This article was originally published in January 2018. Last updated in June 2020.
More than 3 billion people rely on fish for at least 20% of their animal protein. In the last 50 years, annual fish consumption has doubled to be above 20kg per person. While practices like aquaculture have led to an increased supply of farmed fish, about one-third of commercial fishing is done at biologically unsustainable levels.
Overfishing, coupled with destructive practices like bottom trawling, occurs at unsustainable levels that deplete global fish populations faster than can be replenished. Approximately 60% of commercial fish stocks are deemed fully fished with an additional 30% of fish stocks classified as overfished. Overfishing has depleted large fish populations by 90%. If overfishing and the other unsustainable practices continue, it is predicted that millions of people in coastal countries will not be able to afford fish by 2050.
Unsustainable fishing practices are clearly a problem, and cellular agriculture offers a solution. Cellular agriculture (‘cell ag’) is the process of growing animal products, like fish meat, from cell cultures and eliminates the need to use animals like fish to get fish meat. Finless Foods is the first cell ag company focusing on growing fish meat from fish cells, and their work offers a sustainable solution to meet global fish demand without further depleting global fish populations.
Finless Foods is the first company to use cellular agriculture to grow fish meat from cell cultures. Other companies in the field have used cell ag to grow other meats, like beef and poultry. To grow the fish meat, muscle cells are taken from the fish of interest and grown in a cell culture media to become fish meat. The cell culture media and the way the cells are grown are important in this process, because they help the fish cells develop into the same meat that comes directly from fish. Without requiring fish from fishing. This reduces the burden of commercial fishing on wild fish stocks while still producing enough fish meat to sustainably supply the global demand.
One of the most evident benefits of cultured fish meat via cellular agriculture is offering a sustainable way to get fish without overfishing and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling. In bottom trawling, large nets are dragged along the ocean floor and catch everything in its path. This destroys marine environments like coral reefs that many marine animals rely on for shelter and food. Bottom trawling is also responsible for up to half of the discarded fish and marine life worldwide. Many large fish, turtles, and marine mammals are captured in the trawling nets and later discarded as bycatch. Many do not survive, further reducing fish populations that are already under pressure from overfishing.
A fish that has been overfished is Bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna is at historic low levels of 3% of what the global population used to be. Efforts to farm Bluefin tuna via aquaculture have not been successful, and it is now considered so valuable and rare that one Bluefin tuna usually costs over $100,000 in Japan. In 2013, a 489-pound (~221kg) Bluefin tuna sold for a record $1.7 million. The high prices of Bluefin tuna due to depleted fish stocks may foreshadow what might become the reality of all fish prices if the fishing industry does not adopt more sustainable practices.
Finless Foods is presently working on producing cell-cultured Bluefin tuna meat. By focusing on Bluefin tuna, it shows that Finless Foods is interested in making sustainable seafood that helps promote conservation of wild fish populations. There are several advantages Finless Foods has in growing cultured fish via cellular agriculture over growing meats like beef or poultry. Fish cells, used to the colder temperatures of the ocean, can grow well at room temperature, whereas the other meats require higher body temperatures to grow. This leads to higher production costs. In addition, in order to be competitive with conventional livestock meat, cultured beef and poultry need to scale production and cut costs to make their products the same price (or cheaper) than conventional livestock meat. By initially working on Bluefin tuna, which is already very expensive, Finless Foods does not necessarily need to cut costs down as much as other cell ag companies would need to do before entering the market.
Beyond sustainably producing fish, there are other benefits to cultured fish meat. In regard to health implications, cell-based fish would be free of mercury and plastics that global fish populations are vulnerable to. They would also be free of antibiotics, fungicides, pesticides, and other chemicals used to treat and prevent illnesses in farmed fishing aquacultures. Aquacultures in Scotland have previously been under fire for using inhumane methods to detach parasites like sea lice from their farmed fish.
In an interview, the CEO and co-founder of Finless Foods, Mike Selden, said that fishing is one of the largest source of suffering on the planet. By avoiding unsustainable practices like bottom trawling, cell-cultured fish provides a way to meet the global demand for fish meat while alleviating the pressures of overfishing. In September 2017, the production cost of cultured fish was $19,000 per pound. With plans to release a limited amount of its Bluefin tuna by the end of 2019, there is still further research for Finless Foods to do before production can be scaled up. Once scaled, Finless Foods can expand into producing cultured meat of other fish species also under threat from overfishing. By doing so, Finless Foods shows that cellular agriculture can promote the conservation of different species under threat by providing another way to meet the global demand.
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