We need omega-3 oils for our brains to function properly. But where
will they come from?
The more it is tested, the more compelling the hypothesis becomes. Dyslexia,
ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological problems seem to be associated with a
deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, especially in the womb(1,2,3,4).
The evidence of a link with depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and dementia
is less clear, but still suggestive(5,6,7). None of these conditions
are caused exclusively by a lack of these chemicals, or can be entirely remedied
by their application, but it’s becoming pretty obvious that some of our
most persistent modern diseases are, at least in part, diseases of deficiency.Last
year, for example, researchers at Oxford published a study of 117 children suffering
from dyspraxia(8). Dyspraxia causes learning difficulties,
disruptive behaviour and social problems. It affects about 5% of children. Some
of the children were given supplements of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, others
were given placebos. The results were extraordinary. In three months the reading
age of the experimental group rose by an average of 9.5 months, while the control
group’s rose by 3.3. Other studies have shown major improvements in attention,
behaviour and IQ(9).
This shouldn’t surprise us. During the Palaeolithic, human beings ate
roughly the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as omega-6s(10).
Today we eat 17 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. Omega-6s are found in vegetable
oils, while most of the omega-3s we eat come from fish. John Stein, a professor
of physiology at Oxford who specialises in dyslexia, believes that fish oils
permitted humans to make their great cognitive leap forwards(11).
The concentration of omega-3s in the brain, he says, could provide more evidence
that human beings were, for a while, semi-aquatic(12).
Stein believes that when the cells which are partly responsible for visual
perception – the magnocellular neurones – are deficient in omega-3s,
they don’t form as many connections with other cells, and don’t
pass on information as efficiently. Their impaired development explains, for
example, why many dyslexic children find that letters appear to jump around
on the page.
So at first sight the government’s investigation into the idea of giving
fish oil capsules to schoolchildren seems sensible. The food standards agency
is conducting a review of the effects of omega-3s on childrens’ behaviour
and performance in school. Alan Johnson, the secretary of state for education,
is taking an interest(13). Given the accumulating weight of
evidence, it would surprising if he does not decide to go ahead. Already, companies
such as St Ivel and Marks and Spencer are selling foods laced with omega-3s.
There is only one problem: there are not enough fish. In March an article in
the British Medical Journal observed that “we are faced with a paradox.
Health recommendations advise increased consumption of oily fish and fish oils
within limits, on the grounds that intake is generally low. However …
we probably do not have a sustainable supply of long chain omega 3 fats.”(14)
Our brain food is disappearing.
If you want to know why, read Charles Clover’s beautifully-written book
The End of the Line(15). Clover travelled all over the world,
showing how the grotesque mismanagement of fish stocks has spread like an infectious
disease. Governments help their fishermen to wipe out local shoals, then pay
them to build bigger and more powerful boats so they can go further afield.
When they have cleaned up their own continental shelves, they are paid by taxpayers
to destroy other people’s stocks. The European Union, for example, has
bought our pampered fishermen the right to steal protein from the malnourished
people of Senegal and Angola. West African stocks are now going the same way
as North Sea cod and Mediterranean tuna.
I first realised just how mad our fishing policies have become when playing
a game of ultimate frisbee in my local park. Taking a long dive, I landed with
my nose in the grass. It smelt of fish. To the astonishment of passers-by, I
crawled across the lawns, sniffing them. The whole park had been fertilised
with fishmeal. Fish are used to feed cattle, pigs, poultry and other fish –
in the farms now proliferating all over the world. Those rearing salmon, cod
and tuna, for example, produce about half as much fish as they consume. Until
1996, when public outrage brought the practice to halt, a power station in Denmark
was running on fish oil(16,17). Now I have discovered that
the US Department of Energy is subsidising the conversion of fish oil into biodiesel,
through its “regional biomass energy program”. It hopes that fish
will be used to provide electricity and heating to homes in Alaska. It describes
them as “a sustainable energy supply”(18).
