For lovers of the ocean, the impact of some of our modern human behaviors is a cause of grave concern. Not only are we polluting the marine environment with our chemical run-off, trash, acidification and rising sea levels through climate change and more, but we are also removing its denizens at an alarming rate. From the 100 million sharks killed annually to the overfishing of food species such as blue fin tuna and halibut, the depletion of aquatic life is a major worry. And it does not end with the removal of larger fish such as tuna. Harvesting seafood species such as shrimp in the wild involves massive numbers of other animals – known as by-catch – being caught up in the haul. And this means cetaceans like dolphins, mammals such as whales, and even protected species such as turtles. In addition, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the harvesting of shrimp using trawlers, trammel nets and bag nets also damages the ocean floor, destroying sensitive habitats that act as spawning grounds or nurseries for juvenile fish.(1)
So is the answer to move solely to commercial farming of this delicacy? Perhaps not, according to a paper published in the Journal of Fisheries Science by R. Karthik et al, which identified ways in which commercial aquaculture poses significant dangers both to the animals farmed – whether fish or shrimp – and to the broader environment.(2) Problems such eutrophication – the depletion of oxygen in water due to decaying algae and other organisms – are seemingly unavoidable given the excess food and fecal matter than settles at the bottom of contained aquaculture ponds. Likewise, increased bacterial load leads to reliance upon antibiotics, and ammonification and effluent run-off are both significant hazards to water quality for both the ponds and the surrounding areas due to higher organic loading.
And you’ll be forgiven for thinking that this problem seems familiar. In much the same way as we have discussed the problematic health and environmental issues inherent in industrial animal agriculture (from antibiotics entering the human food chain to contamination from bacterial or fungal sources), it seems like some of the same challenges are cropping up in aquaculture too. So does the cost-benefit analysis of commercial fishing/aquaculture come down on the side of abstaining from seafood altogether? Maybe, if we continue with our traditional methods of raising and harvesting shrimp.
But there might still be hope and seafood lovers should not yet despair.
As we have recently learned, a possible solution lies in lab-grown crustaceans – manipulation on the cellular level – and it is poised to become the next major advance in creating foods that are kinder to the environment without sacrificing taste.
Moreover, if a recent product unveiling is anything to go by, the advent of lab-engineered shrimp may well be closer than you think.
At the end of March this year, the second annual Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit (DFSS) was held in Singapore and debuted an innovative take on that most beloved of Asian dishes, the shrimp dumpling. Siew mai, an open-faced dish that is popular in Cantonese dim sum, traditionally features the pink crustacean and, alongside pork siew mai and pork steamed buns, is revered as one of the so-called ‘Guangdong Big Three.’ Rumored to be one of the easiest dim sum dishes to make, siew mai is also inexpensive and widely available.
Inexpensive, that is, unless it is made from the kind of very ‘special’ shrimp used by Shiok Meats.
A technology start-up founded by stem cell biologists, Dr. Ling Ka Yi and Dr. Sandhya Sriram, the initiative has a mission of bringing lab-based meat innovation and technology to Southeast Asia. Although we have already written about the work being done on cell-based (‘clean’) meat production by companies such as Memphis Meats, Beyond Meat, and Hampton Foods, these companies are all working here in the U. S. Finless Foods, for example, is a start-up dedicated to engineering protein from marine animal cells and is based in Emeryville, California. It is currently developing blue fin tuna filets and steaks for sale to restaurants, food retailers, or accessing the direct-to-consumer market because, like Shiok Meats, Finless recognizes that, on a global scale, 53% of fisheries are now fully exploited – with a further 25% classed as overexploited. Furthermore, it sees the projected doubling of U.S. consumption by 2030 as unsustainable.(3) Shiok Meats, however, which was founded in August last year, is one of a kind in the Asian development space. Furthermore, it is the first company to focus specifically upon the creation of ‘clean’ seafood (shrimp, crab, and lobster) as opposed to culturing fish or meats such as pork or beef from cells taken from land animals. But why this specific focus on crustaceans? It is a very simple matter of cultural taste and expectation, as Dr. Sriram explains:
‘“(In Asia), we eat a lot of seafood, and not many companies were doing seafood. And (personally), Ka Yi and I were very fascinated about saving the ocean as individuals.”’(4)
