Bon Appétit! Is Lab-Grown Sea Food the Wave of the Future?

Would you eat a lab-grown fish?
Jason Collins
A researcher working with tobiko, a Japanese dish. Also known as 'flying fish roe'.woraput/iStock

Did you ever imagine that you would be sitting at a restaurant ordering cell-cultured seafood? Or maybe walking down the aisle at your local supermarket and browsing through the various options of lab-grown fish? 

Well, that day may be arriving soon, and just in time. 

Due to the increase in demand for seafood and the collapse of some fish stocks due to overfishing and climate change, fisheries simply can't keep up anymore. At least, not without seriously endangering Earth's aquatic environments. Already, more than 30% of stocks are fished at a biologically unsustainable level, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)Fortunately, food scientists are working on a solution to this problem that could help reduce the pressure fisheries have been facing without causing more harm to our biosphere.

Enter lab-grown, cell-cultured seafood

Growing seafood in labs, as opposed to harvesting fish from the oceans, could make the industry more sustainable. In fact, cell-cultured fish meat could one day halt the need for fishing entirely, assist in the recovery of the ocean’s ecosystems, and be just the solution we need to satisfy the world's increasing demand for protein.

Does it sound a little like a panacea? Some experts actually think it is, and apparently, so do some investors. 

Lab-grown cell-cultured seafood has attracted a lot of money from a plethora of investors. These investors have ultimately invested tens of millions in companies such as Finless Foods, BlueNalu, Wildtype, Just, and Seafuture, all of which specialize in developing cell-cultured seafood. These companies have already succeeded in developing various forms of cell-based salmon, shrimp, yellowtail, and carp that are at the taste-testing stage, and crab and lobster are also already on the way.

What exactly is this lab-grown, cell-cultured fish? In short, cell-based seafood is derived from tissues of aquatic species, but notably, this lab-grown meat has never actually been a part of a live animal.

To create it, the teams start by harvesting either adult or embryonic cells from a particular donor species. Then they attempt to identify cell lines that are self-renewing. The purpose of this? To create what is known as an "immortalized cell line." In essence, this is a cell line that regenerates on its own, which means that the team won't have to go back to the donor species to harvest more cells later on.

Researchers collect the cells that are isolated from the muscle, fat, and connective tissue of the real donor fish. These cells are then fed a growth media containing nutrients whose exact composition varies depending on the specific type of fish cell that is being grown. The nutrients used to grow the cells typically include a combination of glucose, fatty acids, vitamins, salts, amino acids, peptides, and hormones. 

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The material itself is grown in a bioreactor. Once the growth begins, the teams slowly scale up to larger and larger bioreactors. To mimic the 3D shape of real fish, researchers are experimenting with the use of scaffolding for the cells to grow on. This is essentially a mold of the object you want the cells to turn into — such as a tuna steak. Scaffolding facilitates the development of muscles, fat and connective tissue by allowing the different cells to adhere to the scaffold and organize themselves in the same way they would in a real animal.

The resulting lab-made meat tastes similar to the real deal, and it also has none of the waste products that are typically discarded: no bones, scales, or eyeballs.

You may be doubtful and wondering whether food scientists can really replicate the taste and texture of your favorite seafood. However, if this technology can be used for land-based meat, then why can't be done for sea-based food? And indeed, it seems it can. 

In order to replicate the texture, taste, and mouthfeel of real meat, it's necessary to develop the exact mix of muscle, fat, and other elements — and to do it at scale and for a reasonable price. In the end, the taste and texture of cultured fish can be replicated in a way that is relatively convincing — but also quite expensive. 

Bon Appétit! Is Lab-Grown Sea Food the Wave of the Future?
Source: YenniVance / Pixabay

The race is on between seafood-producing companies to not only offer cell-cultured products — such as tuna, salmon, prawns, shellfish, and more — but also to provide the products to consumers at an affordable price. The models they are using to accomplish this vary to some degree. 

For example, in order to ensure prices are commensurate with those of (cheaper) real fish meat, start-up BlueNalu is focusing on replicating seafood products from species that are typically imported, difficult to farm-raise, are overfished or non-sustainable, or which contain higher levels of environmental contaminants. BlueNalu is also working with traditional, commercial food manufacturers, such as Nomad Foods, which is the world’s largest purchaser of sustainable wild caught fish. The companies hope that their collaborations will further drive down costs. In the meantime, a number of companies are also developed plant-based seafood substitutes, to satisfy demand while the technology for cell-based seafood is being further developed.

Nomad Foods told Reuters in an interview that they are collaborating with BlueNalu on market research and consumer insights to explore new business product opportunities for the European market. The two companies are the first to combine sustainable wild-caught fish with cell-cultured foods. 

Bon Appétit! Is Lab-Grown Sea Food the Wave of the Future?
Source: Adamsov / Pixabay

But are experts and investors correct in thinking that lab-grown seafood is a viable solution? Unfortunately, economics isn't the only challenge that the cultured meat industry faces. 

Although cell-based meat is certainly cruelty-free and doesn't result in the accidental killing of whales or dolphins, it remains unclear whether it will really end up being a better option than simply limiting fishing catches to a much smaller number of animals. It is also unclear whether people will be willing to eat lab-grown food, or will prefer to eat plant-based substitutes. Other questions will also need to be addressed. For example, will vegetarians be willing to eat lab-grown meat if no animals were killed to create it; and religious authorities are debating the question of whether in vitro meat can be Kosher or Halal.

And this is just the start of the issues that this lab-grown food faces.

A team of international researchers mapped out nine key steps to investigate what they believed this industry would need to achieve success. The challenges they looked at included developing a new product, getting it into the market, making it cost-competitive, and encouraging consumers to purchase it in place of wild-caught fish.

The researchers concluded that the primary challenge would actually be changing consumer behavior. Eating cultured seafood requires a serious psychological change, one that will likely take some time. In this respect, "the pathway for cell-based seafood to have a benefit to fisheries is long and narrow," Benjamin Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California and lead author on the study, told Anthropocene Magazine.

It's easy to see why this path is so long and narrow. Eighty percent of new food products are rejected by consumers and fail. This isn't great news for foods that are attempting to replace traditional meat, as consumers need to be doubly convinced of the lab-grown food’s safety, lack of animal creulty, as well as taste, in order to make the switch. It's a hard sell.

Although the idea of cell-based seafood completely replacing wild-caught seafood is promising, and a numebr of products are likely to hit global markets soon, it is unlikely that consumers will completely stop consuming wild-caught fish any time soon. 

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