My Beef with Shrimp
We’ve reached a tipping point. President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement - and the ensuing backlash from the likes of Elon Musk withdrawing from Trump’s advisory team - has only highlighted the fact that we’re in an era where the final climate deniers are clutching at straws. The fact that changes need to be made to impede further environmental damage is undeniable. The energy sector receives most of the blame when it comes to our environmental footprint, but there are also other industries putting the world under significant stress.
With the growing popularity of informative documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, the general population is acutely aware of the detrimental effects of beef production on our environment. However, we are significantly less informed about a far more ecologically harmful section of the food production industry. Seafood actually has a carbon footprint almost ten times that of beef. These ecological detriments have given rise to an unprecedented demand for dairy and meat alternatives from both consumers and environmentalists alike.
Enter a new wave of startups growing in the home of technology and innovation, Silicon Valley. While the search for sustainable beef substitutes has been highly publicized, with the first lab-grown meat taste testing in 2013 giving way to developments by Memphis Meats and Modern Meadow, the equally monumental creation of ‘clean’ seafood is perhaps overlooked.
In addition to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution of our bodies of water combined with overfishing will lead to a spike in seafood prices in the coming years. In fact, 53% of Earth’s fish stocks are already fully exploited- meaning that the fishery is operating at or close to an optimal yield level without room for further expansion. Needless to say, that isn’t sustainable.
As with artificial meat, two alternatives to seafood are currently being explored by biotech startups. The first of these alternatives uses plants and algae to make a vegan imitation fish. The second process involves using stem cells harvested from living fish to synthesize fish meat in labs.
The current leader in vegetarian seafood alternatives is Bay Area-based startup New Wave Foods, which graduated from San Francisco startup accelerator IndieBio in 2015. Founded in the same year, New Wave Foods has already released the world’s first algae and plant-based shrimp to extremely positive reviews from a select few companies, including Google who now serves the vegan shrimp replacement in their cafeteria.
The choice to focus on shrimp was an obvious one to Dominique Barnes, CEO and Co-Founder of New Wave Foods. Americans line their cocktail sauce-filled martini glasses with around one billion pounds of the product annually, making it more popular than any other kind of seafood.
This ever-growing Western demand, however, has resulted in an industry that is not only harmful to ocean aquaculture, but also to its workers. Shrimp-peeling factories in the East are rife with corruption and worker abuse, as manufacturers attempt to reap the most profit and forego global ethical standards. The development of successful seafood alternatives will not only benefit the ocean ecosystems but also eliminate the vast amounts of corruption in the industry as production moves from ocean to lab.
The success of New Wave Foods comes, not only from developing a vegan product that tastes like shrimp, but also ensuring that both the texture and look is familiar. I hesitate to believe that the majority of American consumers would be interested in a product that tasted like shrimp but looked like chewed up dog food. It might make for an unpopular potluck dish.
To that end, co-founders Dominique Barnes and Michelle Wolf use the same red algae consumed by shrimp that gives them their pinkish colouring and combine it with plant-based proteins in order to achieve the distinct colour, shape, and crunch of shrimp.
Their shrimp is nearly identical to the real thing in look and taste, and the health benefits of New Wave’s substitute far exceed that of the original. This shrimp substitute has zero cholesterol, is allergen free, and kosher, while retaining the same high protein, low fat content that shrimp is known and loved for. In addition, removal of the necessity of a body of water alleviates any risk of waterborne diseases or harmful chemicals or hormones that are detrimental to human health.
Another biotech startup looking to create a sustainable seafood substitute is New York-based Finless Foods. Though a final product is yet to be completed and taste-tested, co-founders Michael Selden and Brian Wyrwas from University of Massachusetts Amherst are in the process of making a ‘clean’ fish through the technique of culturing cells from living fish.
Bluefin tuna cells from a real fish are laid out in a fillet shape after being grown by a ‘cheap and efficient growth media’. In this sense, it is ‘real’ fish on a cellular level, without all the dangers and inconveniences that fish usually presents. The founders describe this as a ‘bottom up’ system, in which energy is put into the product itself, rather than the means of acquiring it. Finless Foods claims they will have a product on the market in 3 years, but New Wave foods is already selling their product to the catering industry as well as a select few restaurants and will be available in retail in California and Nevada by early 2018.
This being said, consumer demand and participation is necessary to allow these startups to have a long-term environmental impact. Will Americans be open to the idea of eating ‘fake’ fish? Current seafood production is incredibly problematic both in terms of high levels of mercury and plastic as well as environmental concerns, so Americans should be open to eating substitute seafoods. However, it is yet to be determined whether the general public will be willing to eat seafood created outside of an animal. Education on the impacts of food production and government taxation on these detrimental processes, in conjunction with innovative startups like New Wave Foods and Finless Foods are crucial in order to prevent further damage to our environment.
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