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The first lab-grown seafood will be fancy

Oceans are under threat. Can cell-cultured fish help?

An illustration of a hand holding a beaker with the silhouette of a fish inside.
Several startups are racing to make cell-cultured or “cultivated” seafood. What sets them apart from companies doing the same for chicken, beef, and pork is that they’re making high-end cuts of premium fish, like bluefin tuna toro in the case of the San Diego-based startup BlueNalu.
Amanda Northrop/Vox
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

San Diego, California, was once known as the “Tuna Capital of the World.” Throughout much of the 20th century, thousands of workers caught cheap albacore tuna off the coast and packed it in canneries that lined the city’s waterfront. But by the 1980s, operating costs and foreign competition were too high, ships stopped their journeys out to sea, and the canneries closed down.

Now, some 40 years later, San Diego startup BlueNalu is looking to put the city back on the culinary map — but with a very different approach to producing seafood that doesn’t involve fishing.

Five miles inland, in a sprawling office park, BlueNalu is growing fish cells in large stainless steel tanks, known as bioreactors. Instead of producing the cheap, $5-per-pound albacore tuna San Diego was once known for, BlueNalu is brewing up Pacific bluefin tuna toro — the prized fatty belly portion of the near-threatened fish, which fetches over $100 a pound on the retail market.

The meat is made by taking a small amount of fish cells (sourced from a San Diego fishery), placing them in the bioreactor, and feeding them a mix of nutrients, such as amino acids, salts, and sugars, for several weeks until they can be harvested for consumption. It’s colloquially called “lab-grown meat,” though BlueNalu prefers the term cell-cultured, while most in the nascent industry call it “cultivated” meat. Whatever the name, it does taste good.

I should add that I’ve never eaten the belly fat of a bluefin tuna — the fish is on Seafood Watch’s red list because of its near-threatened status (its population has dwindled to just 3 percent of its historical, pre-fishing levels). But BlueNalu’s version, which was served up as sushi and nigiri, didn’t taste far off from how food critics have described the wild-caught version: a butter-soft flavor bomb. It left a thin lining of oil on my mouth in a way mere plant-based meat never has — something that maybe only real fish could achieve, even when made by replicating cell after cell.

Traditional saku of bluefin tuna toro, sliced.

It was my second such tasting of fish made from the cell up this year; in May, I tried cell-cultured salmon served in a poke bowl from the San Francisco-based startup Wildtype. It was similarly soft, buttery, and fishy — again, traits you wouldn’t find in a purely plant-based product. Wildtype makes coho salmon saku, the most expensive part of the fish (usually reserved for sushi), which can run you $40 per pound and up. Some populations of coho salmon — the species Wildtype is cultivating — are threatened or endangered.

Neither is available for sale yet, as both startups are still in talks with regulators for approval. And neither BlueNalu nor Wildtype would disclose to me just how much it cost them to make what amounted to an appetizer’s worth of seafood — but it sure wasn’t cheap. While companies are bringing down the cost of cultivating meat from cells, it’s still a pricey endeavor, in the range of hundreds to thousands of dollars per pound in recent years. (In 2013, the first-ever cell-cultured hamburger weighed in at five ounces and cost $325,000 to produce, or around $1 million per pound.)

Other companies making cell-cultured chicken, pork, and beef have a long way to go to get within striking distance of the low price of commodity meat, which has benefited not only from economies of scale, but lax environmental, labor, and animal welfare regulation, along with decades of subsidies and government R&D. Chicken can run as low as $1.50 per pound in the US, with pork and beef in the range of $4 to $10 a pound. Some experts say the cell-cultured meat companies will never catch up.

But seafood — especially sushi-grade salmon and tuna — has a much more exclusive price point, one that is likely to only rise as overfishing taxes wild fish populations. That changes the economics for cultivated seafood and startups like BlueNalu and Wildtype.

People inspect a row of about 20 bluefin tuna at an auction.
Fishmongers check bluefin tuna prior to the new year’s first auction at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo in 2017. A single bluefin tuna can go for thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP via Getty Images

“If we can start with a more premium product and more premium cut of that fish, it eases the economic journey considerably,” said Justin Kolbeck, co-founder of Wildtype. “I think, honestly, the folks working on chicken are gonna have a really hard time, right?”

It’s an approach common in novel technology, from cellphones to Teslas: Start with a high-end product for the early (affluent) adopters, then scale up to reach a price point low enough to feed the masses and displace the incumbents.

And it shouldn’t require extra production costs to make a rare cut of fish versus one that is still relatively abundant in nature. “The complexity between growing a very high-value product and growing a lower-value product is negligible or nonexistent,” said Kate Krueger, founder and CEO of Helikon Consulting, a biotechnology consultancy. Shiok Meats, a startup in Singapore, is making cell-cultured crab and lobster, two species that also tend to be expensive, as well as shrimp, which tends to cost less.

In the simple evolutionary calculus of numbers, the billions of pigs, chickens, and cattle we breed and farm for food have been wildly successful. But their enormous population not only leads to enormous suffering, through the way they’re torturously factory-farmed, but it also endangers us: Growing demand for meat is a major contributor to climate change, and the waste from billions of animals chokes the world’s rivers and streams. The hope in growing red meat and poultry from cells is that it could lead to a shrinking of domesticated animal populations and their heavy carbon and pollution footprint.

The opposite has been true for fish. Growing demand for seafood has come at the expense of wild populations — one-third of fish stocks are overexploited, a threefold increase since 1974, according to the United Nations. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature recently added more marine species to its Red List, citing illegal and unsustainable fishing as leading culprits.

Fish farming was supposed to relieve the pressure of commercial fishing on oceans, but that hasn’t come to pass. As fish farming has grown six-fold since 1990, the rate of wild-caught fish has plateaued, not declined. We farm fish so that we can eat more of them, not so we can preserve wild populations.

