Global Warming May Dwindle the Supply of a Key Brain Nutrient
By Bret Stetka
Glaciers continue to melt. Sea levels are on the rise. And now scientists believe the changing climate may put our brains at risk. A new analysis predicts that by 2100, increasing water temperatures brought on by a warming planet could result in 96 percent of the world's population not having access to an omega-3 fatty acid crucial to brain health and function.
That molecule is called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. It is the most common fatty acid in the mammalian brain and plays a key role in the survival and function of our neural cells, especially during the organ's development. Data suggest that not having enough of the compound may increase the risk of conditions such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and impair cognition in people with early dementia.
Our bodies do not make much DHA, so, for the most part, we obtain it through diet. Plants and meats have modest amounts of the fatty acid, but the most abundant source by far is fish (or fish-derived supplements). Fish obtain DHA by consuming algae. The authors of the new study predict that rising temperatures could disrupt algal DHA production and lead to a 10 to 58 percent reduction in availability of the compound, depending on the geographic region.
To predict the future of DHA availability, they used data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the fishery research institute Sea around Us to get numbers on how much edible fish are caught and farmed worldwide each year and on how much of that maritime tonnage is composed of DHA-containing fat. Then, using data showing how temperature influences algal DHA production, the researchers determined roughly how much of the fatty acid is presently available by consuming fish per capita versus how much will be available 80 years from now.
Their predictions show that larger countries with rapid population growth in East and Southeast Asia — including China, Japan and Indonesia — will face the most severe DHA shortages. Most African countries — especially landlocked ones — will also end up falling below recommended DHA intake, whereas nations with small populations and active fishing industries, such as Norway, Chile and New Zealand, will likely maintain access to adequate omega-3s.
"I already had an idea that DHA would decrease, based on previous data," recalls Stefanie Colombo, an assistant professor in aquaculture nutrition at Dalhousie University and co-lead author on the new paper. "But I was surprised and concerned when we saw the decline in DHA per capita—that people in some areas of the world would be more affected."
Tom Brenna, a professor with joint appointments in pediatrics, chemistry and human nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin, points out that the new results are open to a range of interpretation: "The [predicted] interval of 10 to 58 percent is so large as to be the difference between a mild inconvenience and a calamity." Yet he welcomes any investigation into the global DHA supply.
Brenna, who was not involved in the new study, also points out that whether or not dietary DHA is necessary in adults has been an area of conflict for decades. Yet he and most experts in the field agree that it is a critical nutrient during brain development and even into the late teen years — and that its influence on brain function may vary, based on an individual's genetic profile.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be derived from terrestrial sources, including nuts, seeds and land animals. Yet as Michael Crawford, now at Imperial College London, discovered in the 1970s, "ready-made" DHA — such as found in fish — is incorporated into the developing brain with 10-fold greater efficiency than plant-sourced DHA.
Crawford is a pioneer in understanding the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and brain health and believes that the evolution of our big and complex primate brain would have been impossible without access to DHA. He also thinks that a decline in consumption of omega-3s because of our increasingly processed diet explains increasing rates of mental illness and declining IQ. Marine agriculture such as projects now underway in Japan might be essential to saving ourselves and the planet. "If mental illness continues to escalate, then Homo sapiens are finished," Crawford predicts. "Seventy-one percent of the planet's surface is water, and marine cultivation will help reverse this trend. Without farming the seabed and oceans, food security goes out of the window."
Aquaculture initiatives abound throughout the world, including those intent on farming algae as a source of DHA. Other researchers are using genetic engineering to grow plants with a more available form of the fatty acid. And Richard P. Bazinet, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the new paper, is working to understand how DHA enters the brain and how much of it a healthy adult brain actually needs.
Colombo is hopeful that in the face of a changing climate, scientists will devise new sources of DHA. And she plans to study how warming waters will affect fish metabolism and DHA availability. Yet she admits the outcome does not look good: "I don't think this is something we can ignore. In terms of the climate warming, we can't continue on this same trajectory."
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that have numerous health benefits. This article takes a detailed look at the 3 most important types of omega-3shttps://t.co/I8K8jqZiUl— Frank Lipman MD (@DrFrankLipman) July 10, 2019
This story originally appeared in Scientific American. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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