DENVER, CO - APRIL 17, 2014: Cesar Marquez shows off the fresh and beautiful red snapper from New Zealand just delivered this morning at Seattle Fish Company in Denver, Co on April 17, 2014. The company processed 10 million pounds of fish last year at their facility. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

Could lab-grown fish be the answer to the over-fishing crisis?

Aquaculture has been touted as a panacea for collapsing fish stocks, but it comes with environmental baggage. Food futurist Dr Rosie Bosworth says ‘clean fish’ – grown in a lab – could be the most sustainable fish stock of all.

 A version of this article first appeared on Pure Advantage. Read Dr Rosie Bosworth on the challenge lab-grown ‘animal proteins’ pose to the New Zealand farming industry here.

Cellular agriculture – a groundbreaking technology involving harvesting animal cells to produce our favourite meats and animal proteins such as milk, meat, chicken and eggs – has become the latest Silicon Valley craze, attracting increasing interest from the venture capital world. Without having to feed, breed or kill living animals, cellular agriculture (cellag for short) is a potentially viable option to keep feeding the world our favourite animal products – juicy cuts of meat, creamy dairy milk products – without the devastating environmental, health and ethical baggage that comes with traditional animal agriculture.

Until now, the majority of trailblazing cellular agriculture startups (including Memphis MeatsMosa MeatsSuper Meats and Perfect Day Foods) and the investors who bankroll them have focused on land-based clean meat products like beef, pork, and chicken, as well as milk. It’s easy to see why. Agriculture currently produces about a quarter of all climate-warming gases. Ruminant livestock like cattle, sheep, goats and deer account for around 60% of that – the equivalent to the world’s total emissions from vehicles, according to Chatham House, a London think tank.

Replacing at least some animal farming with cellular agriculture will, at the very least, make a positive dent in reducing greenhouse gases and help address agriculture’s major role in climate change.

Animal agriculture generated over USD$3 trillion in value-added revenue in 2016, according to the World Bank. So it’s hardly surprising that there’s an increasing number of startups and VCs hopping on the cellular agriculture wagon. From celebrity A-listers like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin to traditional animal agricultural conglomerates, many have recently come to recognise the potential widespread benefits and rosy financial returns of cellular agriculture.

According to CB Insights, the world’s seven largest meat companies account for over USD$71bn in market capitalisation, while the largest, Tyson, boasts a USD$26bn valuation. Clean meat startup Memphis Meats has already raised a USD$17m Series A round in August this year, backed by some of the celebrity investors mentioned above.

Red snapper from New Zealand at the Seattle Fish Company in Denver, Colorado. Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post

The marine industry on the other hand has largely enjoyed a more favourable position in the ethical spotlight. Judged by a number of environmental standards – conversion of feed to protein, emissions per tonne of protein produced, land and water use – World Bank studies show that both capture and farmed fisheries win hands down when compared to animal agriculture. Tuna fish produce close to five and seven times less CO2 per kilo of protein than beef and lamb respectively. A fish eater’s diet produces as little as half the overall carbon footprint of a high meat eater’s diet.

But just because fish and seafood boast a far superior carbon footprint compared to animal agriculture, it doesn’t make the marine industry immune to the potential threat of technology and science – especially cellular agriculture. Biotech startup Finless Foods’ quest to produce cell-cultured fish without a farmed fish in sight is a clear indication of this.

Clean fish – the changing tide of seafood production?

So what’s driving Finless Foods’ co-founders Mike Selden and Brian Wyrwas, who want to revolutionise the way fish reaches consumers? If fish is already produced more efficiently and environmentally than land animals, why bother? One reason is marine conservation; the other is making healthy high-end seafood accessible to all consumers, whatever their income.

To the average Kiwi, Finless Foods’ plan to coax people to eat petri dish-grown fish may seem like a hard sell. According to Seafood NZ, the New Zealand seafood industry is internationally respected for its innovative and world-leading approach to sustainable fisheries and aquaculture management. And 97% of the country’s fish stocks are considered healthy, according to MPI.

The first batch of mussel spat has gone out from a “natural and sustainable” hatchery, a collaboration between Ministry for Primary Industries and Sanford. Image: SPATnz

But the state of the rest of the world’s fisheries is far less pretty. Widespread overfishing and shrinking global fish stocks, rising health concerns associated with toxic contamination (including mercury and plastic) of wild fish, and increasing sustainability and health concerns around aquaculture are just some of the challenges now facing the global marine industry. As prominent US marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle told the UN in 2015, “The ocean is large and resilient, but it is not too big to fail.”

The problems aren’t confined to wild capture fishing practices only. In recent years, aquaculture has become the go-to method for sustainable fish production as a way to avert the total ecological collapse of global fisheries. For the first time ever in 2014, farmed fish surpassed captured fisheries. But farmed fish comes with a host of ecological issues and supply chain problems of its own. Fishmeal (ground up forage fish like sardines, anchovies and menhaden) and fish oil supplies, both essential aquaculture inputs, are growing increasingly scarce and expensive. And if forage fish disappear from the ocean food chain through overfishing, so too will other forms of marine life such as seabirds, whales, seals and dolphins that depend on them. Studies have shown aquaculture to be twice as greehouse gas-intensive as capture fishing and as demand for aquaculture seafood grows, so too will the CO2 output of an ostensibly carbon-friendly industry.

