Fish-free-fish: making a splash with cellular aquaculture

Whilst the oceans remain as vast and seemingly inexhaustible as ever, the old adage that “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” no longer appears to hold water. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated in 2018 that over one-third of world fish stocks were overfished in 2020, and that this proportion continues to rise as steadily increasing demand places pressure on the almost 60 percent of the remaining stocks which are already at their maximum sustainable levels.

The pursuit of sustainable seafood

Three approaches have so far formed the toolkit for the pursuit of sustainable seafood. Firstly, pressure on overfished stocks can be relieved by reducing catch quotas, and substituting them for less pressured species. However, this raises prices and, when customers are faced with paying extra for sustainability in an already expensive market, many will feel justified in buying cheaper products without these safeguards. Furthermore, this is simply moving the problem around: whilst cod stocks can be relieved by increasing pollock catch, and the pollock by hake, eventually, you simply run out of fish.

Fish farming, or aquaculture, accounts for almost half of global fish and seafood production today, and removes pressures on wild stocks completely. However, the environmental impacts of the aquaculture industry are significant, with effluent, sourcing of fish meal for feed, and escapees all contributing to the degradation of our oceans. Furthermore, aquaculture introduces a new concern into the sustainability puzzle – carbon. Farmed fish produces similar or higher greenhouse gas emissions compared any other animal source of protein except beef – which, despite its notorious emissions level, narrowly loses out to farmed prawns and shrimp for the title of “most carbon-intensive form of animal protein”. Clearly, more tools are needed to increase the sustainability of seafood.

In much the same way that cellular agriculture promises to revolutionise the production of meat from pigs, cows and chickens, the nascent field of “cellular aquaculture” seeks to do the same for seafood. By taking cells from wild fish or seafood, growing and multiplying them under conditions similar to those used in laboratory cell culture, and differentiating these cells into muscle fibres and tissues, it is possible to produce almost endless suppers whilst leaving the fish firmly in the sea. Interestingly, factors such as high expression of telomerase, rapid cellular growth, and a broader tolerance of culture conditions may mean that cell-cultured fish and seafood reaches the mass-market before that from terrestrial animals.

Although, one particular challenge of cellular aquaculture is the sheer diversity of ocean species consumed. Whilst we farm relatively few different land species for their meat, this is not the case for seafood where we may be eating far more different species than we know. Different species will pose different technical challenges for cellular agriculture, and the technologies will not necessarily be directly transferrable. Whilst not quite starting from zero each time – as much of the core process and bioreactor technologies will be the same or similar – the methods and culture media will at a minimum need to be optimised for each new species. These optimisations provide innovators with the opportunity to patent and protect their own inventions even if they are relatively late to the table, as new products will necessarily involve new inventive activity. However, this may also result in a complex patent landscape that is difficult to navigate without expert help.

Plenty of innovation in the sea

California-based BlueNalu have focussed on producing yellowtail tuna entirely in cell-culture. Their recent funding round closed at $60 million, the largest financing to date in the cell-based seafood industry worldwide, and they have set their sights on expanding to red snapper, mahi-mahi, Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna. BlueNalu are also one of the founding members of the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood (AMPS) Innovation, alongside fellow aquaculture firm Finless Foods, working together to navigate the public and regulatory perceptions ready for the mass adoption of cell cultured proteins.

Also based in San Francisco, cultured salmon innovators Wild Type raised $12.5 million in Series A funding in 2019, and more recently have unveiled their sushi-grade Coho salmon. As the conditions this salmon is produced in can be tightly controlled, perhaps this will appeal to even those squeamish about the safety of raw fish?

Crustaceans too may be replaced by cellular aquaculture. Singapore-based Shiok Meats produce cell-grown shrimp and, as of a showcase in November 2020, lobster. In addition to the aforementioned carbon impacts of crustacean farming, wild-caught and farmed shrimp are loaded with microplastics and heavy metals, all of which can be avoided through cellular aquaculture. The focus on shrimp was in part shaped by its popularity in Singapore and across the Asia-Pacific region. A similar market driven approach – where innovators begin by identifying seafood products with suitable demand before asking how they can serve that market - may be highly appropriate for other innovators in cellular aquaculture.

In addition to cell culture approaches, plant-based seafood alternatives continue to gather momentum. Through processing proteins derived from legumes and algae, it is possible to make foods that look, cook, and importantly taste like real seafood. For example, Gathered Foods recently raised $10 million to scale production of their fish-free tuna and crab line “Good Catch”, whilst Kuleana have overcome significant hurdles to create tuna substitutes which match the delicate texture of raw sashimi-grade fish. Advantageously, the technology and regulatory picture are both mature enough that plant-based seafood alternatives are already on the supermarket shelves in the United States and in Europe. Innovators in this space may therefore be able to leverage their IP portfolio far more quickly than in the developing field of cellular aquaculture.

Keeping our oceans and plates full

By the year 2100, without significant changes, more than half of the world’s marine species may stand on the brink of extinction. However, rather than abandoning seafood altogether, it is vital that we identify ways to exploit this resource sustainably so that the oceans’ bounty can reach those who need it. Whilst fish accounts for about 17% of the global intake of animal proteins, and 7% of all proteins consumed, this is heavily skewed towards less economically developed countries, reaching up to 50% or more in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone for example. Meanwhile, the cultural significance of fish and seafood mean that our appetites are unlikely to be slaked elsewhere. Cellular aquaculture, plant-based seafood, conventional aquaculture and even limited wild capture all have roles to play in building a seafood system that keep both our oceans and our plates full.

Andrew also commented on cellular aquaculture in New Food Magazine. View the article.

This blog was originally written by Andrew Tindall.