Last week, the University of Rothamsted in England announced plans to do a field trial of an oilseed crop called Camelina sativa engineered to produce an omega 3 fatty acid called EPA. The possibility to increase worldwide production of EPA is a very big deal.
To understand why, it is useful to digress for a moment to see just what omega 3s are and where they come from.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Fatty acids are long even-numbered chains of carbon atoms capped at one end with a carboxylic acid (hence the name fatty acid). The carboxylic acid cap is called the alpha carbon; the one at the other end of the chain is called the omega carbon. Fatty acids that have a double bond located 3 carbons in from the omega end are called omega 3 fatty acids.
Three omega 3 fatty acids are important to human health, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in a variety of seeds, nuts and oils.
EPA and DHA are quite unique in that, unlike most everything else in our diets, they are only available from marine sources. They are produced by single cell algae in the ocean’s phytoplankton. The algae are consumed by filter feeders which are, in turn, eaten by other animals as they make their way up the food chain and, eventually, into fish.
Some of these we eat such as salmon. Others, such as sardines and anchovies, are caught and processed into omega 3 rich fish oil and fish meal.
The Importance of Omega 3s. Many experts have found the marine-based EPA and DHA to be important for our health. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend we eat 8 ounces of oily (i.e. EPA/DHA containing) fish per week. And an large study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that the overall death rate in the US would decrease by 17% if we all ate two servings per week of oily fish. The American Heart Association also recommends that fish become a regular part of our diet. In certain cases, they also see a need for much greater consumption of EPA and DHA for which they recommend taking fish oil supplements.
Meeting Expanded Needs For Omega 3s Over the next 30 or so years we will see the world’s population grow by roughly 2 billion people. Where we find the omega 3s to satisfy our expanded need is an important question for which capturing more wild fish isn’t the answer. The anchovies, sardines and others that provide omega 3 rich fish oil are harvested at their sustainable limits. They have been for more than a decade and we know our supply from them can’t grow. What’s more, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tells us that a bit over 90% of worldwide fisheries are harvested either at or above their sustainable limits.
This puts us between a rock and a hard place. We can’t increase the amount of fish we capture. At the same time, we need to eat more fish and some of us need fish oil supplements. Quite clearly, we need other sources of omega 3s to break our reliance on fish oil.
The Rothamsted trial, if successful, begins to offer us a hopeful path forward. By growing them in plants, we have the opportunity to expand the omega 3 supply. The EPA produced could be included in diets for farmed fish which are now satisfy their dietary omega 3 needs with fish oil. Likewise, fish oil supplements could be replaced with plant-produced omega 3s.
© 2016 Scott Nichols