A few years ago, the concept of lab-grown meat became an overnight sensation in Silicon Valley and the media. Imagine being able to grow a delicious steak in a lab without the need to harm any animals. It's an idea that's so tantalizing that even PETA supported lab-grown meat as a viable alternative for those not willing or able to switch to a vegetarian diet. The headlines were a bit ahead of the science as the companies developing this new technology still have a ways to go before you can expect to find a lab-grown Wagyu steak at your local supermarket.
Nonetheless, the promise of this revolutionary technology could change the direction of our relationship with animals, help restore the natural order in the planet's ecosystems and virtually eliminate the threat of pandemics like those caused by the coronavirus. After all, a burger grown from animal cells can be effectively screened for the types of viruses and other sanitary risks that plague even the most modern food processing facilities.
Enormous tuna fish in a blue background Getty Images/iStockphoto
One company has been forging a similar path into the development of lab-grown seafood. By all accounts, seafood offers a healthier alternative to animal meat. However, human pollution in the world's oceans has corrupted the value of fishing stocks and overfishing itself threatens the delicate stability of the environment where life on Earth began.
We spoke with Finless Foods CEO Michael Seldon about growing fish based proteins, the potential for lab-grown meat and what it could mean for the world beyond providing billions with a renewable food resource.
Can you give us an overview of how Finless Foods can help mitigate the damage being done to the environment and fish populations caused by excessive commercial fishing?
Seafood demand is growing, with global fish consumption projected to grow 18% from 2018 to 2030. Yet, in 2017, 34.2% of marine fish stocks were classified as overfished, 59.6% were maximally sustainably fished and only 6.2% were underfished (UN FAO, 2020). That means that we don't have much room to take more fish out of the ocean in a way that supports healthy fisheries and the ecosystems they are part of. Unfortunately, overfishing still remains a challenge, especially for highly demanded and heavily targeted fisheries, like bluefin tuna. Overfishing also affects other species like sharks, marine mammals and sea turtles in the form of incidental bycatch, which negatively affects biodiversity. We can't forget that there are other major stressors affecting global fisheries today like climate change, plastic pollution and habitat degradation.
How will we meet this growing demand and still have a thriving ocean?
In addition to responsible wild-caught fisheries and aquaculture, cell-based seafood will be key to supplying the growing demand for seafood in a sustainable way. This is especially true for highly sought-after species such as tuna cell-based seafood, which will be free of microplastics, mercury and antibiotics—so it's seafood that is good for us and good for the ocean.
What was the original inspiration for launching Finless Foods?
The original inspiration came from an Atlantic magazine article that I read in 2014, describing how a group of scientists discovered a way to create synthetic horseshoe crab blood without relying on their continued wild-harvest. Horseshoe crab blood contains a powerful chemical that pharmaceutical companies use to test for bacterial contamination. That means every shot, IV drip and implanted medical device depends on these ocean creatures. This scientific breakthrough reduced the need for over harvesting horseshoe crabs, thus protecting their declining population. I figured if we can do that, we should be able to make any kind of animal product without the continual need to harvest animals.
Commercial fishing aside, there are growing concerns about the health of seafood due to factors like mercury contamination. Can you walk us through some of the other benefits of lab-grown seafood that help minimize the risks of contamination and disease?
The health of our wild-caught fisheries are directly connected to—and reflect—the health of our ocean. Over the past decades, our ocean has been impacted by plastic and heavy metal (such as mercury) pollution, which in turn has increasingly shown up in our seafood, especially those fish at the top of the food chain like tuna. While it's hard to clean up the ocean of these pollutants, it's easier to produce cell-based seafood that doesn't contain mercury, microplastics or other toxins. Cell-based seafood also doesn't contain antibiotics, which is better for you as a consumer and for the ocean. Additionally, cell-based seafood is produced in a controlled environment, similar to a microbrewery. It will have to be transited less distance and through fewer supply chain points before it gets to your plate. This reduces the risk and waste from spoilage, which means it's safe and healthy for you and good for the environment.
Representatives in the lab-grown meat industry have estimated about 20% of consumers will never be comfortable with the idea of lab-grown foods. Have you found similar passive resistance in your own experience? Or is there something potentially different (for better or worse) in the eyes of consumers when considering lab-grown seafood?
Consumers, especially millennials, increasingly understand the connection between the health and sustainability of our ocean and the seafood they consume. In fact, over 75% of American consumers are concerned about various issues related to seafood, and only slightly more concerned about heavy metals, mercury and plastics than issues like forced labor and overfishing (Seafood Source, May 2020). This growing awareness and concern also drives interest and excitement around positive solutions such as cell-based seafood. It's a way to have both sustainable seafood, without worry around these other health, social and environmental risks and challenges. We're excited to see cell-based seafood grow from the early adopter to mainstream consumers as folks see that it can perform on market metrics (delicious, fresh and affordable), as well as have added health, social, and sustainability benefits.
What seafood you are most excited to get to market? Are there current scientific obstacles to producing those types of dishes? For example, the lab-grown beef industry is currently working toward solutions in meat marbling and other challenges.
I'm personally really excited to get uni (sea urchin) to market because I love it. It's incredibly delicious, but also wildly expensive and raises sustainability and transparency questions. I think it'd be amazing to bring that unique flavor to a wider range of consumers and palettes, rather than just the few that can afford it and have experienced it already. But done in a sustainable, traceable way that's also good for the planet.
Animals rights groups like PETA have fully endorsed lab-grown meat. What kind of responses are you hearing from people in activist circles?
Similarly positive! They see the potential and range of benefits that cell-based meat can bring to the food system. It's not about relying on consumers to make really hard choices or sacrifices, but having a realistic pathway to making choices that are good for people, animals and the planet.
Is there anything you'd encourage people to do to help preserve and protect our world's oceans?
I think we often focus so much on individual actions and solutions that we don't invest our energy as heavily into the collective action that drives systematic change and achieves exponential impact. For example, instead of simply recycling at home, you also can invest energy into getting your local town to reduce the use of plastic, like plastic bags, which would have a wider spread impact. I encourage people to take the time to get involved, individually and through groups, to influence legislation and achieve a broad sphere of influence.