That’s where “clean fish” come in. Without the ocean pillage or negative health impacts currently associated with captured and farmed fish, cell-grown fish can undoubtedly help ease some of the pressure on the world’s natural ecosystems. “We want to show the public we are doing this for the right reasons, and that we are working on clean fish primarily as a conservation issue” says Finless Foods’ Mike Selden. “Yes, fish is a high-value product. But I also think it is important people know we’re doing this as a conservation issue. Bluefin tuna species are on and off the threatened species list, partially because it’s so expensive. We can take the pressure off these increasingly rare and wild populations.”

Starting with surimi made from bluefin tuna cells, Finless Foods aims to produce luxury fish products via cellular agriculture, then sell them at price points the same as or below the price of canned fish. “Eventually we will bring the price of bluefin tuna down to the point that we can give people the choice between canned skipjack and albacore [cheaper varieties of tuna] that has mercury and plastic in it, or provide them with this very high-quality bluefin tuna [produced via cellular agriculture] without any contaminants in it – for the same price.”

Finless Food’s fish launch in San Francisco. Image: Rosie Bosworth

In September, I was invited to attend the launch of Finless Foods’ world’s first lab-grown fish cell product. The company’s “clean fish” potato croquettes were made from 25% carp fish cells grown outside of the fish. The clean fish flavour was somewhat eclipsed by the potato filler, and each of the five croquettes cost a hefty USD$200 to produce, making the fishy protein slightly out of the price range of the average sushi lover.

Still, the launch of Finless Foods’ first generation clean fish prototype was significant for both the company and the wider cellular agriculture industry. It served as an initial benchmark of the company’s progress thus far, the first step on its path towards achieving the holy grail: luxury fish at tinned fish prices. And while Finless Foods’ clean fish is prohibitively expensive right now, if the company can refine its science while bringing down production costs it could change the marine industry as we know it.

So what does this mean for the New Zealand fishing industry? Is clean fish the next big threat to our already vulnerable primary industries? Are major Kiwi seafood players like SanfordMoana NZ and Sealord aware of the potential threats and impacts of cellular agriculture? Or is cellular-grown fish nothing more Silicon Valley hype?

According to national industry body Seafood New Zealand, the seafood industry is aware of the real challenge of feeding the world’s growing population and the role new food technologies can play in solving the problem. However, given New Zealand’s stellar sustainability track record when it comes to seafood production, Seafood New Zealand doesn’t appear to be too worried about any potential impact “clean fish” might have on our $1.8b marine industry. “These (cellular agriculture alternatives) will, in time, become a competitor in the market,” says spokesperson Matt Atkinson. “However, we believe that there will always be a place for New Zealand’s nutritious and sustainably caught seafood.”

Likewise, Volker Kuntzsch, the CEO of New Zealand’s largest seafood supplier Sanford Limited, doesn’t sound overly worried. “There will always be a certain degree of the population who would like to pay a price to buy something that is natural and sustainable. I don’t think in the next decade all of the population will change over to synthetic, or that we will see an end to live fish farming or capture fishing anytime soon.”

IMAGE: SCREENSHOT

Both Kuntzsch and Seafood NZ cite various world-leading sustainability initiatives that are helping to differentiate New Zealand seafood players in the global marketplace and improve the ecosystem resilience of the country’s existing fisheries. These include Precision Seafood Harvesting, a new trawl method that targets specific fish size and gets the fish out of the water without damaging them as trawling can; SpatNZ, a partnership between Sanford and the New Zealand government to spawn green shell mussel spat (baby mussels) indoors; and the introduction of more fuel-efficient wild fishing vessels equipped with robotic equipment and sensors to make capture fishing far more targeted in the future.

New Zealand fisheries: no ‘get out jail free’ card

That said, Kuntzsch is not ignorant of the potential threat of cellular agriculture and the challenges it may pose to his industry. “It does feel there’s an increasing awareness of how we treat animals,” he says, “and while it’s happening on land-based proteins [now], it’s inevitable that people will ask the question of fish and the catching of it.”

As a way to reduce its impact on the ocean’s ecosystems, around one-third of Sanford’s fish and seafood products are now produced via aquaculture, and a matching proportion of the company’s revenues come from its various farmed seafood products.

HOKI. IMAGE: NEIL BAGLEY, NIWA.

This doesn’t mean New Zealand players like Sanford have a get out of jail free card. Farmed fish, while environmentally superior to animal agriculture, still produces roughly twice the CO2 of captured fish, largely due to infrastructure and fish feed production. Meanwhile, demand for fish is skyrocketing. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, we now eat twice as much fish than we did 50 years ago, and this number is set to almost double again by 2030. Our oceans are, to a degree, being spared ecological collapse. But ever more pressure is being put on an already stressed climate – and marine ecosystems – for forage fish, as the production of farmed seafood grows.

But is the growth of acquaculture just replacing one problem with another? If so, the case for cellular agriculture become all the more legitimate, making companies like Finless Foods more valuable for sustainably feeding a growing world. “I think it’s really important that people understand we are not some faceless corporation trying to change their food. We’re trying to really help the environment and do good for the world. We come at this from a scientific and environmental perspective,” Selden says.

The road ahead for NZ fisheries

While the thought of producing lab-grown or “cultured” seafood and fish in vitro may seem unappealing, the case for cellular agriculture continues to mount. When the costs of luxury clean fish products drop to prices the mainstream consumer can afford, and as soon as big food retailers and quick service food chains like McDonald’s start to substitute with clean fish, for the global seafood industry it may well like the Ross Sea ice shelf breaking off  – the ripple effects on New Zealand could be huge. And it might be a lot sooner than we think.

Dr Rosie Bosworth is an future of foods strategist and communications specialist, with an appetite for finding ways to improve sustainability and resilience for agricultural and food systems. 


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