Health herb to become ‘super crop’ for Scots farmers

One hectare of corn gromwell produces the same amount of omega oil as 20 tonnes of fish, according to ahiflower maker Nature's Crops International. Picture: Contributed
One hectare of corn gromwell produces the same amount of omega oil as 20 tonnes of fish, according to ahiflower maker Nature's Crops International. Picture: Contributed
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A WILD herb once considered a weed is set to become a ­valuable new super crop for Scottish farmers.

Buglossoides arvensis, commonly known as corn gromwell or bastard alkanet, is a relative of the more familiar borage and comfrey. It can be invasive if allowed to grow out of control and has long been killed off to allow commercial cereal crops to thrive.

But research has shown its seeds are packed full of health-giving essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6, which are necessary to support the human nervous, cardiovascular and immune systems.

Now an international manufacturer of speciality oils is using the flowering plant as the basis for a new dietary supplement that will be available in the UK for the first time this month after being awarded Novel Food status by the European Union.

Seafood and marine algaes are the richest sources of fatty acids, as well as the seeds of plants including flax, pumpkin and sunflower. But tests have shown oil from corn gromwell has much higher levels of the crucial polyunsaturated fats.

Canada-based Nature’s Crops International (NCI) has been working with agricultural researchers at the Scottish Rural College (SRUC), carrying out trials to breed the best-­performing variety.

The manufacturers claim it will be a nutritional game-changer and a boost for Scottish agriculture. They say the oil provides vegetarians, vegans and those concerned about the sustainability of marine oils with a more viable and “turbo-charged” source of essential fatty acid.

More than 30 farmers across the country have begun cultivating crop gromwell to supply NCI. North of the Border, growers in the Black Isle, Inverness, Perth and Edinburgh have planted 250 acres of the plant, which works well in rotation with barley and wheat.

NCI has named the oil ahiflower, which incorporates the Hawaiian word for tuna – ahi – in a nod to its association with oily fish.

Jamie Roberts, a farmer near Perth, said: “We grew a spring crop this harvest just gone, with more planned for next year, and have a winter crop in the ground for next harvest too. Obviously the commercials need to stack up, but it is useful to grow a crop for an expanding market which utilises our existing equipment.”

Operations and agronomy manager for NCI Simon Meakin said: “Ahiflower oil is made from the harvested seeds, which are pressed and extracted to achieve maximum oil yield.

“The resulting oil is refined and purified with delicate methods that maximise the integrity of the long-chain fatty acids.”

Meakin says it would take more than 20 tonnes of fish to produce the same amount of omega oil as one hectare of crop gromwell.