Monsanto is a first-tier member of theGlobal Organization for EPA and DHA Omega- 3s (GOED). Is that surprising to you?
If not, then you fully understand the supply & demand dynamics of fish oil, as well as the interesting collisions taking hold in natural products. GOED exhibits at major trade shows. GOED quite effectively advocates for what some would argue is the shining star of the supplements industry, the best that industry has produced in collective terms of science, impact and sales. GOED could be a leading light in the natural products world, but then there’s Monsanto. For core consumers in natural products, Monsanto comes straight out of a James Bond movie—even Hollywood could not produce a better villain. How exactly did these two come together?
The story begins in September 2009, when Monsanto petitioned FDA for GRAS status over stearidonic acic (SDA) soybean oil. By inserting genes for two enzymes- one from flowers, one from bread mold- Monsanto created a soybean that converts its own alphalinolenic acid (ALA) into SDA. These acids are all omega-3s, by the way, but not every omega-3 was created equal. The human body is significantly more efficient at converting SDA into EPA and DHA- those coveted long-chain fatty acids (LCFA) linked to heart health, mental health and a host of physiological benefits- than it is converting ALA. The thinking goes that, with 375mg of SDA fortified into commercial food products, a raft of problems plaguing fish oil, from sustainability to contamination to cost, go by the wayside. In its petition, Monsanto expressed plans to introduce SDA soybean oil into cereals, puddings, grains, gravies – you name it.
“Monsanto is indeed a member,” says Adam Ismail, GOED’s executive director, “along with most of the other plant biotech people working on omega-3s, like Nuseed and BASF Plant Sciences. We work on EPA and DHA issues beyond just the natural products space, including pharma, infant formulas, medical devices and clinical nutrition. If you do the numbers, we will ultimately need every source of EPA and DHA to nourish the human population, including genetically modified plants.” In June of this year, research sponsored by GOED, Monsanto and others, appeared in the British Journal of Nutrition pegging minimum daily intake of LCFAs at 250mg.
GOED: The world needs all the omega-3s it can get
To the numbers, Ismail offers the following argument: “To meet the minimum intake recommendation for 7 billion people would take 2.5 million tons of anchovy oils, but there are only about 350,000 tons that can be produced sustainably. We can turn to the other fish oils, but there are only 1 million tons of total fish oil produced in the world, and most species have much lower levels of EPA and DHA. So the burden could increase to 5 million tons. Regardless of how you look at it, we are talking about multiples of what is needed just for basic nutrition. Also, keep in mind that this is a minimum. Many scientists believe you need 500mg per day, so that would double the burden again to 10 million tons.
“There have to be new sources to supply what we need as a species. While many in the natural products space are against GMO plants, there are markets for these products beyond natural products, and the supply & demand dynamics basically mean all sources are going to have to be developed.”
While Monsanto and GOED working together presents an interesting collision of industries and further clouds the picture of just what “natural products” might come to mean, Ismail’s math suggests a subtler threat to the widespread adoption of fish oil in the American diet- pharma. On the heels of GlaxoSmithKline‘s Lovaza, several additional companies are now entering the space for non-nutrition applications, according to Ismail. Pharma is less sensitive on supply, and this means pharma has better leverage to source the majority of available fish oil in the marketplace. For everyone else… how about a fancy soybean?
Text: New Hope