Organic agriculture is likely one of the first things that come to mind when considering a sustainable food future, but emerging news would suggest that it is the laboratory — not the fields — where the sustainable food revolution is taking form.
Billions of people around the world rely on fish for protein, but unsustainable fishing practices over the last 50 years have driven many fish stocks to the point of collapse. According to the World Wildlife Fund, over 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits.
Finless Foods, a California-based biotech startup, has created a potential solution to the overfishing problem — lab-grown fish fillets. By combining well-established and cutting-edge cell culture techniques, a small sample of cells from a living marine animal is cultured and structured in a brewery-like environment in the shape of a fish fillet. The process takes several months to complete, but the end product could provide a cost-effective, healthy and sustainable alternative to conventionally caught and commercially farmed seafood that features the same texture and appearance of real fish meat.
Unlike commercial fish farming, Finless Foods’ process requires no antibiotics, hormones or harmful chemicals and delivers only the part of the fish that consumers want to eat.
The startup is currently focusing on recreating Bluefin Tuna, due to the high demand for the fish. While the process and product are still in development, Finless Foods hopes to bring its lab-grown fish fillets to market within the next two years.
The concept seems like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but it could play an instrumental role in restoring the delicate balance of our oceans’ ecosystems, while providing a viable solution for feeding a rapidly expanding global population. However, it will first need to overcome consumers’ hesitations about the product.
Finless Foods isn’t the only company testing the viability of lab-grown meat. Hampton Creek — known for its vegan mayonnaise — and California startup Memphis Meats are also trying their hands at creating “clean meat.” The companies are focusing on developing lab-grown poultry, which they expect will be ready for market between 2018 and 2021.
Meanwhile, a new study from a team of researchers from four American universities has revealed that making one simple change in American eating habits could help the US almost immediately realize around 50 to 75 percent of its greenhouse gas reduction targets for the year 2020.
Headed by Loma Linda University researcher Helen Harwatt, PhD, the 10-page paper suggests that substituting legumes for beef — the most GHG-intensive food to produce — would result in one-fortieth the amount of GHG emissions. What’s more, the study finds that beef production is an inefficient use of agricultural land. According to the findings, substituting beans for beef would free up to 42 percent of US cropland currently under cultivation — a total of 400 million square acres or approximately 1.6 times the size of the state of California.
“Given the novelty, we would expect that the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy,” Harwatt said.
In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Substituting Beans for Beef as a Contribution Towards U.S. Climate Change Targets concluded that shifting from animal-sourced to plant-sourced foods alone could help mitigate global temperature rise. According to Joan Sabate, MD, DrPH, Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition, Healthy Lifestyle and Disease Prevention at LLU School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, the US could hit its reduction goals without having to impose any new standards on automobiles or manufacturing if Americans consumers significantly reduced their consumption of meat.
The study’s findings echo those presented by the World Resources Institute early last year. The organization has long asserted that meat and dairy production puts significant pressure on land, water and climate and its Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future suggested that by just eating less meat and dairy, the average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly half.
Approximately one-third of American consumers are currently purchasing meat alternatives — plant-based products that resemble animal products in taste and texture. Harwatt says the growing trend suggests that animal-sourced meat is no longer a necessity.
While it’s hard to imagine the American public forsaking animal proteins and animal-based products overnight, but according to Harwatt, the threat of global climate change and the scale of the reductions in GHG needed to mitigate it no longer “allow us the luxury of ‘business as usual’ eating patterns.”