If the cell-cultured seafood startups can figure out how to grow fish from cells and compete with the fishing industry on cost, they could not only prevent the suffering of the individual fish we catch or farm, but they could also play a role in preserving threatened wild species.

The case for cultivating seafood

Americans don’t eat a lot of seafood (at least, relative to our insatiable appetite for red meat and poultry). But globally, it’s consumed at a higher rate than poultry, and just a little lower than red meat. And depending on how you look at it, the seafood industry is either a better alternative to the factory farming of mammals, or one of the more destructive forces on the planet.

Fish is on the whole healthier than pork and beef, but it can also present a unique health hazard, with its mercury, parasites, and microplastics. Fish has the lowest carbon footprint of all meats, yet it’s uniquely harmful to oceanic ecosystems and marine life — commercial fishing is a major threat to coral reefs, and discarded fishing gear accounts for 10 percent of plastic found in the ocean.

Wild-caught fish only suffer briefly during slaughter, as opposed to the weeks or months a chicken or pig suffers on a factory farm on land. But now more than half of the estimated 1-3 trillion fish we eat each year — who we believe can feel pain — are raised in fish farms, where they suffer from many of the same problems as farmed chickens: disease, overcrowding, and painful slaughter.

A photograph of a few hundred sturgeon fish swimming in a pen.
Sturgeons swimming in basins at a fish farm in the northern Polish village of Rus. Fish farming critics say farmed fish suffer from many of the same problems as farmed chickens: disease, overcrowding, and painful slaughter.
Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

The seafood supply chain is also dizzyingly complex, lacking the traceability of most other meat products. For example, a recent study found that out of 105 samples of fish used in sushi, ceviche, and poke dishes at a smattering of Orange County, California, restaurants, almost two-thirds were mislabeled. That won’t be true of cultivated seafood.

“We can be just exquisitely precise about where something was made,” said Aryé Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype. “Exactly who made it, when it was made, what the transportation looked like, and just levels of information and detail that by far exceed what we see in conventional seafood.”

The lack of empathy for fish and the opaque, globalized supply chain have made commercial fishing even harder to reform than the factory farms that churn out red meat and poultry. A group of UK and Canadian researchers estimated in 2009 that one out of every five wild fish sold is caught through illegal, unregulated, or unreported activity. That could make cultivated seafood an important tool in the fight to clean up oceans and reduce the suffering of fish, if it can indeed displace wild-caught and farmed fish.

But as is often the case for any kind of new technology, whether or not cultivated seafood can actually solve welfare and conservation challenges will come down to dollars and cents.

Making cell-cultured fish affordable

Startups like BlueNalu and Wildtype have their sights set on first cracking into the high-end sushi market, with hopes of eventually cultivating more affordable species to make a dent in the 179 million-ton global fish trade. Wildtype’s Kolbeck said that if they ever do take over a sizable portion of the seafood market, it won’t be until he and his co-founder have a lot more gray hair.

“This has the ability to actually transform how we eat animal proteins for the better, unquestionably, but the journey there is really hard,” Kolbeck said. “It’s going to take the better part of our professional lives to see this done.”

Wildtype salmon nigiri topped with finger lime.

That realism is welcome, but technical progress is being made, if slowly. In October, BlueNalu announced two advancements in its goal of making bluefin tuna toro. The first was growing cells in suspension. Cells usually require some kind of surface on which to grow, so single-cell suspension saves precious space inside the bioreactor, meaning more cell-cultured tuna per batch.

The second is what it calls its “lipid-loading” technology, in which the company, through how they process the cells and what they feed them, has figured out how to make the cells grow a customized amount of fat — which, as the name suggests, is the critical component of fatty bluefin tuna toro. Lauran Madden, BlueNalu’s chief technology officer, said most tuna fat is 30 to 40 percent saturated, 25 percent omega-3 fatty acids, and the rest is other unsaturated fats. But they can tweak these amounts, enabling them to generate products based on what kind of fat profile a consumer would want.

“We can actually create cells, if we want, that have exactly the same profile [as wild-caught fish], or we can create cells that, for example, might have 90 percent omega-3 [fatty acids],” Madden said. And instead of growing fat cells in one bioreactor and muscle cells in another, they can be grown at once, further saving on costs.

Despite the scientific advancements and frenzied investor interest, cultivated seafood companies are still very much in uncharted seas. Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara are skeptical they can succeed — meaning displace conventional seafood — due to the technical and economic challenges of producing it affordably at scale, the subsidization of the fish industry, and the challenge of securing consumer acceptance of novel food products.

Researchers also say that fish farming likely hasn’t had any kind of conservation effect and instead has increased overall demand for seafood. That could happen with cell-cultured seafood too, but it may not be a fair comparison.

Some species, like tuna, are practically impossible to farm, meaning that unless we grow them from fish cells, we have to take them out of the ocean. Fish farming has also been advertised as a more sustainable way to produce seafood, but much of it still depends on commercial fishing, as many farmed fish are fed wild-caught fish. Cell-cultured seafood avoids the plundering of oceans altogether.

Of course, if culturing fish cells never becomes economically feasible, lab-grown seafood will become, at best, a technological delicacy. But that’s the gamble dozens of investors have eagerly taken, considering the oceanic stakes and the potential windfall to be earned.

For at least half of homo sapiens’ 300,000-year run, we’ve ventured into the ocean for food. Today, fish remains a critical source of sustenance and income for many, but with a population that has surpassed 8 billion, we’ll need to figure out how to feed the world without further decimating oceans and rivers. The scale of the problem requires imaginative thinking, even as wild as making fish cells swim in bioreactors instead of out in the open water.