The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has found that the global cultivation of aquatic animals has exploded since 1950, reaching 178 million tonnes in 2020, down just 1 million tonnes from the all-time high of 179 million tonnes in 2018. This has been driven by an annual growth in consumption of about 3% a year, compared to an annual global population increase of 1.6%. Yet, for all that, the seafood industry is challenged by many environmental and ethical problems, such as overfishing, and health risks from its use of mercury and microplastics, and from a lack of traceability. Supply chains are often long, difficult to manage, and wasteful. Recently, companies such as BlueNalu and Wildtype have offered cell-based seafood as a way of combating the environmental problems posed by the seafood industry.
Source: Food and Agricultural Organization
Cell-based seafood is produced from cell and tissue cultures extracted from living fish species. This process combines biomedical engineering developments with modern aquaculture methods. These cells are cultivated into fish products, or what has been called “fishless fish”. Plant-based seafood products are just 0.1% of seafood sales, compared to the 1.4% share that plant-based meat alternatives have in the meat market. Venture capitalists have been attracted by the prospect of getting alternative seafood products to somewhere similar to alternative meats.
This has triggered a wave of investment in companies such as San Diego startup BlueNalu, Upside Foods, start-up Pearlita Foods, Singaporean start-up Shiok, and Wildtype. BlueNalu, and Wildtype are the best known cell-based seafood producers. BlueNalu has raised $84.6 million since it was founded in 2018. Wildtype raised $100 million in series B funding, thanks to backing from investors such as Bezos Expeditions, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert Downey Jr’s FootPrint Coalition.
Justin Kolbeck, the co-founder and CEO of Wildtype, believes that current fishing practices are so bad that it is imperative for the industry to succeed, if oceans are to recover. Kolbeck believes that there will come a time when there are factories across the world, and this will be how people get the majority of their seafood in the future. Given that global consumption has soared, and that the supply chain is so sensitive to disruption that cell-based seafood just has to work. The global population is inching toward 10 billion people by 2050, giving added impetus to this process.
Cell-based seafood would make expensive seafood such as lobsters, oysters and tuna more accessible.
Cell-based seafood could soon be on the menus of the best seafood restaurants. They face, however, two challenges. Firstly, publicly available research on cell-based seafood is hard to come by. While there is a lot of publicly available research on mammalian cells and the production of beef and pork; there is much less on mollusks and oysters and other seafood products. The second hurdle for companies are the regulatory hurdles facing cell-based seafood producers. BlueNalu is looking at getting a regulatory review from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its cell-grown tuna. The company is also looking at Japan’s regulatory process.
Overcoming these challenges could make a huge difference to the recovery of our ocean’s.