Can Alternative Seafood Turn the Tide?

New research from McKinsey has highlighted the incredible potential of plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-made seafood to help satisfy growing demand without placing further pressure on already struggling fish stocks.

The report highlights that alternative seafood is unaffected by supply limitations such as quotas and fishing licences, is capable of being produced inland, and can provide a healthy source of omega-3 without the mercury found in conventional seafood. It identifies several seafood varieties with high potential for innovators, such as shrimp, tuna and salmon, and provides key insights into how businesses can reach price parity and win consumer acceptance.

POTENTIAL SOURCES OF ADVANTAGE

At the same time, alternative seafood has some distinct advantages that will help the industry scale:

Local production: For fresh seafood shipped via intercontinental air freight, transportation costs can exceed $1 per pound and produce about three times the CO2 emissions as fish transported by road, ferry, or ship. By contrast, alternative-seafood products can be produced locally, eliminating the need for costly, time-consuming, and polluting transportation.

Mercury levels and overall health: Although fish and shellfish are excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, they can also contain high levels of mercury. Because of this, the US Environmental Protection Agency advises people in certain vulnerable groups to avoid frequently consuming fish and shellfish that are high in mercury. And a recent report from the European Food Safety Authority explains that heavy consumers of fish meat could exceed the acceptable weekly intake of mercury six times over. Alternative seafood can incorporate the benefits of omega-3s while avoiding the risks of mercury.

Harvesting and farming licenses: Today, it can be difficult to obtain new farming licenses for popular species such as salmon as well as quotas for species such as cod. Alternative seafood does not have these supply limitations, enabling entrepreneurs to build new alternative-seafood businesses without having to apply for farming and fishing licenses.

DEVELOPING THE ALTERNATIVE-SEAFOOD INDUSTRY

There are three primary production options for alternative seafood: plant-based, fermentation-enabled, and cultivated:

Plant-based: This refers to vegan alternatives that make use of soy, seaweed, yeast, legumes, and various vegetable oils and starches. Plant-based seafood has already entered the market in the form of alternative tuna, salmon caviar, scallops, squid, crab, and shrimp. Plant-based products have led the alternative-protein market, in part because they make use of widely available ingredients and require less investment in biotechnology. These products are also subject to fewer regulations and barriers to market, as their technologies typically use GRAS – certified products and don’t require premarket approval. Regulatory issues have mostly focused on product names and labels. Biologically, these products are distinct from the proteins that they emulate – they are designed to look, taste, and feel like seafood but differ on a molecular level.

Fermentation-enabled: Plant-based fermentation has three production methods, with biomass the most applicable to alternative seafood:

  • Traditional fermentation refers to the practice of using microbes in food. To make protein alternatives, this process uses live microorganisms to modulate and process plant-derived ingredients. Non-seafood examples include fermenting soybeans for tempeh or using lactic-acid bacteria to make cheese;
  • Biomass fermentation involves growing naturally occurring, protein-dense, fast-growing microorganisms, typically algae or fungi. Examples outside of alternative seafood include mycelium-based steak;
  • Precision fermentation uses microbial hosts as cell factories to produce specific ingredients, such as enzymes, vitamins, and natural pigments. Examples include using heme-proteins to improve the taste of plant proteins and using microbes to produce dairy proteins, such as wheys and caseins;
  • Cultivated seafood. These seafood alternatives are produced from cells harvested from popular fish (salmon and tuna) or shellfish (crustaceans such as shrimp, crab, and mussels). The cells are then cultured within bioreactors and grown on biocompatible scaffolds, which provide structure to create three-dimensional tissues. The resulting mix of muscle and fat cells tastes similar to live-caught fish and does not require harvesting or farming live fish. These products are still in development and require high degrees of regulation and certification, as they rely on technologies that are new to the food space. With both high potential and high development costs, these products have captured significant interest and funding in alternative seafood.

ACROSS EUROPE, START-UPS ARE RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

in Austria one company has unveiled its 3D-printed plant-based salmon, recreating the flakiness and juicy fibres of fish fillets;

in Germany another plans to bring their hybrid cultivated and plant-based products to the market;

meanwhile in Portugal another is developing cultivated octopus to help meet soaring demand without having to resort to controversial octopus farms.

But it isn’t all positive news for the sector, as we begin to see calls to ban plant-based companies from using “fishy” names for their products. Terms like “plant-based salmon” are crucial to helping consumers understand what to expect from a new product and how to cook it. With a recent Nature study demonstrating the huge impact of conventional seafood production on European biodiversity, governments must reject such unnecessary restrictions to help encourage sustainable choices.

McKinsey’s report highlights how, although aquaculture production is expected to surpass wild catch for the first time next year, this may not be enough to meet growing global demand. To keep seafood at the core of European cuisines while protecting our precious oceans, both the public and private sectors must invest in developing delicious, affordable alternative seafood options.