The sector has doubled down with big education efforts around science and sustainability led by trade group GOED (Global Organisation for EPA and DHA Omega-3s). This has involved highlighting research linking omega-3 forms eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to positive health benefits around the heart, brain and eyes – research that has been backed by official nutrition and health claims in the EU, the US and parts of Asia and Latin America.
Educating people about fisheries often certified by the likes of sustainable sourcing watchdog the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has also been on the agenda.
But it may be at the feed level that the most significant changes will occur in the short-to-medium term – with GM omega-3 enhanced plants set for market arrival according to the researchers involved in it, despite European GM laws that mean work is only permitted on a trial basis - for now.
A large-scale Scottish study found omega-3 levels in farmed salmon had halved in five years mainly due to rising costs of supply-constrained fish oil feed being replaced with more traditional plant feed. For example rapeseed oil sells for about €760 per tonne in feed compared to about €1830 for standard fish oils used for the same purpose.
There is nothing new in the downward trend in salmon EPA-DHA levels – which it should be noted was not unanimous among the sampled Scottish salmon fish farmers who all apply their own plant/marine feed metrics – but the fact the study found levels had halved in five years on average gave the drop a finite number and mainstream news outlets like the BBC lapped up the news that essentially meant people need to eat not one, but two 130 gram portions of farmed salmon to gain a 3.5 g dose of EPA/DHA omega-3s.
What the farmed salmon study found
Farmed salmon EPA/DHA levels fell from 2.75 g (2006) to 2.21 g (2010) to 1.36 g (2015) per 100 g ww flesh, compared to 0.76 g per 100 g ww flesh for wild salmon.
New omega-3 sources
Lead researcher of the study, professor Doug Tocher from the University of Stirling, told us levels might be down but they remain significant. Farmed salmon is still one of the best EPA and DHA sources – above wild salmon for instance, although below mackerel. Other oily fish like sardines can be good sources although their supply is typically seasonal.
“Before it was very high, now it is just high,” said professor Tocher who works in the Institute of Aquaculture at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Stirling Uni.
More significant for the omega-3 food and supplement industry may be the rise of alternative and sustainable feed sources, something professor Tocher is heavily involved in, especially GM plant sources. He said this side of the story had been lost somewhat in the ‘omega-3 levels halved’ narrative.
“There is a limit to the amount of fishmeal available and aquaculture is growing all the time so we had to change the composition of the feed,” he said. “The EU has pumped a lot of money into developing sustainable feeds and so whereas it used to be 80% marine and 20% terrestrial [plant and vegetable oils] in aqua feed, now the levels are almost reversed.”
‘What we need are new sources of long-chain fatty acids and as a species we have to make it ourselves’
His University of Stirling faculty is working with UK government-backed Rothamsted Research, which has a project to develop genetically modified plant-sourced EPA and DHA omega-3s with the camelina plant.
“What we need are new sources of long-chain fatty acids and as a species we have to make it ourselves – there is simply isn’t enough to go around.”
“We can only make them biologically - we cannot make them in a factory. So we have to either cultivate the micro-algae that make the omega-3 in the wild or put the genes in oil seed crops and that is what we are working on.”
Professor Tocher said the GM camelina crop had proven successful at trial level – but regulatory approval and any subsequent commercial uptake was not permitted under strict EU GM laws.
The project has attracted criticism with the the UK Soil Association, a UK organic farming NGO, calling it a waste of “scarce public funds”.
Professor Tocher said the health and environmental benefits of ethical bio-agriculture were too great to ignore, and noted more and more scientists were making camp in pro-GM fields, especially as safety data developed with crops that have been in the ecosystem for a long time like soy or corn.
"We all know about the 'Monsantos' of this world and this is what has given GM a bad name, but this is a completely different use of GM. It is to produce an essential nutrient that we just don't have enough of. To be honest whether it is from GM sources or cultured algae - I don't mind."
GOED: ‘interesting innovation’
GOED executive director Adam Ismail told us at Health Ingredients Europe (HiE) in Frankfurt this month that plant-based EPA and DHA still had some way to go in research and public acceptance but acknowledged its potential to add significantly to the omega-3 supply.
“It’s an interesting innovation. The fact you will soon be able to get vegetable oils with high levels of EPA and DHA is very attractive because the aquaculture industry wants to increase the EPA and DHA levels in seafood products. Now you will have a fish feed based on the economics of vegetable oils but with the EPA/DHA of the fish meal market. Algae is also being used more as fish feed.”
Ismail said market forces would eventually win the day, with the most economical and application-flexible omega-3 forms gaining the most traction, but fish would remain in the mix.
"Fish will always be important because consumers have a very high affinity with fish as a health food. It would be very surprising to see one source dominating the market because they would have to establish themselves as being as healthy as fish in the consumer's mind and that would take a lot of marketing and education investment. Same with krill which is a good example of how important education is to launch a category."
In the meantime Ismail is concerned government recommended dietary intake levels do not reflect contemporary levels in sources like farmed salmon in a world where “about six billion people don't meet basic nutritional needs.” He said governments should give more consideration to food supplements as a means to bridge the intake gap.
Other DHA-EPA boosting methods
Modifying feeding times in a fish's lifecycle and investigating omega-3 levels in insects were other means that could increase EPA/DHA levels in farmed fish.
Alex Obach, managing director of Skretting Aquaculture Research Centre (ARC) at feed specialist Nutreco’s centralised aquaculture R&D department, told our sister publication FeedNavigator: "We are also exploring strategies to maximise the fish’s ability to elongate and desaturate plant-derived ALA to EPA and DHA and to see when adding much higher levels is better for DHA and EPA accumulation in the flesh."