Lab-grown fish is coming, but what’s the catch?

·5-min read
Lab-grown fish - Plantish
Lab-grown fish - Plantish

Last week I found myself trying a supermarket’s new plant-based ‘fishless’ fish and chips. The faux fish, made with rice and potato, wasn’t fishy at all, the double potato somewhat overwhelming.

Soon, however, those seeking fish alternatives will have a superior range to choose from. Late last year, London-based Nomad Foods, which owns Birds Eye, announced it was working with California’s BlueNalu on cultured fish (fish grown from cells), predicted to hit supermarket shelves within five years.

Even sooner, it was announced this week, Britons may be munching on 3D-printed salmon-like steaks. The Israeli company behind this vegan-friendly concoction is Plantish, which expects its ‘salmon’ to hit restaurants within two years, and supermarkets a year later. Prawns and calamari are said to be next on their agenda. The likes of Beyond Meat have revolutionised the alternative meat industry, and Plantish hopes to do the same for fish.

“Fish is the most hunted animal in the world,” declared co-founder and chief executive Ofek Ron. “Unless we do something, in a few dozen decades there will probably be no more fish in the sea.”

Alternative fish is lagging behind meat. Singapore has already approved lab-grown chicken and London restaurants have been serving 3D printed ‘steaks’ since late last year. The recent developments, therefore, signal a big jump forward for fish. Lab-grown or 3D printed tuna, salmon, prawns and more could soon be on our plates.

Plantish’s advance is in the product’s similarity to salmon. The fillets are created by reverse engineering a real salmon to ascertain its balance of components (protein, fat, water, omega 3 and 6) and replacing those with plant-based alternatives. A 3D printer then layers these up into the same structure as the fish, complete with pink colour and layers of muscle and fat.

Lab-grown fish - Burcu Atalay Tankut/Getty Images
Lab-grown fish - Burcu Atalay Tankut/Getty Images

What does all this mean for the future of fish? Flavour, feel, texture and smell are the main stumbling blocks. According to taste tests of Plantish’s salmon, participants described the look and taste as “spot on”, but were underwhelmed by the texture.

The alternative meat market is a good bellwether of how texture is a significant challenge for producers. When Telegraph restaurant critic William Sitwell sampled the 3D printed, plant-based steak at London’s Chotto Matte (which Marco Pierre White has also signed up to sell at his steakhouses), he was less than impressed.

“It has the touch of raw steak, there are what seem to be fibres, it is purplish-pink in colour,” wrote Sitwell. After cooking, he wrote that “it does eat like a meat. But not a steak as intended, more a slow-cooked brisket. Indeed I have to work my chops as I have never needed to with previous fake meats. It even gets in between my teeth. And while the chefs’ sauces are fabulous I can discern no actual flavour in the meat.”

A key reason why so many alternative meat and fish start-ups have emerged around the world is the environment. The effects of factory farming and industrial-scale fishing are well documented. Fish farms require huge amounts of feed, with large amounts of fishmeal from commercial fishing and soy, which contributes to deforestation. Industrial-scale fishing involves enormous trawlers that destroy the seabed, and boats that hoover up fish at unprecedented scales. Their discarded nets are also a major concern.

Thus the fish of the future has “the potential to be better environmentally,” says John Lynch, a researcher working on emerging technologies linked to climate effects of meat and dairy production at the Oxford University. But it is by no means a foregone conclusion, and there are still a number of unknowns. After studying the alternative meat industry, he was surprised by its speculative environmental claims.

A traditional fishing port in Cornwall - Getty Images
A traditional fishing port in Cornwall - Getty Images

While lab-grown or 3D printed meats (and fish) improves feed-conversion efficiency (negating the vast amounts of food, water and land used in producing meat), there is a trade-off in terms of energy. Temperatures in facilities will need to be carefully maintained, while plenty of energy will be expended to create the products. “We found a huge spread of estimates, from negligible levels, which would be great, to some that in the long run might not offer an advantage, or be worse,” says Lynch.

Lynch suggests lab-grown and 3D printed meat and fish may well be environmentally preferable one day, but warns that “some marketing can be overblown, implying it is definitely better than conventional. I’m not sure we have the data yet to confirm that.” He also points out that, if there was, say, half the environmental impact and if it was cheap, healthy and well marketed, people might eat twice as much, bringing us back to square one.

What do those working in the fishing industry think? Paul Trudgian, founder of the Cornwall-based online seafood business Fish for Thought, says it’s not something most fishermen are currently talking about, though it is something they’re aware of.

Trudgian, however, is surprisingly positive. He sees a number of issues surrounding the current fishing industry, both in industrial-scale fishing and farming when done badly.

A fish farm in Scotland - Getty Images
A fish farm in Scotland - Getty Images

“When it comes to creating fish or fish-like products from cells, it’s very, very early,” says Trudgian. “But clearly there is a growing appetite for these proteins, and I think it’s part of the solution. If we could replace the worst practice with sustainable aquaculture and some kind of cell technology, that would be an important thing.”

He doesn’t see it as an and-or but an “and-and”, with the potential to alleviate depleting fish stocks for certain overfished species. “This technology will evolve in parallel [to improving conventional fishing], and I see it as one of the alternatives alongside best-practice sustainable fishing, which goes on every day around the coast of Britain and other countries.”

It is not difficult to envisage a future in which lab-grown and 3D printed meat and fish is cheap, plentiful and eaten by the masses, while traditionally farmed or fished animals are exclusive. This could bring about its own problems, but one thing is clear: within the next decade, it’ll be on our supermarket shelves and on restaurant menus. If it’s better than the majority of meat alternatives available right now, it will be a success.

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