contains the unusual fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA) in the oil extracted from its seed. This now oil is now a highly successful health food product and also forms the basis for several registered pharmaceutical products.

When Efamol first started to work on the evening primrose, it was a wild plant, and well adapted to survival in its native habitat. However, some of the characteristics which helped it to flourish when left to is own devices, were distinctly unhelpful when farmers tried to grow it as a crop. Two in particular caused problems; seed dormancy and seed shedding.

In the wild, seed dormancy helps a plant to spread its progeny over a number of successive years, thus reducing the losses due to unfavourable seasons. In the case of the evening primrose, the seed will quite happily survive in the soil for 10 or 20 years.

At the other end of the life cycle the pods, which contain the ripe seed, split as they mature. this is the mechanism by which the seed is spread. Clearly this is a disadvantage for the farmer, particularly since the pods ripen over a period of time. Thus if he waits until all the pods are ripe before harvesting, most of the seed will have been shed, but if he harvests as soon as the seed starts to fall, much of tile crop will still be unripe.

We found the answer to both these problems through plant breeding. By making hybrids between promising races and carefully selecting from the progeny, we were able to produce new varieties which germinate readily and which keep their pods closed, whilst still producing the all-important active component, GLA. In fact the average yield of GLA per ha has increased 4 fold since we began, with prospects for further improvements in the pipeline.

Such work is time-consuming and requires a long-term commitment to achieve significant results. However, as we have demonstrated with the evening primrose, the end result is a new crop which helps to diversify agricultural production, and which provides an effective product to the consumer.

By keeping an open mind about the viability of plant sources of raw materials therefore, and by being prepared to invest in long-term research to improve their performance, it is possible for companies such as Efamol to greatly improve the quality and value of their raw materials and, ultimately, for the consumer. These new crops may not only be cost effective and reliable, but also provide opportunities for farmers to diversify their cropping, and to develop new sources of income.

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