The UK has become the first European country to allow the test planting of a genetically engineered (GE) crop – a GE camelina oilseed – after deeming that the plant did not count as a genetically modified (GM) crop.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) approved the GE camelina – which will produce omega 3 oils – due to the fact that it contained no foreign DNA, The Telegraph reported on 22 May.

Johnathan Napier, leading the trial at Rothamstead research centre in Hertfordshire, said getting the plant to produce omega 3 was important due to dwindling wild fish stocks, which are the traditional source of omega 3.

During the trial, the research team would grow both GM camelina that had had omega 3 producing genes added, and the GE camelina which had them removed, in an attempt to understand the plant’s metabolism and find a ‘sweet spot’ for maximum omega 3 production.

The trial had been arranged in collaboration with a French research team due to the French government’s ban on releasing genetically altered plants into the environment for research.

Environmental campaigners were calling the UK government’s decision a mistake.

“Instead of putting public health and the environment first, Defra has handed out a free pass to plant highly experimental genetically engineered crops in open fields without a proper risk assessment,” said Liz O’Neil, director of GM Freeze.

The UK approval came ahead of the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) decision on whether GE crops, which have no foreign DNA, should be regulated in the same way as GM crops or if they could be considered conventionally bred crops.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the USA have all so far indicated that GE crops would be free from GM regulation as long as they contained no introduced DNA.

In January, ECJ advocate general Michal Bobek released a non-binding opinion that GE crops should be exempt from GM rules, barring introduction of foreign DNA.

Genetic engineering is a relatively recent group of different technologies that allow genetic material to be added, removed or altered in a particular location in an organism’s genome.

Scientist can target single genes in the target genome and cut the DNA at that particular point. Then, they make use of the DNA’s own cell repair mechanisms to either delete or add a piece of related genetic material or turn a gene on or off.