How climate change and overfishing drove this Hong Kong property manager to launch a cell-grown seafood business
- Learning how pollution and overfishing are damaging marine ecosystems prompted architect Carrie Chan to launch Avant Meats
- Having completed proof-of-concept for its lab-grown fish, the start-up is now setting up a pilot production facility in Singapore
“The current overfishing and problematic fish farming situation is a kind of ‘boiling frog’ syndrome,” said Chan, who became a vegan for environmental reasons seven years ago. “While we will not suddenly have no seafood to eat, we are finding it increasingly difficult to catch quality seafood due to overfishing.
Chan, Avant Meat’s CEO, co-founded the company with chief science officer Mario Chin, a biomedical scientist and expert in medical genetics. They set up the start-up’s first laboratory in Hong Kong Science and Technology Park to conduct research and development in 2019.
The plant will initially be fitted with a 2,000-litre bioreactor to produce cell-based fish maw – the dried swim bladders of large fish.
“Our bioreactor will be somewhere between what you see in a brewery or yogurt factory and those found in biological drugs plants,” Chan said of the planned factory in an as-yet-undisclosed industrial zone designated for food production in the island state.
Avant Meats announced on Thursday that it has raised around US$10.8 million in a fundraising round led by US-based S2G Ventures, following a US$3.1 million seed round in December 2020.
Last year, it struck a partnership with QuaCell, a biological drugs manufacturer based in Zhongshan, in Guangdong province, to scale up lab-grown meat production and cut the cost by 75 per cent.
Fundraising by alternative seafood companies
|Total invested capital (US$ million)||175||91||313|
|Investment deal count||24||20||69|
|Number of investors||108||91||215|
|Series A rounds||1||3||6|
|Series B rounds||2||1||3|
Source： Good Food Institute
Avant is the third cell-grown meat start-up in Asia, after Japan’s IntegriCulture, established in 2015, and Singapore’s Shiok Meats in 2018.
Having raised US$16.4 million, IntegriCulture aims to launch lab-grown foie gras this year, after rolling out its cell-cultured skincare ingredient last year. Shiok, which has raised some US$30 million and focuses on lab-grown red meat and crustaceans, aims to commercialise this year.
Cultivated meat is genuine animal meat grown in bioreactors, where stem cells are fed oxygen and essential nutrients including amino acids, glucose, vitamins and growth-promoting proteins. If mass commercialisation can be achieved, it will reduce the need to raise or capture animals, slaughter and process them into meat.
China is by far the world’s largest consumer of seafood, accounting for 38 per cent of the global total, according to Belgium-based global supplier Pittman Seafoods. It also leads the world in both wild-caught and aquaculture production with a combined output of some 67 million tonnes.
However, the industry’s long-term sustainability looks worrisome.
Some 35 per cent of the boats’ total catch and half of the trawler catch in China’s exclusive economic zone consisted of low-valued “feed-grade fish”, which is used as aquaculture feed or as ingredients for fishmeal and fish oil production, it noted.
“The constant removal of juveniles significantly undermines the reproductive capacity of their stocks and jeopardises their long-term sustainability,” the report said.
This is substantial considering the total catch from the sea amounted to US$15.4 billion in 2018. The loss could be as high as US$11.4 billion if a 50 per cent increase in fishing activity is compounded by severe climate change.
As species migrate northwards, the East China Sea could see higher fish biomass by 2100 than it has at present, but only if fishing activity is halved.
A separate study by Shanghai Ocean University researcher Zhang Wenbo and Xiamen University environmental scientist Liu Min also gave a grim assessment.
“If current activities are left unchecked, and as stocks decline and prices rise, disputes over these resources are likely to unfold,” it said.
As climate change reduces fish stock, overfishing, in turn, has an impact on climate change that creates a vicious cycle, said Callum Roberts, a marine conservation professor at the UK’s University of Exeter.
“We have to make some serious decisions about managing fisheries better and also creating more protected areas,” said Roberts.
Besides overfishing, territorial disputes over fishing rights may also endanger the security of fish supplies.
The presence of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters in the South China Sea has been at the centre of maritime conflicts between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours in recent years.
The neighbouring countries have accused the Chinese fleets of acting as a maritime militia to assert China’s control of the waters – claims that Beijing denies.
The challenges posed to the fishing industry are expected to push aquaculture’s share of China’s total fish production up from 76.5 per cent in 2018 to 82 per cent by 2030, the FAO projected. That would compare with a projected increase from 46 per cent to 53 per cent globally over the same period.
Disease is another constant threat hanging over the aquaculture sector, which lacks adequate biosecurity strategies and contingency planning.
“Globally, a trend in aquaculture is that a previously unreported pathogen that causes a new and unknown disease will emerge, spread rapidly, including across national borders, and cause major production losses every three to five years,” the FAO said in a report last year.
As part of efforts to promote sustainable seafood, environmental group WWF recently joined forces with the KPMG Foundation to provide incentives for “bankable” and sustainable open-water aquaculture businesses in Hong Kong and nearby Guangdong coastal cities to meet local needs.
Start-ups like Avant Meats are seeking to do away with catching or farming fish altogether.
Singapore, the first nation to approve the sale of a cultured meat product, has pursued policies to nurture its nascent “food-tech” industry and attract foreign investment. It set targets for domestic food supply to meet 30 per cent of demand and for the cost of cultured products to match those of conventional meat by 2030.
In 2019, it introduced a novel food regulatory framework which requires companies to seek a pre-market safety assessment for alternative protein products that do not have a history of being consumed as food.
San Francisco-based Eat Just expects to open Asia’s largest cultured-meat facility spanning 30,000 square feet in the first quarter of next year in Singapore. Its cell-grown chicken was approved to be sold in the city in December 2020.
Avant Meats is not far behind, aiming for pilot manufacturing to start in the first half of next year, and to have its product approved next year in the city state. Sales in Hong Kong, mainland China, Europe and the US will follow depending on the timing of government approval.
Although it will take many years of scaling up production for its products to match the prices of conventional seafood, Chan said Avant has entered the market at the right time.
“Like with the mobile phone, businesses had to invest over many years to improve the products and bring down the costs, otherwise we wouldn’t have the smartphones of today,” she said.
“Similarly, it will take 10 to 20 years for the cell-grown seafood industry to mature. Given climate change, we will not have secure quality seafood supply if we do not keep investing.”