Hong Kong-based food tech startup Avant Meats has cultivated its first batch of “clean fish” in a step towards meeting growing global demand for meat and seafood in a sustainable and humane way.

According to Thomson Reuters Foundation, chef Eddy Leung was tasked with cooking the world’s first lab-grown fish fillets in his kitchen in southwestern Hong Kong. Leung cooked the fillets as breaded fish burgers with tartare sauce and said they tasted and smelled like normal fish, but with the consistency of crab cakes.

In December, Singapore become the first government to approve cell-cultivated chicken, which led to the world’s first commercial sale of lab-grown meat, also known as “clean meat”. In a monumental move, U.S. start-up Eat Just was given the green light to sell its lab-grown chicken meat, in what the firm says is the world’s first regulatory approval for clean meat that does not come from slaughtered animals.

According to the The Good Food Institute (GFI), economic growth and rising incomes are expected to drive Asia’s appetite for traditional meat and seafood up nearly 80% by 2050. But the world does not have the resources to sustain such a growth without alternative options coming into play.

According to a 2019 report from global consultancy A.T. Kearney, cultured meats have the potential to disrupt the US$1 trillion conventional meat industry. The report predicted that cultured meats will make up 35% of global meat consumption within the next 20 years.

Cultured meat uses a fraction of the energy, land and water use, while producing far fewer greenhouse gases than normal meat production. According to a University of Oxford study in 2011, cultured meat could lower energy use in meat production by up to 45%, greenhouse gases more than 78%, land use 99% and water use up to 96%.

In a 2020 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished. Other studies predict the ocean will have more plastics than fish by 2050, with levels of microplastics, heavy metals and contaminants increasingly tainting seafood. Concerns about animal rights can also help drive a switch to lab-grown meat.

According to Carrie Chan, Avant’s co-founder and chief executive officer, cultivating fish in a lab can be done in a fraction of the time it takes to produce fish normally. “Most farmed fish take between a year to two years to grow, depending on the species, while wild fish take longer”, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. It took approximately two months to create the first 10 of Avant’s cultivated fish fillets.

So how did they create the cultivated fish fillets? Cells were extracted from a grouper fish into a bioreactor and fed glucose, minerals, amino acids, vitamins and proteins, similar to the process to make beer or yoghurt. The cells then grow into muscle tissue, without any organs or body parts.

This technology appeals to companies looking for stable prices and predictable volume to help them overcome volatility in food supplies. Governments can benefit, too, with the COVID-19 pandemic and trade conflicts showing the need to secure and localise food production. According to Avant co-founder and chief scientific officer Mario Chin, cell culture technologies can cultivate a variety of animal proteins almost anywhere.

Many people are sceptical about eating lab-grown meat because it is not natural and because many believe it is genetically modified food. It is critical to educate consumers on the safety of the process, with emphasis on the fact that cultured meat is not genetically modified. It’s important to educate on why alternative proteins are important, including what the benefits are for our health, for animal welfare, and for the planet.

As well as getting the right information to consumers, the success of cultivated meat and seafood will depend on getting the price right. Right now, lab-grown fish is not yet available commercially and is set to supply a niche market, where consumers are willing to pay a premium.

Studies show the idea of eating lab-grown meat has become more palatable to consumers in recent years, especially in Asia. A 2019 survey published in the academic journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems showed people in China and India were more open to consuming cultivated meat than consumers in America.

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