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July 21, 2006

Brain Food Economy  Environment  Science/Technology

When I was a kid, I used to hear that fish is "brain food." I don't know if people still say that, but they should. George Monbiot:

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. The evidence of a link with depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and dementia is less clear, but still suggestive. 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. 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.

This shouldn't surprise us. During the Palaeolithic, human beings ate roughly the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as omega-6s. 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. [...]

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 [British] 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. [...]

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." Our brain food is disappearing.

If you want to know why, read Charles Clover's beautifully-written book The End of the Line. 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....Now I have discovered that the US Department of Energy is subsidising the conversion of fish oil into biodiesel...It describes them as "a sustainable energy supply".

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%, 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. [...]

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. 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...The oils produced by some species of algae...are chemically identical to those found in fish: in fact this is where the fish get from them from. [...]

[The algae] had better work. Otherwise the human race is destined to take a great cognitive leap backwards. [Emphasis added]

The race to deplete the fish of the sea is a stark illustration of a fundamental problem with unregulated capitalism: it may be more profitable to destroy the world than to save it. Destroying the world is bad business in the long run, of course. But a population of perfectly rational people out to maximize short term profit can bring about ultimate collapse, even though each of them acted in perfect accord with capitalist economic theory every step of the way.

A combination of factors come into play. There's the "tyranny of small decisions" — the cumulative effect of a number of small decisions can lead to a result that no one wants. So I may think, what's a few fish more or less? But if everyone thinks that way, before long the fish are gone. Forever.

There's the "tragedy of the commons" — when resources are "free", like the air, or the oceans, or the fish in the sea, there is no disincentive to overexploitation. There is, in fact, an incentive to exploit them as quickly as possible: if I don't take the fish, someone else will.

There's the problem that money grows faster than trees, or fish, or what have you. A forest may grow at a rate of 2% per year. That means that if I cut only 2% of it a year, my forest lasts forever. But if I clear-cut it today and invest the proceeds, my forest may be gone, but my money will grow a lot faster than 2% per year. So the economically rational thing is to monetize everything. Right up until the moment when it's all gone.

But, as Wendell Berry said:

Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

It is rapidly changing from a privilege to a necessity.

(See also this.)

Posted by Jonathan at July 21, 2006 04:31 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


While reading this excellent piece, something kept resonating ... it turned out to be a piece you wrote two years ago (July 9, 2004) about Richard Manning's eye-opening book, Against the Grain. So many ironies. Just one of which is that our massive brains may now be the agent of their own demise, via capitalism's excesses - and we will become koalas, with one depleting source of food, "dumb as a post, with 'a tiny brain rattling around in a large brainpan'."

Another connection from that post is Richard Nelson's story of his visiting Koyukon friends, who were silent for several days as they processed the sensory overload of so many new observations. My guess is that the openness and complexity of their brains and the ability to take the time needed to integrate knowledge is no coincidence. Not only are they from a culture of millenia-old habits of conservation and harmonious relationships with their environment, but they undoubtedly eat plenty of fish, good, fatty, Omega-3 laced fish. (Unless climate change continues wreaking havoc with migration patterns in their ecosystem, that is.)

And thanks also for the Wendell Berry lines - justice and mercy vs koala-hood. Hmmm...you'd think it would be an obvious choice.


PS Two good current reads:
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C.Mann, 2005,and
Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, by Amartya Sen,2006. Don't let the title scare you off - it's about how violence is sustainable (and too often crafted) largely because of the illusion that human beings can be reduced to one identity out of the countless identities each person has. That this "disregard of identities" and denial of "pluralistic affiliations", enables the illusion that a fellow human is reducible to "the enemy", making justice and mercy appear irrelevant and even, in some contexts, anti-social. E.g., If you're not with us, you're against us.

Posted by: Deborah at July 22, 2006 04:01 PM

And - thanks for the algae-farming news. Very encouraging in the midst of a not-much-good-news trend.

Posted by: Deborah at July 22, 2006 04:06 PM