With the increase in demand for healthier meat, fish is on our tables in ever-increasing amounts. Global fish consumption doubled between 1998 and 2021, and scientists expect demand to increase further over the coming decades. While this is to be welcomed as fishing emits far fewer greenhouse gasses than, for example, beef and pork production, it comes with a different set of problems. The UN estimates that one-third of the world’s oceans are overfished, which could lead to a disastrous collapse in fish stocks.
So how can this problem be overcome, and what is the solution for meeting the protein needs of the global population? Fortunately, the answer may be on the horizon.
What’s Wrong with Farmed Fish?
In recent years, the industry has turned to aquaculture to counter the crisis in fish stocks. Unfortunately, this comes with its own environmental and ethical issues. For a given weight of fish, farming creates twice as much CO2 as the conventional fishing industry.
Added to this is the problem of pollution; waste food and fish feces contaminate the water near fish farms, leading to poor water quality. Fish farms also tend to use pesticides which cause further contamination. Finally, some campaigners contend that fish living in close quarters undergo unnecessary suffering.
Lab-Grown Fish—Using Modern Technology to Feed the Planet
The problems of overfishing and pollution from fish farms have inspired entrepreneurs to try new biotechnology avenues for protein manufacturing. There are currently over a hundred startups worldwide working in this area, but perhaps the most famous is BlueNalu. Founded in San Diego in 2017 by Lou Cooperhouse, Blue Nalu is currently working on the production of lab-grown Blufin Tuna steaks, using a process it calls “cellular aquaculture.”
The process uses cells painlessly extracted from wild tuna placed into stainless steel vats filled with a nutrient bath which grows them into fish fillets. The process can be adjusted so the resulting fillets taste the same as the original fish. As the process is still pretty expensive, the company aims to produce fish usually imported as a luxury item. This has the added benefit of not competing with local, sustainable fisheries. However, they expect to see mass-manufactured lab-grown fish at affordable prices by the end of the decade. BlueNalu is already working on a deal with Food & Life Companies, the largest sushi restaurant owner, to supply all of their Bluefin Tuna.
Restaurant owners, in particular, are very keen to use these products as they can guarantee a consistent supply all year round. This can be a vital issue for restaurants that see fish prices and availability fluctuate wildly through the year.
Will Lab-Grown Fish Destroy the Fishing Industry?
There is no danger of this at the moment as the production of lab-grown fish is still only on a relatively small scale. Moreover, most manufacturers envision a future where they don’t work in competition with sustainable fishing operations. Local fisheries will still be able to maintain sustainability, producing more premium products while the cellular aquaculture operations move to mass markets as they increase their output. In a world where a lot of fish is lab-grown, many people will attach value to products they see as “the real thing.”
The real casualty will most likely be the fish farms which are increasingly seen as dirty and polluting yet not producing meat that is as good as sustainably caught fish. As a result, this industry will likely be increasingly left behind, hopefully leading to cleaner seas and beaches.
So, When Will I See Lab-Grown FIsh in my Supermarket?
The answer to this could be sooner than you think. Several food companies around the world are teaming up with manufacturers of lab-grown fish to boost their product lines. Notably, UK-based Nomad Foods, owner of the Birds Eye brand, has teamed up with BlueNalu, and the partnership hopes to have their products in supermarkets within five years.