So, as with many innovators in this market, the co-founders are driven by a passion not only to create a profitable product but also one which is sustainable, environmentally responsible, and animal friendly. But that’s not to say that success in the project was always straight forward or that it is guaranteed. In order to create a high quality product, for instance, Shiok Meats needed to source stem cells from healthy shrimp. However, according to a report by Cindy Co in Channel News Asia, many of the shrimp currently farmed in Asia are ‘grown in in dirty water and […] injected with antibiotics and hormones to keep them clean and make them bigger.’(5) So even finding a source of building blocks was a significant hurdle to surmount and the challenges did not stop there. The nutrient matrix in which the cells are grown is extremely expensive to create and maintain and, as we’ve discussed in earlier articles, the use of bio-reactors and cleanroom technology are necessary to grow meats from cells. And the bioreactors needed for creating fish proteins are different from those used to engineer land animal tissues. With marine proteins, hypoxia tolerance is different from mammalian or avian proteins and lower temperatures are needed for optimal growth. On the upside, chitosan – a linear polysaccharide fiber made by treating chitin – makes the creation of a scaffold for crustacean proteins easier within a bioreactor environment. For a thorough analysis of the challenges and potential of the use of bioreactors in the production of marine protein, we strongly recommend reading ‘Cell-Based Fish: A Novel Approach to Seafood Production and An Opportunity for Cellular Agriculture’ by Natalie Rubio of Tufts University et al, available in preprint from ResearchGate.net.(6)
But let’s step out of the cleanroom and return to our stem-cell dumplings before they grow cold…
After R&D, equipment, and source materials were taken into account the production costs of the 8 dumplings debuted at the exposition came in at around S$5,000. We think we can all agree that’s one hefty bill for dim sum. However, with that said, appropriate cost scaling that comes with market penetration sees the company projecting a cost reduction by a factor of 100 within five years – offering restaurants, food manufacturers, and supermarket shoppers the same product for a ‘mere’ S$50. Seafoodies among us will be excited to keep tabs on the new restaurant…tab.
Putting aside the simple question of cost, however, given that these products seem to offer the same nutrition and taste experience as their traditional analogs is there a demand for animal-friendly, environment-friendly, and ‘delicious’ cell-cultured meats?
According to Sriram, investors certainly seem to think so. Having raised more than $500,000 in less than 3 months, the company, whose name translates in Singapore and Malay slang as ‘fantastic’ and ‘delicious,’ appears to be on track to pursue next steps in development. And consumers might also be onboard. Much like the market here in the U. S., millennials are excited by the possibility of these new alternatives. As Charlene Chen, Assistant Professor with the Division of Marketing and International Business at Nanyang Technological University’s Business School, noted: ‘“Consumers often buy products to express their values and identities, and buying cell-based meat is a way to express one’s concern for animal welfare (and) the environment in general.”’(6) Sriram agrees. Observing that there may be some pushback from older traditionalists, she believes passionately that the ‘Millennial generation are the ones who are more open and receptive because they truly care about the environment and sustainability, and they’re willing to try newer things.’(7) Moreover they are not as risk-averse as the preceding generation either.
So it certainly looks like these animal-friendly, environmentally-sensitive shrimp may be off to a good start at least in the Asian market.
Of course, here at home all of the usual concerns about engineered ‘Franken-foods’ will arise but it is worth remembering that products of cellular agriculture will be regulated either by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Department of Agriculture (USDA). And once regulation is in place it will be up to the consumer to adopt or reject the technology that allows the engineering of a sustainable product that tastes just like the ‘real thing.’ As we said in our earlier article, ‘Clean Meat: Can a Flesh-Based Product Ever Be Considered Contamination-Free?’, ‘when it tastes [this]
good without involving harm to the environment, our own health, or to the animals why wouldn’t we embrace it? From multiple perspectives – economic, environmental, and ethical – it’s clear that engineered meat offers a solution to feeding our increasing population, slowing the environmental devastation animal farming creates, and nurturing life in all its myriad forms.’(9) We are interested to see where this new development leads…
Has this given you an appetite for shrimp? Or does it all sound fishy to you? We’d love to know your thoughts on bio-reactor engineered seafood or cellular agriculture in general. Please leave your comments below!