Industrialized food’s threat to human health echoed in risks for our flying friends
We just reviewed a new book by best-selling author Paul Greenberg, titled “The Omega Principle”.
While he covers the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids, Greenberg focuses on the consequences of turning millions of small fish — which could feed people — into fertilizer, animal feed, and omega-3 supplements.
He concludes that using wild fish to fuel land-based food production is drawing the world down a road to nutritional and environmental ruin.
Recently, Vital Choice founder (and former Alaska fisherman) Randy Hartnell came across an alarming Israeli study on the effects of huge, single-crop farms on bees — one that underscores Greenberg's key point.
Randy shared that finding with some scientists, and received an intriguing response from Cornell University ecology Prof. J. Thomas Brenna, Ph.D., who'd made similar findings in birds.
Let’s look at the Israeli study and Prof. Brenna’s investigations, which add weight to Paul Greenberg’s warnings about our overly land-based, ocean-harming diets.
Bees harmed by diets low in omega-3 fats and high and omega-6 fats
Scientists at two Israeli research centers realized that the only research into the effects of omega-3 deficiency on insect brain performance was very limited, and done only in fruit flies.
They wondered whether honeybees —a far more important species — were affected by fast-spreading “monoculture” farms, which cover huge areas with only one crop, typically corn, wheat, or soy.
As it happens, major commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soy are high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fats — a balance reflected in the fatty acid profiles of their pollen, which bees collect.
And, as the Israeli researchers noted, “The shift from a low to high omega-6:3 ratio in the Western human diet [due largely to the dietary dominance of corn, wheat, soy, and vegetable oils with high omega-6:3 ratios] is deemed a primary cause of many diseases and reduced mental health.”
Like humans, insects need “long-chain” omega-3 (DHA and EPA) and omega-6 (AA) polyunsaturated fatty acids to survive and thrive — and can make only minimal amounts of DHA and EPA from the “short-chain”, plant-source omega-3 known as ALA.
Three years ago, the Israeli team conducted experiments showing that diets low in seafood-type, “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) impaired the performance of honey bees (Arien Y et al. 2015).
That finding later led them to probe more deeply into the effects of widespread monoculture farming on honeybees, which provide irreplaceable pollination services for farms of all sizes.
First, the Israeli team found — as expected — that pollen collected by honey bees from botanically diverse landscapes was relatively low in omega-6 fats and high in omega-3 fats.
They also knew that honeybees like to collect pollen from eucalyptus trees — which is very low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s — and that humans have planted Eucalyptus widely to make into paper and other products. (Almond trees — whose pollen, like that of Eucalyptus, ranks low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s — are also attractive to honeybees.)
The Israeli scientists decided to test the effects of omega-3 deficient pollen on the smell-and touch-associated learning processes of honey bees, in comparison with bees fed omega-3-rich diets or omega-3-rich pollen (Arien Y et al. 2018).
Alarmingly, the results showed that — compared with honey bees fed omega-3-rich diets or pollen — honey bees fed either of two omega-3-poor diets, or omega-3-poor Eucalyptus pollen, suffered sharp drops in their learning abilities.
As the Israeli team wrote, “The shift from a low to high omega-6:3 ratio in the Western human diet is deemed a primary cause of many diseases and reduced mental health. A similar shift seems to be occurring in bee forage, possibly an important factor in colony declines. Our study shows the detrimental effect on cognitive performance of omega-3 deficiency in a non-mammal.”
They also found that the harm from omega-imbalanced pollen extends beyond cognitive impairment: “Malnourished bees have smaller hypopharyngeal glands (critical to production of the royal jelly), are more susceptible to deformed wing virus, are less tolerant to parasitism, are more vulnerable to pesticides, have a compromised immune system, and have a shorter lifespan.”
And the Israeli scientists proposed a plausible link between omega-3 deficiencies and colony collapse disorder: “Likewise, our findings suggest that omega-3 deficits in bee nutrition, due to the limited diversity of pollen availability in transformed [monoculture] landscapes, may play a major role in decreased bee health and colony collapse disorder (CCD).”
Finally, they made a crucial point concerning an underrecognized impact of monoculture farming: “Bees provide crucial pollination services that support our food security, enrich our diet’s nutritional value, and are highly valued economically. These services are threatened worldwide by declining populations of pollinators, including the all-important honey bee. Malnutrition is emerging as one of the leading suspected culprits for declining bee populations, and for the plight of the honey bee in particular.”
In other words, society's already huge and ever-increasing shift to monoculture farming may well harm the bees critical to farms large and small.
Birds harmed by monoculture landscapes and shortage of aquatic insects
Over the years, we’ve become acquainted with Prof. J. Thomas Brenna of Cornell University, who’s conducted quite a bit of research related to omega-3 fatty acids.
When Randy shared with him the Israeli findings about bees, Prof. Brenna responded that he and his colleagues had made similar findings in birds.
As he said, “We recently showed that tree swallow chicks depend critically on DHA nutrition, which their parents bring them from aquatic insects. Terrestrial insects are much less rich in DHA. Wreck the oceans, the aquatic insects go away, then the land-based birds go away.”
His words echo Paul Greenberg's in "The Omega Principle", which warns about wreckage of the oceans by global warming, overfishing to support land-based food, fertilizer runoff, and other human depradations.
