The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet. By Paul Greenberg, Penguin Press, 2018, hardcover, 251 pages, $27.

One of the most-celebrated dietary revolutions of the 21st century centers on so-called omega-3 fatty acids extracted from humble sea stock like Chesapeake menhaden, Peruvian anchoveta and Antarctic krill, processed into pills and supplements, and sold as a key to reversing a veritable diagnostic manual full of human physical ailments ranging from high blood pressure to heart disease to clinical depression. Bookstore shelves abound with omega-3 health and diet manuals, all touting the “supernutrient” as a modern-day miracle cure.

Paul Greenberg, James Beard Award-winning author of Four Fish and American Catch, focuses on this whole phenomenon in his new book, The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet, exploring every aspect of the subject, from the fishermen who ply the oceans in search of the billions of pounds of sea life necessary to feed the booming omega-3 industry to the scientists studying the innovations in aquaculture necessary to extend a diet of these fatty acids to a far wider base of the world’s population. In addition to being a fish expert, Mr. Greenberg is also an old-fashioned gumshoe reporter; he not only goes to his sources, but he then lives in their worlds in order to know what they know and add it to the story.

Paul Greenberg's book is a cautionary tale about the fate of our ocean creatures.

The book is also a cautionary tale about the fate of our ocean creatures and our planet as the omega-3 craze empties our seas of an essential link in the food chain.

The story begins and ends with some fairly detailed science about the ultimate sources of things like eicosapentaenoic fatty acid (EPA) and docosahexaenonic fatty acid (DHA) — the key ingredients of omega-3 that are produced by the Earth’s phytoplankton, microorganisms that are so widespread and so significant that, as Greenberg writes, “they function as a shadow weather system.”

Phytoplankton is the base of an enormous pyramid of life on Earth, and it’s the base of human civilization itself. As Greenberg writes, “the trillions upon trillions of ancient phytoplankton in their fossilized form are literally what drives us: petroleum. The gasoline we burn today began as clumps of plankton.”

Greenberg is an old hand at taking complex scientific material and making it not only comprehensible but fascinating. He breaks down the science in the kinds of ways you wish your high school chemistry teacher had the wit and energy to do, telling readers, for instance, that “the name omega comes from the fact that the first frenetic and freewheeling double bond [between carbon atoms] appears at the omega end of the molecule, three carbons in from the terminus of the fatty acid chain.”

One key to the success of his approach in taking readers around the various precincts of what he calls “Omega World” is his skill at humanizing the story. He talks to scientists, fishermen, plankton farmers, omega-3 partisans, chemists, physicians and many others, always capturing their individual voices and the passion of their priorities. He’s equally adept at adding color to his adventures in Omega World with quick, dramatic brush strokes: “As the haul continued and the sun bled over the top of the horizon, I looked up and realized that the sky was black with birds.”

Greenberg also faces squarely the two biggest problems associated with the omega-3 movement. The first of these is that there are persistent voices calling the whole thing essentially one big fish story. The miracles of omega-3 consumption often stubbornly refuse to make any reliable appearance in laboratory testing. A wide-ranging 2012 survey in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no correlation between heightened omega-3 consumption and heightened health, and other learned journals, such as the British Journal of Nutrition, have echoed this lack of findings. Experts have pointed out that there are whole populations of humans who have no access to the sea and therefore no access to seafood and therefore no intake of omega-3, and yet they show no higher incidence of any of the ills the miracle acid is purported to cure. Even a book as fundamentally well-disposed to Omega World as The Omega Principle can’t quite make the case that consuming lots of omega-3 does much of anything at all to help the heart, the mind, the joints, the digestion, or any of the other wonders it’s alleged to work. It might all just be a fad.

But an even bigger problem associated with omega-3 is more alarming: fad or not, valuable or not, it might not be sustainable. The omega-3 industry is not just feeding humans, it has long been used as fertilizer and for animal feed. The land-based meat industry requires the harvesting of billions of pounds of living things from the oceans every year in a sweeping depredation known as reductionism, or what Greenberg scathingly refers to as “the truly lucrative business of reducing fish life into dust and grease.”

To feed its apparently limitless appetite for land-based meat, humanity is emptying the seas, and Greenberg’s book is acutely alive to the long-term dangers of this blind approach. “When we catch and reduce twenty-five million tons of prey,” he writes, “does it not inevitably have a cascading effect on valuable predators everywhere?”

In the introduction to The Omega Principle, Greenberg writes that he began his quest to better understand the omega-3 industry and its affects on humans, sea life and the planet, with growing worries about his entering middle age. “It felt as if an entirely new phase had begun,” he writes, “something which I had come to think of as “the rind of life” — a phase of insomnia and pointless internet browsing leading to dark speculation on the paucity of time remaining and the declining vitality that would accompany this last handful of decades.”

Thankfully, that insomnia led to action and the completion of yet another compelling book about life beyond and beneath our shores.