After Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger 2.0 was crowned the unofficial ‘winner’ of January’s CES and Beyond Meat’s hugely successful IPO this month that sees the company’s shares up almost 150%, meat alternatives are firmly in the 2019 spotlight. The two plant-based beef burger and sausage alternative companies have, by all accounts, done a sterling job at delivering products that are close enough to a real meat experience to satisfy meat eaters.
But there’s another wave of food engineering start-ups coming through that are taking another approach – lab-grown meat. And lab-grown seafood is at the forefront of early progress. If the big meat, particularly beef industry, is a focus of the environmental and animal welfare concerns around industrial farming, the other big topic currently in the public eye is the health the world’s oceans and waterways.
Pollution, particularly plastics pollution, is one facet to the problems facing our seas, oceans, rivers and lakes. Many consumers are worried that much of the seafood we eat today is slowly poisoning us, having first been poisoned by us. Overfishing upending the natural balance of aquatic ecosystems is another.
One solution being worked on is taking natural bodies of water, and live sea creatures out of the seafood chain altogether by using the latest technology in the world of bio-engineering to grow it in specialist lab-factories. Californian start-up BluNalu is one of the companies leading the research and believes it will soon have a commercially viable business model able to feed tens of millions of people seafood that hasn’t come from the sea.
BluNalu’s technique is to take a needle biopsy’s worth of muscle cells from a single fish. The fish cells are then cultivated and nourished with a carefully calibrated gloop of liquid vitamins, amino acids and sugars. That allows the original little collection of cells to grow into sheets of fish muscle tissue, the same thing traditional, de-headed, tailed and boned fillets consist of. It can then be cut and packaged to be sold either fresh or frozen.
There are currently, according to the Good Food Institute, twenty-something companies around the world working on developing the science and business model of lab-grown meat. Most are working on farm meats such as chicken and beef but 6 are developing techniques for seafood. Three of them are based in California – BluNalu, Finless Foods and Wild Type. Finless Foods is focused on tuna, Wild Type salmon and BluNalu is more diversified across species – particularly those that are not suited to farming.
It is believed we are still 5-10 years from having commercially-viable lab-grown meat and fish products for sale in supermarkets. It’s unlikely that lab-grown seafood will mean the end of the traditional fishing industry any time soon. Rather, it would be expected to form a third alternative to farmed and wild-caught fish. This could appeal to, or at least blur the lines for, vegans and vegetarians. There would be no killing of live creatures involved, even if the actual protein is biologically the same, minus any contaminants.