Sixteen years ago, Prof. Brenna and colleagues reported that the “high contraction frequency” muscles in ruby-throated hummingbirds (pectoral and leg) and rattlesnakes (rattle-shaker and ventral) have much higher concentrations of omega-3 DHA, versus slower-moving muscles (Infante JP et al. 2002).
(DHA molecules vibrate at a rate far higher than that of other fatty acid molecules, making them ideal constituents of brain cells and fast-contraction muscle cells.)
And two years ago, a team led by Prof. Brenna tested the effects of feeding Tree Swallow chicks diets that provided different amounts and proportions of various fatty acids, including seafood-type omega-3s.
To their surprise, they found that the fatty acid composition of the birds' diet topped food quantity in terms of importance to their performance of tasks essential to survival.
As Brenna's team wrote, "Chicks fed diets rich in omega-3s grew faster, were in better condition, and had stronger immune systems and lower (healthier) metabolic rates, compared with chicks fed diets low in omega-3s" (Twining CW et al. 2016).
In addition, they found that the bodies of swallow chicks preferentially directed dietary omega-3s to critical brain and muscle tissues when the quantity of food and omega-3s was low, which underlines the importance of omega-3s to birds' health and functioning.
As they wrote, “Our work … reinforces the importance of high-quality aquatic habitat [and its insects] for these declining birds.”
Insect-eating birds typically feed on a mixture of aquatic and terrestrial insects — but only aquatic insects provide substantial amounts of essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and the omega-3 ALA from which birds can make EPA and DHA. In contrast, terrestrial insects contain much lower levels of either type of omega-3 fat.
Researchers from the Universities of Wyoming and Rhode Island published a commentary, in which they noted the broader implications of the findings reported by Prof. Brenna’s team: “Fat quality, in general, and … [omega-3 DHA and EPA] … in particular, also affect general health and performance of wild animals in a variety of ways including key attributes of hibernation in small mammals, swimming efficiency of salmon, energy costs [i.e., efficiency] of flying in migratory birds, and longevity and aging in a variety of vertebrates.”
“And the Wyoming/Rhode Island team made another key observation: “By feeding on aquatic insects, and depending on them to feed their chicks, tree swallows link the aquatic and terrestrial realms. A growing ecological literature highlights the importance of the reciprocal interdependence of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. [The Brenna team’s] experimental results suggest that an important, but still underappreciated, aspect of this interdependence is the supply of [long-chain omega-3 fats] from aquatic ecosystems to terrestrial consumers [i.e., birds and land animals].
What’s the take away?
These studies in birds and bees appear to detect a new downside to increasingly corporate, profit-driven, single-crop farming on vast scales.
Conversely, they reinforce the wisdom of growing consumer demand for food from agriculturally diverse local farms.
And they highlight the issue raised by Paul Greenberg in “The Omega Principle”: that we must shift from our land-based food system — which converts mountains of fish into fertilizer and animal feed — to one that relies on a balance of ocean- and land-based foods, which would benefit the oceans, animals, and human health.
- Arien Y, Dag A, Shafir S. Omega-6:3 Ratio More Than Absolute Lipid Level in Diet Affects Associative Learning in Honey Bees. Front Psychol. 2018 Jun 19;9:1001. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01001. eCollection 2018.
- Arien Y, Dag A, Zarchin S, Masci T, Shafir S. Omega-3 deficiency impairs honey bee learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Dec 22;112(51):15761-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517375112. Epub 2015 Dec 7.
- Brenna JT, Carlson SE. Docosahexaenoic acid and human brain development: evidence that a dietary supply is needed for optimal development. J Hum Evol. 2014 Dec;77:99-106. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.02.017. Epub 2014 Apr 26.
- Brenna JT, Salem N Jr, Sinclair AJ, Cunnane SC; International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, ISSFAL. alpha-Linolenic acid supplementation and conversion to n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in humans. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Feb-Mar;80(2-3):85-91. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2009.01.004. Epub 2009 Mar 9. Review.
- Infante JP, Kirwan RC, Brenna JT. High levels of docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)-containing phospholipids in high-frequency contraction muscles of hummingbirds and rattlesnakes. Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 2001 Oct;130(3):291-8. Erratum in: Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol 2002 Nov;133(3):455.
- Martinez del Rio C, McWilliams SR. How essential fats affect bird performance and link aquatic ecosystems and terrestrial consumers. PNAS October 6, 2016. 201614106; published ahead of print October 6, 2016. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/10/05/1614106113
- Twining CW, Brenna JT, Lawrence P, Shipley JR, Tollefson TN, Winkler DW. Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids support aerial insectivore performance more than food quantity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Sep 27;113(39):10920-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1603998113. Epub 2016 Sep 16. Erratum in: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Nov 7
- Twining CW, Lawrence P, Winkler DW, Flecker AS, Brenna JT. Conversion efficiency of α-linolenic acid to omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids in aerial insectivore chicks. J Exp Biol. 2018 Feb 7;221(Pt 3). pii: jeb165373. doi: 10.1242/jeb.165373.
- Wood KE, Mantzioris E, Gibson RA, Ramsden CE, Muhlhausler BS. The effect of modifying dietary LA and ALA intakes on omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (n-3 LCPUFA) status in human adults: a systematic review and commentary. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2015 Apr;95:47-55. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2015.01.001. Epub 2015 Jan 19. Review.