Lab-cultured Fish: The newest alternative protein making a splash

May 3, 2024 | News

Alternative proteins may be able to save the planet. Where does faux fish fit in the mix?

It takes a while to get used to the sight of lab-coated techs operating shiny steel vats. It’s a world away from the industrial chicken barns and slaughterhouses. This is cellular farming; farming at a microscopic level, cultivating cells rather than animals. This is cellular agriculture, and it could be the future of the way the world gets protein.

As concerns about animal farming grow, including the ethics of raising animals, as well as their emissions, health, and land use, interest in lab-grown protein is on the rise.

Lab-cultured beef is gaining momentum, and since livestock accounts for more than a third of the global greenhouse gas emissions from food production, it could be a key ally in achieving net zero.

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Carrie Chan is one innovator riding the wave in the burgeoning cultivated seafood and meat sector. She founded Avant Meats in Singapore. She has turned her entrepreneurial mind to the pressing problem of feeding the planet’s 8 billion-strong population in a sustainable way. She has created the first lab-cultured fillets. Chan envisions a time in the future when eating fish won’t deplete our oceans.

She says that climate change and pandemics are putting traditional methods of meat production at risk. “Food security is an issue that concerns many governments. We offer a solution .”

The mainstream adoption of ‘alt proteins’ such as dairy free milk in coffee or lab-grown cheeseburgers is touted as a key marker for one of the three’super leverage tipping points’ that could turbo-charge our planet’s transition towards net zero.

Carrie Chan is the founder of Avant Meats, and she created the world’s very first lab-cultured fillets of fish.

Around 14% of carbon emissions are attributed to meat and dairy consumption. Eating fish has a greater impact on the ocean ecosystem.

Chan’s journey from meat eater to activist began in 2014. She began to think about the lessons she had learned in school years earlier about some of factors that lead to hunger and famine, including poorly managed land and crops that could feed humans being used as feed for beef cattle and chickens.

“I’ll just eat vegetables,” Chan recalls deciding. “I felt lighter after eating, and I slept well. I thought that it must be good for my body.” The more I researched it, the more I realized that it was a one-way trip that led me to stop eating animal products. .”

Chan’s preference for fish was influenced her upbringing in Hong Kong where seafood is a staple diet.

In 2018, she gave up her career as an architect and began working part-time for the Lever Foundation. This US-based charity works primarily in Asia, promoting alternative proteins. Lever VC’s investment arm was investing in a nascent cultivated-meat market that was centered largely on the west at the time. Chan saw an opportunity to bring it back home and, with Lever’s help and investment in Avant Meats, he founded the company.

Her decision to focus her efforts on fish is a result of her upbringing in Hong Kong where the diets are usually rich in seafood. Around 200m tonnes of seafood and fish are produced globally each year, with a market value of $676.2bn. Asia consumes two-thirds and produces 88% of this total. While some wild catch comes with a low-carbon footprint overall, a third of our fish stocks are now overexploited, and the world’s fishing fleet spews around

Chan’s response is to suggest that anyone who is squeamish about the idea of cultivated animal meat should take a look in their own fridge or at what they have on offer at their local bar. She explains that a bioreactor is just a more refined and fancier version of a fermentation vessel. “We have been using microorganisms for food production for years. This is no different from making yoghurt and beer. There’s nothing sci-fi in it .”

It may still be the end decade before the average supermarket customer gets to taste a lab-grown finger of fish. Avant Meats, which recently increased production and moved into a Singapore pilot facility, and other companies like it, have to navigate a sea of regulatory redtape. Only the US and Singapore approved a limited number of cultivated meat products to be sold in general. Investors may be hesitant due to the high costs of starting up and the end product being three to five times more expensive than a conventionally-grown, organic equivalent.

We can no longer rely solely on traditional methods of food preparation. Chan tells Positive News that we need to diversify.

Chan believes that cultured meats and fish will become a staple in the diet. She says that costs and prices will drop with scale. They could reach parity with conventional goods as early as 2026. Early adopters and climate-conscious consumers, like the renewable energy boom in the 1990s, will drive a shift to the mainstream. With the right incentives, consumer habits will gradually shift. Plant-based fake meats are also paving the way for other nascent alternatives (i.e. lab-cultured), despite recent sales slumps. Chan says that alternative proteins are not just possible, but also a necessity for a healthy diet. It’s a must.

Chan says that governments can’t avoid exploring alternatives. “We cannot rely on traditional methods of food production. We must diversify. We need to diversify.

Three ways you can support the growth of alternative proteins

Wise up

Chan says that it is important for people to have a good understanding of the current state in food production, so they can understand the need for a change. “We don’t usually think about it,” says Chan. If you spend some time researching how conventional meat is produced it’s easy to conclude that the existing methods are not sustainable. You’ll be more willing to accept an alternative if you are presented with it.

Image: Kyle Mackie

Carbon Labelling – A Push for It

Transparency in emissions allows us to make informed decisions about the sustainability of our food. According to a study by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIIT), two-thirds of Europeans are in favour of climate labelling. The measure is also being examined by the US Congress. “At the moment there’s no clear guidance for the sustainability-conscious shopper.”

Image: Tara Clark

Back innovators

Chan suggests that you support anyone who is interested in trying out new ways to prepare food. It won’t hurt you to try new things, and you may even like them. It’s only by being open-minded that we can change our supply system.

This article is a part of Positive Tipping points, a series that features people who are finding ways to create significant and cascading changes within the climate crises. Produced by Positive News, in partnership with Imagine5.

Main images: Juliana Tan

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