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Changing Lives By Changing Food Production

07/02/2014 14:35 GMT | Updated 09/04/2014 10:59 BST

The All Black rugby player had been locked in his room for days, shutting out all contact with friends, family and fellow players. It was 4am when he finally picked up the phone to call a helpline. The reply at the other end was simple, "hello friend". It started a process that led to therapy that has been helping to change the life of Brent Pope for many years.

Brent Pope is just one of millions of people who suffer from mental illness in the UK and Ireland. The problem costs economies billions, with one in four people affected. Yet, as Pope, now a rugby analyst for RTE television in Ireland, told the Alltech Health and Wellness Conference in Dublin this week, the issue still does not get the attention it deserves.

And that's surprising given the impact it has and the simple things that can be done to help. What stood out from Pope's speech was the link between feeling good physically and feeling good mentally. Exercise, he says, kept him alive and a run still makes him feel most mentally healthy. Sounds easy, 'exercise to feel better', but it's often the simplest solutions that modern society ignores.

Another simple approach is related to nutrition. Pope advocates healthy choices. The Conference learned that countries featuring high levels of Omega 3 DHA within their diets have lower incidences of mental illness. Yet Western diets have seen a massive deficiency in such nutrients for decades, and at the same time huge increases in mental illness.

Most people assume that Omega 3 DHA stems from fish. While it is contained within wild fish stocks, it is not as prevalent in farmed fish, which are increasingly the source of the fish we eat. This is due to the nutrient deriving from marine algae that fish eat. When fish are farmed, they don't always have access to those algae either naturally or in their feed - often due to the high commodity prices of the fish-meal containing it. The result is a significant deficiency of Omega 3 DHA - the most complex and efficient of the three Omega 3 fatty acids - in our diets and a huge problem for the global population.

The problem may be big, but the opportunity is bigger. It is not just mental illness that is reduced through good nutrition - or "brain food" as Pope calls it. There is evidence linking Omega 3 DHA and the reduction of Alzheimer's, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

Dr Patrick Wall of University College Dublin told the Alltech conference about the need for the Agrifood industry to play a role in solving the problem, pointing out "human health goes back to the start of the food chain". What a great opportunity for much maligned food producers to create a healthier future for a growing and ageing world population.

The future is already here, if only on a small scale. Farming algae at specialised sites across the globe and integrating it into the diets of farmed animals, such as chickens, pigs and cattle is happening now.

Consumers, however, remain sceptical, and that's a barrier. As Dr Pearse Lyons, the founder and President of Alltech told the audience in Dublin, such scepticism won't be easy to overcome after so many high profile food scares in recent years. It requires a communications approach that engages and educates. It must make the case for change, not just in personal lifestyle choices, but also in the way that we produce our food.

Dr Lyons was forceful about the need for his industry to do more. Alltech already develops algae rich in Omega 3 DHA which is used in animal feed. That feed is now working its way up the food chain for the benefit of humans. As Dr Lyons says, the old saying of "we are what we eat" has become "we are what our animals eat".

The food industry is already working through some of these issues and attempting to change perceptions. You can buy 'Einstein milk' in South Korea that contains Omega 3 DHA to help increase brain power - after all, we have DHA in our brains. And Marks & Spencer in the UK now stocks eggs containing Omega 3 DHA.

Educating consumers about the benefits of algae has the potential to proactively change their health and well being. As Wall said, "you wouldn't put diesel in a petrol car, yet we eat anything we want and only change that when we have a problem." However, the fact that nine out of ten people, according to Professor Mike Gibney, Chairman of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, think they already have a healthy diet and don't need to change, is far from helpful.

Making the case for proactive personal responsibility to make better choices can only be possible when there is supply to meet a demand. Let's start by making the use of algae in our food chain real. Then it's up to governments and the wider industry to advocate the use to consumers.

"Your life is yours to own" Brent Pope said at the conference, a mantra vital for both physical and mental health issues. It's time to communicate to consumers that they have a choice, and ensure their food supply chain allows them to truly own their lives.