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Your future sushi dinner could be cultivated, not caught

Startups are getting close to being able to sell cultivated seafood products that have been grown from fish cells in a lab-like facility, rather than caught in the wild or farmed.

Why it matters: Developing cultivated animal protein that could compete with conventional products is a promising way for people to eat what they want without killing animals or damaging the planet.

  • But cultivated seafood could also help alleviate the conservation pressure on wild fish caused by overfishing.

What's happening: Last week I had the chance to try a few pieces of cultivated salmon sashimi and sushi from the startup Wildtype, which says it is close to being able to commercially produce salmon grown from fish cells in its San Francisco facility.

  • The verdict: I give it a solid B+ — not at the level of the best sushi I've ever had (that would be Sushi no Midori in Tokyo; high recommend, especially if you have a corporate expense account) — but much better than your average weekday takeout restaurant.
  • In appearance, taste and mouthfeel, the cultivated salmon served to me was indistinguishable from fish that had been caught in the ocean or raised on a farm.

What they're saying: "This is sustainable seafood that is within reach," says Justin Kolbeck, Wildtype's co-founder and CEO. "And the long-term goal is to make it even cheaper than conventional salmon."

How it works: Like other cultivated animal protein — which you may also know as "lab-grown," though the industry is trying to discourage the term — Wildtype's salmon started as a ball of cells harmlessly taken from a live fish egg.

  • And that's it for live fish in the process. "After we developed these cell lines, we haven't looked at a fish," says Wildtype co-founder Aryé Elfenbein.
  • That was followed by years of scientific work to determine what mix of nutrients and environmental cues were needed to coax the base cells into the mix of muscle, fat and connective tissue a finished product needs.
  • "The second part is creating a plant-based scaffold, essentially a mesh for the cells to grow within," says Elfenbein.
  • The end resultisn't a live fish but what looks like a block of edible salmon fillet.

The catch: Cultivated seafood — and cultivated animal protein more generally — hasn't yet been approved for commercial consumption, though Kolbeck says Wildtype is in "productive discussions" with the FDA.

  • Another barrier is price. Kolbeck estimates that it costs Wildtype about $25 to produce the eight pieces of sushi I ate. That's more than you'd pay for conventional fish, but Kolbeck expects the price to drop "significantly" as the company scales up.

Yes, but: Unlike cultivated beef or chicken — which have to compete with ultra-cheap conventional options — cultivated seafood faces a future where, thanks to overfishing and climate change, the price of much conventional seafood is likely "only going to increase," says Kolbeck.

  • That gives a conservation spin to cultivated seafood. While we're in no danger of running out of chickens or cattle — there are currently about 23 billion and 1.4 billion, respectively — global wild fish stocks are under severe pressure.
  • "We're just at the very beginning of a story that will be the next gigantic level of the climate crisis," says Kolbeck. "It's just a downward slope for wild fish."

By the numbers: Cultivated protein companies raised $366 million in funding in 2020, and other startups — like BlueNalu in San Diego, which makes cultivated fish, and Shiok Meats, which makes cultivated shrimp — are competing in the seafood space.

  • A recent study found that 80% of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. were at least somewhat willing to try cultivated animal protein, with younger generations markedly more open.

What to watch: Wildtype will be opening up a sushi bar at its San Francisco pilot plant in the fall, where visitors will be able to try the product and tour the facility.

The bottom line: If there is going to be fish on our plates in the future, much of it will likely need to be cultivated.

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