Three years after Ransom Myers and Boris Worm published their seminal study
in Nature, showing that global stocks of predatory fish have declined by 90%(19),
nothing has changed. The fish stall in my local market still sells steaks from
the ocean’s charismatic megafauna: swordfish, sharks and tuna, despite
the fact that their conservation status is now, in many cases, similar to that
of the Siberian tiger. Even the Guardian’s Weekend magazine publishes
recipes for endangered species. Yesterday, the European Fisheries Council reversed
the only sensible policy it has ever introduced. Having dropped them in 2002,
it has decided to reinstate subsidies for new boat engines(20).
Once again we will be paying billions to support over-fishing. Franco rose to
power with the help of the whalers and industrial fishermen of his native Galicia.
Somehow the old fascists in Vigo – the centre of the European industry’s
power – still seem to exercise an extraordinary degree of control.
If fish stocks were allowed to recover and fishing policies reflected scientific
advice, there might just about be enough to go round. To introduce mass medication
with fish oil under current circumstances could be a recipe for the complete
collapse of global stocks. Yet somehow we have to prevent many thousands of
lives from being ruined by what appears to be a growing problem of malnutrition.
Some plants – such as flax and hemp – contain omega-3 oils, but
not of the long-chain varieties our cell membranes need. Only some people can
convert them, and even then slowly and inefficiently(21,22,23, 24).
But a few weeks ago, a Swiss company called eau+ published a press release claiming
that it has been farming “a secret strain of algae called V-Pure”
which produces the right kind of fatty acids. It says it’s on the verge
of commercialising a supplement(25). As the claims and the terrible names put
me in mind of the slushiest kind of New Age therapy, I was, at first, suspicious.
So I went to see Professor Stein to ask him whether it was likely to be true.
He could be said to have a countervailing interest: his brother is the celebrity
fish chef Rick Stein. But he happened to have met the company’s founder
the day before, and he was impressed. The oils produced by some species of algae,
he told me, are chemically identical to those found in fish: in fact this is
where the fish get from them from. “I think they’re fairly optimistic
about the timescale. But there is no theoretical impediment. I haven’t
yet seen his evidence, but I formed a very strong impression that he is an honest
He had better be, and his project had better work. Otherwise the human race
is destined to take a great cognitive leap backwards.
1. AJ Richardson and BK Puri, February 2002. A randomized
double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of supplementation with
highly unsaturated fatty acids on ADHD-related symptoms in children with specific
learning difficulties. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry.
Vol 26(2), pp 233-9.
2. AJ Richardson, December 2004. Long-chain polyunsaturated
fatty acids in childhood developmental and psychiatric disorders. Lipids. Vol
3. L Stevens et al, October 2003. EFA supplementation in children
with inattention, hyperactivity, and other disruptive behaviors. Lipids 38(10),
4. AJ Richardson, April 2004. Clinical trials of fatty acid
treatment in ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and the autistic spectrum. Prostaglandins
Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. Vol 70(4), pp383-90.
5. A. Tanskanen et al, 2001. Fish consumption and depressive
symptoms in the general population in Finland. Psychiatric Services. Vol 52,
6. M Maes, I Mihaylova and JC Leunis, December 2005. In chronic
fatigue syndrome, the decreased levels of omega-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acids
are related to lowered serum zinc and defects in T cell activation. NeuroEndocrinology
Letters. Vol 26(6), pp745-51.
7. WS Lim, JK Gammack, JK Van Niekerk and AD Dangour, 25th
January 2006. Omega 3 fatty acid for the prevention of dementia. The Cochrane
Database of Systematic Reviews. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005379.pub2
8. AJ Richardson, May 2005. The Oxford-Durham Study: A Randomized,
Controlled Trial of Dietary Supplementation With Fatty Acids in Children With
Developmental Coordination Disorder. Pediatrics. Vol. 115(5), pp. 1360-1366.
9. See notes 1-4.
10. KM Silvers, ML Hackett and KM Scott, 20th October 2003,
note that the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega 3s in Paleolithic diets
“was between 0.4:1 and 2.8:1. In contrast, current average ratios are
estimated to be 17:1 in typical industrialized societies”. The Cochrane
Database of Systematic Reviews. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004692
11. John Stein, 17th June 2006, pers comm.
12. See Elaine Morgan, 1982. Aquatic Ape. Stein and Day, London.
13. Marie Woolf and Jeremy Laurance, 11th June 2006. Why the
Government wants your child to take Omega-3, the fish oil supplement. The Independent
14. Eric Brunner, 24th March 2006. Oily fish and omega 3 fat
supplements. Editorial. British Medical Journal. Vol 332, pp739-740.
