Synthetic shrimp redefining seafood sustainability

Published on
April 21, 2016

Back in 2013, scientist Mark Post made headlines with perhaps the most expensive hamburger ever created.

The burger’s price tag, however – according to Post, the patty cost USD 325,000 (EUR 250,000) to make – was only part of what made it so newsworthy. The most interesting part of the story was that Post’s beef didn’t come from a cow in a pasture, it came from a test tube.

Fast forward to present day, where California-based startup company New Wave Foods is taking the same lab-cultured approach as Post did, but with shrimp. If all goes according to plan, in about eight months consumers could find themselves purchasing the company’s take on “popcorn” shrimp, which is made out of plants and algae in a lab, and engineered to feel, look and taste like the real deal – a large selling point for the consumers of today and tomorrow, said Florian Radke, a marketing specialist with the technology-driven food producer.

“I truly believe that the future consumer will not care if the product came from an animal or not as long as it tastes in a way that they want it to taste and it’s sourced in a responsible way that’s appealing. As long as the texture, the flavor, etc. is the same, we believe that the consumer will see [New Wave shrimp] as seafood,” Radke told SeafoodSource.

Faux factor

New Wave isn’t just hoping to appeal to consumer senses with its lab-developed popcorn shrimp. Appealing to a heightening global sensibility when it comes to sustaining the environment and, simultaneously, the growing human population, is another differentiator for the company and others like it.

New Wave was formed two years ago due in part to increasing concerns about the environment and the human rights toll of fresh seafood, the company’s founder Dominique Barnes said in a profile of her published in The Atlantic. Those concerns still guide the company's operations, Radke said. Even though New Wave’s products aren't derived from sea animals, the company seeks to make its products more sustainable than those derived by traditional means - in fact, the two are interrelated, Radke said.

“We truly believe that the real sustainable seafood can only happen if you cut the animals out of the equation,” he said.

The environmental and social aspects inherent in sustainability are two out of four points of concern driving the modern consumer in the direction of synthetic proteins or “faux meats,” according to Rachel Greenberger, the Director of Food Sol, an entrepreneurial food program at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, U.S.A. The growing awareness of the problems surrounding large-scale industrial animal rearing operations as well as concerns about the carbon cost of animal farming and its detrimental effect on climate change, play significant roles in furthering the popular movement toward alternative proteins (as they have with aquaculture).

Another factor driving the shift, and in Greenberger’s opinion, the most important from an economic standpoint, is the concern for personal health.

“There’s been so much attention lately around the mass use of antibiotics and the lack of efficacy in protein sources that can compromise immune systems, as well as different allergies or hormonal imbalances connected to what’s in the protein,” Greenberger said. “We’re getting pounded with information that says a plant-based diet is healthier. Yes, green consumers have money to spend and care about the world. But a lot of them are actually motivated in their purchasing by wanting to eat healthiest possible thing, by the thinking that, ‘This body is my vessel and I want to take care of it.’ If it is green and helps the environment, that’s a bonus, but not the main factor.”

Can we all just get along? 

With the world population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 according to statistics from the United Nations, and with a limited amount of space with which to produce animal-based proteins sustainably, the food industry may soon be seeing more operations like lab producers entering the fold. For its part, New Wave wishes to co-exist in the industry with fisheries and aquaculture companies rather than stand in opposition.

“We don’t see the industry as the enemy – we want to be a part of this industry, and see if we can find a solution that’s better in the long run for us and the environment. We want to collaborate. We want to disrupt in a positive way,” Radke said.

Greenberger believes that a merging of realms in the food business paradigm, where fisheries and aquaculture can comfortably coexist with synthetic seafood producers, all in an effort to feed a rapidly expanding consumer pool, will happen someday. She offers major food giant Unilever as a promising example.

“Look at the food giant Unilever, which owns Hellman’s mayonnaise," Greenberger said. "In 2014, it filed a lawsuit against a Hampton Creek Foods, which makes a product called Just Mayo made from pea protein, arguing that the company couldn’t claim it was mayonnaise because the product doesn’t contain eggs. Within a month, after facing a public backlash, it dropped the lawsuit and actually praised Hampton Creek for its ‘commitment to innovation’ in its announcement. Now Unilever is working on its own plant-based mayonnaise, and Hampton Creek came out and told Unilever, ‘Good for you - we want you to do this because it will improve the world.’”

Rather than viewing plant-based protein producers as threats, it seems more likely that traditional major food and seafood companies will buy alternative startups and work collaboratively alongside them.

“A lot of these large corporations might at one point have seen some of these upstart companies as threats, but now they’re trying to buy them, work with them or imitate them either to appeal to the conscious consumer or simply due to concerns about supply issues,” Greenberger said.

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