I’m an avid surfer and a licensed scuba diver, and spending a lot time within the water implies that I’m keenly conscious of the impression that human exercise is having on the ocean ecosystem. It generally feels prefer it’s extra frequent to see plastic luggage within the water than sea life.

So, I used to be excited this week to attempt lab-grown fish—a brand new product that might assist tackle not less than one main drawback going through the world’s oceans: over-fishing. Hong Kong-based Avant Meats supplied a public tasting of cultivated fish, which its scientists had grown of their laboratory utilizing the cells of actual fish.
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Startups all over the world are racing to lift cash to commercialize cultivated animal protein—starting from beef to kangaroo. Whereas lab-grown beef would possibly assist offset carbon emissions and cut back animal cruelty, the rollout of cell-based fish protein, shellfish and different seafood could possibly be an essential innovation to guard the ocean’s unbelievable biodiversity.

One in all ‘4 treasures’ of Chinese language delicacies

Avant Meats has a singular strategy to its lab-grown seafood enterprise. Not content material to only mass-produce lab-grown fish fillets, it has targeted on growing prized delicacies, particularly fish maw. Fish maw, generally known as the swim bladder, is an organ that helps a fish management its buoyancy. It’s thought of one of many “4 treasures” of Chinese language delicacies. (The others are abalone, sea cucumber and shark’s fin, the consumption of which has precipitated shark populations across the globe to plummet).

“We’re the primary firm engaged on cultivated fish in Asia,” says Carrie Chan, the co-founder and CEO of Avant Meats. “We wished to do one thing very emotionally linked with the folks on this a part of the world.”

Fish maw soup
Aria Chen and Abhishyant Kidangoor–TIMEAvant Meats fish maw in a soup on Sept. 14, 2021.

Fish maw is usually eaten on particular events; I attempted it years in the past at a pal’s marriage ceremony banquet dinner. Fish maw itself doesn’t have a powerful taste. As an alternative, it tends to choose up the flavors it’s cooked in. The yellow croaker fish maw within the soup chef Eddy Leung had ready for us on Tuesday tasted comparable. It had a spongey, chewy texture.

“The feel is just like the actual fish maw earlier than it’s cooked…It’s sticky, it has gelatin,” says Leung. “However if you eat it, it doesn’t but have the form of stickiness the actual ones do.”

Avant Meats additionally allow us to pattern a cultivated fish fillet, derived from a grouper. As a former vegetarian, I’m nonetheless squeamish about consuming residing issues. However I didn’t really feel responsible about consuming meat that was by no means really a residing, swimming fish. The fillet tasted like the actual factor, nevertheless it nonetheless has a solution to go. As an alternative of flaking like actual fish, it had a starchier consistency, extra like gnocchi.

To make the meals we tried, the corporate took cells from an actual fish, fed them vitamins and incubated them till they started to duplicate. A few of these cells have been then positioned on what’s referred to as scaffolding—plant-based supplies that give the cells form as they develop.

Learn Extra: Why This 12 months Is Our Final, Greatest Likelihood for Saving the Oceans

Scaling up manufacturing, cutting down value

One of many largest challenges going through cell-based firms is that, like most new technological developments, it’s actually costly to provide.

It initially value Avant Meat round $900 to provide a pound of lab-grown fish. The corporate has already introduced its value right down to about $70 per pound, and Chan believes Avant can cut back its prices to $14 to $18 per pound within the subsequent 12-18 months as manufacturing scales up.

“The secret’s: Are you able to produce sufficient fish from mobile manufacturing that you simply displace wild seize or conventional or standard farmed fish?” Arlin Wasserman, the founding father of the sustainable meals consultancy Altering Tastes, tells me.

That is the place specializing in fish maw and different high-end elements may make lab-grown seafood economically viable quicker. A bowl of fish maw soup in a pleasant restaurant in Hong Kong prices round $30, whereas braised fish maw on the metropolis’s three Michelin star Lung King Heen restaurant prices round $470.

Learn Extra: The World’s Oceans Are in Hassle. And So Are People, Warns U.N. Report

Over-fishing disaster

If cell-based seafood takes off, it is going to be excellent news for the world’s oceans. Greater than 30% of shares are actually being fished at biologically unsustainable ranges, in keeping with the Meals and Agriculture Group of the United Nations (FAO). Huge portions of undesirable fish and different creatures like sea turtles and dolphins are by chance captured whereas fishing for species meant for human consumption.

Fish maw has had particularly devastating ripple results. The swim bladder of the totoaba fish, native to Mexico, is very prized; it’s generally known as the “cocaine of the ocean” for its astronomical costs. Totoaba fishing was banned in 1975, however unlawful gillnets are nonetheless frequent. They additionally ensnare vaquitas, the world’s smallest porpoise. Now, it’s estimated that there are solely 9 vaquitas left on the earth.

Avant Meats’ innovation may assist relieve the stress that rising demand for uncommon delicacies has placed on ocean habitats all around the world. Texture apart, I’m excited to see cell-based meats getting nearer to turning into a actuality.

Avant Meats’ idea might be put to the check very quickly. At a time when most firms are nonetheless working to deliver their merchandise to shoppers, Avant Meats plans to promote its first merchandise to the general public someday subsequent 12 months. The corporate can be engaged on a fish-based ingredient for use in skincare merchandise, and it plans to department out into different meat, together with sea cucumber, quickly.

—With reporting by Aria Chen / Hong Kong