Blue Growth – or Stunted Growth?

Blue growth Photo by Julian Paul via Unsplash
Photo by Julian Paul via Unsplash

PerformFISH, a “Blue Growth” research project funded to the tune of 7 million Euros, was launched by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme last year. With a multi-disciplinary design involving 27 partners, the EU hopes to gain, and apply, new knowledge to the vexed problem of supplying Europe with sustainable fish supplies.

The intention is to focus on sea bream, gilthead and sea bass, for carefully managed Mediterranean aquaculture which the EU considers sustainable and competitive. It is a part of an overall aim to foster “Blue Growth” in the marine and maritime sectors. The coordinator is Dr Katerin Moutou from the University of Thessaly.

The Mother and Child Foundation applauds any movement which will enhance sustainable fish and sea food availability. However, there is a fundamental weakness in PerformFISH.

The protein smokescreen

PerformFISH aims to provide fish and sea food as a high protein, low fat food. And yet we can get protein from a huge variety of sources – we need fish and sea food for many things, but not for protein. Look at the White Rhinoceros! It weighs a ton after four years of growth, and gets all the muscle-building protein it needs from the simplest of foods – grass.

The value of fish and sea food – the stuff that makes them different from high protein foods such as beans, beef, and cheese (not to mention grass) – is in their wealth of brain food. The brain evolved in the sea 500 million years ago using the omega-3 DHA for its signalling systems, and it still needs the same.

Moreover, sea foods are also rich in iodine, zinc, selenium and other important trace elements. Iodine deficiency causes goitre, mental retardation and cretinism, the latter being a major facial deformity seen at birth when the brain inside the skull has not grown properly.

Work in the Sudan by Dr Izzeldin Hussein on iodine deficiency and by Dr Kot Nyuar on maternal nutrition reported extraordinarily low levels of the omega-3 DHA in the milk of mothers in regions suffering iodine deficiency. The combined work of these two PhD students implies that iodine deficiency is usually associated with a DHA deficiency, and more. This is logical because they both co-exist in the marine food web. Today there are about 2 billion people at risk of iodine deficiency disease, and they all live inland. This work was sponsored by the Mother and Child Foundation and has huge public health implications.

Monitoring brain-specific nutrients

There are now several bodies certifying aquaculture and wild fish capture, including the RSPCA and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). It is time these bodies began looking at the levels of DHA, iodine and the other brain-specific nutrients in the fish they monitor.

The problem is that the wild catch stagnated 20 years ago. Since then the global population has added almost 2 billion more mouths to feed. In addition, incidence of mental ill health is now surging ahead of other non-communicable diseases. I believe the change in the western diet based on the very successful development of intensive food production is the reason behind this, as it has diminished our intake of foods from the sea.

What’s wrong with farmed fish, you may ask?

Well, salmon aquaculture is now dependent on using land-based proteins such as chicken feathers and rendered meat/offal and vegetable oils. This is making the fish far less nutritious than their wild counterparts. I would urge those responsible for monitoring aquaculture to assess the impact of this on the brain specific nutrients, particularly in the meat phospholipids and the trace elements.

I do like to be beside the seaside…

There is strong evidence that Homo sapiens could only have developed a large brain by taking advantage of the coastal resources which provided us with essential brain foods in the first place. Our genome was fashioned on wild, nutrient-rich food, much of it from the watery depths the brain first evolved millions of years earlier.

PerformFISH, with its focus on cheap protein and the economic benefits of aquaculture, is not the complete answer. Far from it. The EU an UK bodies focusing on fish need to realise how vital it is to monitor DHA, iodine and the rest, and give everyone dietary access to brain nutrients.

Without protein our muscles would waste away; but without brain-food, our brains ARE wasting away, as the epidemic of mental health problems today illustrates so grimly.

It is time this simple truth was recognised, digested, and acted upon in the construction of future dietary recommendations, government food policies and the whole food production system.

Farming the seas is the answer, as I’ve said many times before. This is where the real “blue growth” lies.

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