Why clean seafood will be worth the wait
Jennifer Tung grew up on the Florida coast, and for as long as she can remember, the ocean’s wildlife has been close to her heart. “Even as a child, I would pay attention to the way human activities affect sea life, such as seagulls on the beach entangled in plastic,” she recalls. As she grew up and developed a penchant for biology, Tung also became alarmed about our warming climate and decided that her passion for ocean health needed to become more than a hobby.
Tung is now a senior scientist at Finless Foods, a clean meat startup developing protocols and materials for growing seafood in a lab from marine animal cells. Finless is one among a growing number of clean meat start-ups that are using biotechnology to address our unsustainable food system by growing meat in a lab. In the industry as a whole, it has become common to focus primarily on producing chicken and beef, which are both widely consumed and carbon intensive. But companies like Finless are hoping to raise awareness that providing sustainable seafood alternatives is just as important.
“We eat over 300 different types of sea animals, but most of the efforts in clean meat revolve around land animals,” says Laura Zaim, a venture partner at New Crop Capital, a venture fund that supports clean seafood startups including San Diego-based Blue Nalu. “From a market side, that makes the most sense, but land animals are not going anywhere quickly.” If we care about endangered animals and the biodiversity of our oceans, seafood merits equal concern.
Most people are unaware that our current fishing and aquaculture industry comes with steep environmental costs. In a recent white paper, the Good Food Institute argued that lab-grown seafood will help mitigate that damage. Among the concerns it cites about the often-opaque, under-regulated industry are risks to consumers from chemical contamination, human rights violations like slavery, and rampant overfishing.
Here’s something that keeps people like Laura Zaim interested in ventures like Finless Foods: Ninety percent of wild fisheries are classified as overfished or harvested at maximal capacity. “Oceans are being really overfished, and fishing industries are taking out several million fish every year,” Zaim said.
And the aquaculture industries that have grown rapidly to meet market demand are no better. Aquaculture involves additional risks, such as the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens and the destruction of sensitive coastal habitats. Moreover, raising many of the sea animals that consumers value is not possible or pragmatic in aquaculture systems.
Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle has made it her mission to dispel the abundant inaccuracies and misperceptions in consumer knowledge of the seafood industry. In a recent interview, she explained that because we don’t observe farmers raising sea creatures, we don’t consider the huge investment of natural resources that goes into marine animals who are high on the food chain and several years old. “We think of fish as free,” she said. “Free goods, there for us to extract, not really thinking about what is taken out of the system—this long tail of groceries that have been invested in every swordfish, in every halibut, in every cod or grouper or snapper, or 20-year old lobster.”
For this reason, Earle is very enthusiastic about the possibility of clean and plant-based meats, which she says would “level the trophic playing field” by eliminating all the previous steps on the food chain, thus making our seafood consumption much less environmentally costly.
In addition to its environmental benefits, lab-grown seafood has distinct advantages in health and accessibility compared to conventionally fished seafood. Tung pointed out that the much-lauded health benefits of seafood can be a distraction from the health risks of fish that come from polluted oceans. “Wild caught fish have impurities that aren’t good for you, such as mercury, sewage runoff toxins, and microplastics,” she says. “But these are things that are under our control in the lab. She believes the health advantages of lab-grown seafood may compel people to give it a second look, even if the environmental costs don’t. “Even people who don’t think about fish on an environmental level will understand that health effect,” she says. “Everybody can relate to not wanting mercury poisoning from your meat.”
The consumers who will benefit the most from clean seafood might just be those with no sea in sight. In landlocked regions where fresh, delicious seafood is much harder to come by, lab-grown fish could not only increase sustainability, but also significantly improve the variety and quality of offerings at consumers’ meat counters. “With clean seafood, you don’t need the ocean anymore, just a lab—and it’s still fresh and healthy,” Tung said. “Lab-grown seafood will cut down on distribution costs and give access to healthy, fresh fish in more places around the world.” And it may be the best way to make sure you’re getting sustainably raised fish. Investigators, including those involved in the massive study on fraud by Oceana, have consistently found that fish labels are not what they say they are.
Looking ahead, Zaim hopes that investor interest in clean seafood startups will follow a similar trajectory to other clean meats. “What could be really exciting is if we saw what happened in the meat space—with Tyson and Cargill investing in clean meat—happening in parallel in the seafood industry,” she said. “If we could get StarKist or Bumble Bee to start making investments in clean seafood, that would be a really great push forward.”
For Tung, consumer familiarity and trust are the most important changes she hopes to see as the industry grows. “I hope that in the next few years, people get used to labs being associated with good things—research, technology, medical advances,” she said. “I’m optimistic about media exposure helping to take away some of the alien aspects of this industry. And I think as climate change becomes even more of an issue, more people will be trying to think of solutions.” Supporting lab-grown fish is a good place to start.
Monica Stanton is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow based in Oakland, California.