15. Charles Clover, 2004. The End of the Line: how overfishing
is changing the world and what we eat. Ebury Press, London.
18. The Regional Biomass Energy Program, no date given. Another
RBEP Success:Demonstrating the value of a fishy biodiesel blend in Alaska’s
Aleutian Islands. http://www.biodieselamerica.org/files/articles/alaskafishoil_fs_3_18_02.pdf
19. Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, 15th May 2003. Rapid worldwide
depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature. Vol 423, pp280-283.
20. Council of the European Union, 19th June 2006. 2739th
Council Meeting: Agriculture and Fisheries. Press Release, p17. http://www.consilium.europa.eu/ueDocs/cms_Data/docs/pressData/en/agricult/90146.pdf
21. CM Williams and G Burdge, February 2006. Long-chain n-3
PUFA: plant v. marine sources. Proceedings of the Nutritional Society. Vol 65(1),
22. BC Davis and PM Kris-Etherton, September 2003. Achieving
optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical
implications. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 78(3 Suppl), pp640S-646S.
23. H Gerster, 1998. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic
acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?
International Journal Vitamin and Nutrition Research. Vol 68(3), pp159-73.
24. Diane H. Morris Metabolism Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Flax
Council of Canada. http://www.flaxcouncil.ca/english/pdf/FF_Metabolism_R2.pdf
25. Eau+, no date given. Unique Omega 3 DHA / EPA algae product
could save the World. Press release. http://www.eauplus.co.uk/press-release.htm
Bulldozing the Bottom of the Sea
The Toronto Star
It is a wonderfully clear expression, used by a U.S. biologist about the impact
of bottom trawling. "Imagine using a bulldozer to catch songbirds for food
— that's what it's like," marine biologist Sylvia Earle says. "After
a trawler has gone by, it looks like a superhighway, it's just flat. Nobody's
home. A few fish may swim in and out but the residents, those that occupy the
substrate, they're just smothered, they're crushed. It's like paving them over."
Perhaps it is the kind of comparison we should consider more often —
after all, the oceans have been a case of out of sight, out of mind for far
too long. We've dumped our sewage into the sea for generations, and have used
it to dispose of everything from offshore drilling fluid to munitions.
We have dragged bottom trawls back and forth across it so many times that it
is — as it was earlier this year — a small miracle when scientists
actually find an untouched area of bottom corals.
We have continued to believe that the greatest harm to the sea has been the
fishing vessels that bob on the surface, and their ever-shrinking catches. But
we regularly draw the line at questioning the role of our methods of fishing.
Consider, for a moment, an on-land comparison. Imagine that you were hunting
rabbits, and you knew that they particularly liked living and eating in alder
thickets. You could create a system that knocked over all the alder trees and
netted up all the rabbits, and that would work really well the first year you
used it. The second year, there would be no alder trees and, frankly, no rabbits
Such is the way things go with destructive technologies — and there are
plenty who would argue that, as destructive technologies go, bottom trawling
is pretty close to the top of the list.
Problem is, you'd see the decimated alders. Since we don't see the ocean floor,
we can glibly pretend that the damage doesn't really exist.
Earle has seen the ocean floor — she's led more than 60 deep-sea expeditions,
and has seen the damage with her own eyes on a regular basis.
Certainly, bottom trawling is not the only issue facing our fishery. It is
a method that is heavily used outside the 200-mile limit, and, to put it bluntly,
one that we use inside the 200-mile limit as well. As with most things in the
fishery, there are no real good guys in the bottom-trawling business, nor any
The ocean is a tremendously complex system, one that we know nowhere near enough
about. But you can see right away what happens when you decide to clearcut a
forest — the results aren't much different between a forest of trees and
a forest of deep-sea coral, except for the fact the coral grows much, much more
Read from Looking Glass News
Numbers Plummet in Warming Pacific
in 'Dead Zones' Starving the World's Seas