How lab-grown sushi could help tackle overfishing

But that popularity has come at a heavy cost, with the population of wild North Atlantic salmon halving between 1983 and 2016. It’s a symptom of a broader problem: Nearly 90 percent of global marine fish stocks are depleted. , overexploited or fully exploited, according to United Nations Research.
One company trying to produce fish more sustainably is Wildtype. The California-based startup is creating sushi-friendly salmon by culturing cells taken from salmon eggs.
It raised $100 million in February 2022, which included support from actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeff Bezos’s investment firm, Bezos Expeditions. Now, the company hopes to scale up and be one of the first to bring a lab-grown fish product to market, says Wildtype co-founder Justin Kolbeck.

Wildtype grows cells in a nutrient solution in steel vessels similar to the fermentation tanks used in breweries. A plant-based mesh known as a “scaffold” is used to help cells form fibrous or fat-like tissue.

Kolbeck says the idea is to go beyond creating the kind of processed fish alternative that can already be made with plant protein. “You can use plants to make picada [style] products quite easily, but it’s really hard to get a complete type of product, like you’d find in a sushi restaurant,” says Kolbeck. “So that was the challenge we set for ourselves.”

Not all fishery products harm wild fish populations. Aquaculture, or farmed fish, accounted for almost half of the 179 million metric tons of global fish production in 2018, but it has drawbacks. Farmed fish are often given antibiotics, which can promote antibiotic resistance, can contain microplastics, and aquaculture waste can contaminate aquatic ecosystems.
Aryé Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype and a molecular biologist, says that with cell-cultured fish, “there are no antibiotics, no heavy metals, no microplastics.” There’s no waste, as only the edible parts of the fish are farmed, and Wildtype says its product takes just four to six weeks to grow, compared to the two to three years it takes to grow a mature salmon in aquaculture.

A drop in the ocean

Salmon’s popularity makes it a compelling product for alternatives, says David Kaplan, a biomedical engineer at Tufts University in Boston, who is not affiliated with Wildtype. “It’s a really good target because we know consumers love salmon,” he says, adding that the potential range of products, from fishcakes to salmon fillets, offers a variety of innovation opportunities. In the long term, it’s not known how farmed seafood will compete with farmed fish on price, Kaplan says, but he anticipates that the cost of farmed fish will fall as companies grow.

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However, before companies like Wildtype can even consider price points, the industry needs regulatory approval. So far, Singapore is the only nation that has approved the sale of lab-grown meat. In the US, the FDA grants approval for products like this, and Kaplan says the first round of regulation is anticipated later this year.

Kolbeck says he has been working with the FDA for the past two years to establish best practices for the regulation and production of lab-grown foods.

Wildtype’s current pilot plant only has “modest” production capacity, says Kolbeck, but the company is building larger facilities in anticipation of FDA approval. Kolbeck estimates it will be a decade before companies like his reach industrial-scale production, emphasizing that it is not a definitive solution to overfishing.

Founders Aryé Elfenbein (left) and Justin Kolbeck started the company in 2016.

A targeted release

Wildtype isn’t the only Silicon Valley startup in the field collecting investment: BlueNalu raised $60 million last year, while Finless Foods raised $34 million in March. Both have plans to produce cell-cultured bluefin tuna, a fish that was classified as endangered until numbers began to rise in the last decade.

Kate Kruger, a cell biologist and founder and CEO of Helikon Consulting, an advisory firm for innovative food products, says the market for cultured proteins has expanded rapidly in the last five years. Brands like Impossible Foods, which specializes in plant-based burgers and sausages that look, taste and feel like real meat, have paved the way for consumers to embrace novelty products, she says.

The targeted launch of Impossible, starting in upscale, high-end restaurants before expanding to global burger chains and then supermarkets, is a model that farmed fish products could follow, adds Kruger.

But Wildtype’s “structured” sushi-grade fish fillet will have a much higher uptake than an “unstructured” minced product like a burger, Kruger says. “People can expect extreme precision from these products,” she says. “Structured products are the holy grail in this space.”

Wildtype's ambition to create an environment "structured"  a product like a salmon fillet is more of a challenge than the "unstructured"  ground products like hamburgers and hot dogs, experts say.

Kaplan expects the composite products, a blend of plant-based and cell-cultured proteins, to be the first to market as they lower costs while introducing taste and texture to consumers.

While Wildtype is eager to make its product the first farmed seafood on the market, it is also focused on the long-term goal of reducing the burden on fish stocks.

“If we continue on this trajectory, by 2030, we could pass a point of no return for many of these fish species,” says Kolbeck. “I have a couple of young children and I don’t want to hand them a world that is less biodiverse and less rich than the one we inherited, especially when we have tools at our disposal to do something about it.”

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