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Leon Kaye headshot

Seafood Alternatives Could Help Relieve Pressure on the World’s Oceans

By Leon Kaye

The world’s oceans, and their fish stocks, are under continued threats. Climate change has caused oceans to absorb more carbon, which in turn caused increased acidification -- harming some of the world’s most vibrant yet fragile ecosystems.

Demand for protein means many of the world’s most abundant fisheries are teetering toward collapse. In addition to overfishing, the seafood industry’s social impact shows an ugly side with the revelations of forced labor and even slavery that was most recently exposed in Hawaii. To make matters worse, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, a depressing fact organizations including the Monterey Bay Aquarium have put forth for years.

All things considered, a rethink of how we source seafood will be absolutely necessary if we hope to continue enjoying these foods that are both delicious and healthful.

Reducing the amount of trash we generate, starting with a ban on single-use plastic bags, is a start. Proposition 67, a bag ban on the California ballot this fall, is one tool in the fight to protect oceans. Aquaculture, which has become far more of a responsible industry, will also have to be part of the conversation.

But as is the case with fake meats such as substitutes for the “bloody burger” and chicken strips made from pea flower, it may just be time to start recreating seafood alternatives, otherwise known as “analogs.” Otherwise, mangroves will still be turned into shrimping ponds, and men from poor countries will work for pennies an hour in order to satisfy consumers’ insatiable demand for canned tuna or shrimp.

And we are not talking about foods like surimi, the pollock-based crab substitute that anchors many a California roll and has its own cyclical challenges. New products are emerging that are entirely plant-based, and taste like the real thing.

The foundation of such foods can be algae, one marine organism that is certainly not under any threat. Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of TerraVia, shared his thoughts on the future of algae as a way to feed the world. His company was formerly known as the algae biofuels company Solazyme until it started to shift away from fuel and more toward food.

“As time went on, we realized algae has this incredible place at the base of our food system,” Wolfson told an audience at the Sustainable Foods Institute earlier this week in Monterey. “The question was: How can we go out there and figure out a way to bring this to people?”

TerraVia is on that path. The company now primarily focuses on three core products. Algae-based omega-3s, particularly those produced at a massive plant in Brazil, show promise for aquaculture feed. Protein powders can replace animal proteins such as eggs and whey. And oils could show promise to replace products such as palm oil, which is flummoxing the world with unchecked environmental degradation that the industry is either unable or unwilling to stop. TerraVia claims its algae cooking oil beats competing products on both health benefits and with its smoking point. An alternative to shortening, says the company, can skirt the environmental impacts of palm oil and the health risks of ingesting hydrogenated oils.

The challenge is convincing consumers that algae belongs in the fridge and on the table. One startup taking on this task is New Wave Foods, a California-based company that delivers a shrimp alternative it says tastes just as good as the real thing. The company’s CEO, Dominique Barnes, who shared the stage with Wolfson at a Sustainable Foods Institute Panel, said her company’s product is close to commercial scale.

Barnes was in part motivated by her upbringing in Las Vegas. “All you could see were seafood buffets and 99-cent shrimp cocktails,” she told the audience. “But was is their true cost?” An expensive delicacy only a generation ago, massive shrimp farms overseas helped drive down prices, but then created huge environmental and social costs.

The biggest challenge, Barnes explained, was recreating that texture. Shrimp is slightly rubbery, but gives that satisfying pop at first bite. Her team researched countless varieties of shrimp, along with algae and other plant-based substitutes, which together could mimic shrimp’s fibrous texture. Developing this product involved science down to the molecular level, and the company had to account for ingredients that were both FDA-approved and sustainable. In addition, NewWave needed a unique environment in which to make these fake shrimp – this is not a product that can be made where crackers or candy bars are also manufactured.

The trick is scoring consumer acceptance of these products, and the holy grail is to be able to serve these foods at restaurants – which can move meat away from the center of the plate and ideally generate profits for the business.

Kasja Alger, executive chef at Mud Hen Tavern and Blue Window in the Melrose district of Los Angeles, offers ideas that other chefs who want to cook with a conscience should consider. Alger and her business partner, Susan Feniger, plan to close Mud Hen next month. But its take-out business, Blue Window, will remain. The pair also opened a Blue Window in Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport.

The transition to a more plant-based menu takes time, Alger explained. The chef has long avoided eating meat, but taking those ethics and beliefs to a restaurant setting can be challenging. Alger started with condiments, and eventually incorporated more plant-based substitutes into the restaurant’s menu. Part of her goal was to avoid the unfair “vegan tax,” in which consumers are either charged more for a non-meat option or pay the same if that animal protein is removed from the dish.

And that vegetarian or vegan option does not have to be a copycat of animal protein, as not everyone wants that Gardein fake chicken patty or Morningstar soy burger. But what chefs can do is offer a similar taste, texture and experience. Maitake mushrooms can be fried and served as a reminder of chicken. A Korean wrap can include tofu. Marinated daikon can fill in for ahi in a mock Hawaiian poke bowl. And agar-agar, which can be made from algae and seaweed, can be used in place of gelatin boiled from animal bones. Once available, fake shrimp -- and perhaps other fake fish -- could eventually emerge on Alger’s menu.

A transition to algae-based foods, at home and in restaurants, will take time. Alger shared one story of how an algae substitute for eggs wreaked havoc because of its smell, which would spread out of the kitchen and into the dining area.

But the reality is that our long-term health -- and, of course, the health of the oceans -- will depend on this innovation. And if we are to feed 9 billion people by 2050, the science offered by TerraVia and NewWave Foods, along with the tinkering by chefs such as Alger, offer a chance to sustain humans and ease the pressure we impose on both land and sea.

Image credit: New Wave Foods

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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