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Systems approach to quantify the global omega-3 fatty acid cycle


Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids—eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids—are essential components of human diets and some aqua and animal feeds, but they are sourced from finite marine fisheries, and are in short supply and deficient in large parts of the world. We use quantitative systems analysis to model the current global eicosapentaenoic acid/docosahexaenoic acid cycle and identify options for increasing supply. Opportunities lie in increased by-product utilization and food waste prevention. However, economic, resource, cultural and technical challenges need to be overcome.

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Fig. 1: Global EPA and DHA balance.
Fig. 2: Global fish oil and fish meal consumption, and EPA/DHA potential from by-products.

Data availability

This work used data collected from a variety of sources—both proprietary and freely available. See the references in the Supplementary Information for data specification. All figures are based on this collected dataset, and geographically aggregated data (in more refined detail than the source data) will be made available on request from the corresponding author. Source data for Figs. 1 and 2 are provided with the paper.


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The authors thank E. O. Gracey (BioMar) and Y. Olsen (NTNU) for useful aquaculture insights and fruitful discussions. This research was supported by the research project MIRA (Microbially Produced Raw Materials for Aquafeed). MIRA is funded by the Research Council of Norway.

Author information




H.A.H. and D.B.M. designed the study. H.A.H., R.N. and N.A.A. quantified the system and conducted the analysis. H.A.H. produced the figures. H.A.H., R.N., N.A.A. and D.B.M. contributed to data interpretation. H.A.H. wrote the paper. H.A.H., R.N., N.A.A. and D.B.M. contributed to editing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Helen A. Hamilton.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Fig. 1, methods, discussion and Tables 1–3.

Reporting Summary

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Numerical data used to generate Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Numerical data used to generate figure 2, top (a) and bottom (b).

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Hamilton, H.A., Newton, R., Auchterlonie, N.A. et al. Systems approach to quantify the global omega-3 fatty acid cycle. Nat Food 1, 59–62 (2020).

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