Americans love them some shrimp. Annually, they eat over a billion pounds of the little guys, making shrimp the nation’s most popular seafood. But the journey from seven seas to cocktail sauce isn’t always the friendliest for the environment–or for the laborers who shell your seafood. So biotech New Wave Foods is trying to create a sustainable replacement for shrimp … by building really, really convincing crustaceans out of red algae.
“What we try to do is look at the molecular structure of shrimp to understand what gives it textural components like elasticity,” says Dominique Barnes, the company’s CEO and co-founder. The final product, a mix of algae and plant proteins, is an exciting technology that could also be an environmental improvement on the overseas shrimp farming that dominates the market–if it manages to scale up right.1
Compared with shrimp farming, Barnes says, “looking at land use, water use, transportation of the product–ours is much less intensive.” Shrimp farms spent decades depleting mangrove forests by filling them with disease-filled waste. In just a few decades, this process destroyed 38 percent of the world’s mangroves. One group of researchers calculated that by the pound, shrimp’s carbon footprint was ten times that of beef.
But the majority of shrimp farms actually left mangroves and moved inland more than ten years ago. “That is not how modern commercial shrimp farming is done any more,” says Gavin Gibbons, Vice President of Communications at the National Fisheries Institute.
One reason for the switch was economic. “The mangroves themselves actually created an environment that wasn’t healthy to the shrimp,” says Matt Thompson, Aquaculture Project Lead at the New England Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Program. The waste-filled waters easily bred disease that could wipe out the harvest. And mangroves help stop floods, so destroying them only made it easier for shrimp to get washed away.
Strong environmental regulations and economic incentives forced the industry to move away from the mangroves–and that dramatically decreased shrimp’s carbon footprint. Today, shrimp farms are located in artificial ponds and rice fields in Southeast Asia. Those farms can still negatively affect nearby crops, and the salt water some species need sometimes contaminates local fresh water supplies. But they’re still an improvement.
“I think ten years ago, there would be fewer people who would tell you that there is such a thing as a sustainable shrimp farm,” Thompson says. “Nowadays, there are definitely some examples where we would say, ‘This particular farm is good! It’s doing good things from a practice perspective.'”
Those farms are still few and far between, though. And even if its environmental practices have improved dramatically, the shrimp industry’s labor practices remain questionable at best. “Shrimp needs to be peeled or it needs to have further processing associated with it,” Gibbons says, “and that has to be done by hand.” Last year, the Associated Press revealed human trafficking and slavery at Thailand shrimp farms (and throughout the rest of the seafood industry).
Until you scale red algae shrimp up to the level of the global shrimp market, it’s impossible to compare these measures of sustainability. But it’s not hard to see why New Wave Foods is confident in its eco-friendliness. Making shrimp from algae involves no fishing, no nets, no fish, no mangroves, no slavery, no shrimp. Algae needs little more than sunlight and carbon dioxide (and phosphates, which might become scarce as time goes on), and scientists are learning how to sustainably grow large quantities of it at a time. Algae does require a lot of water to grow, but then again so do shrimp. If New Wave Foods can grow without relying on huge shipping costs or unfair labor practices, it’s almost guaranteed to be more environmentally friendly than shrimp farming.
Ultimately, though, sustainability doesn’t matter much if people don’t eat the stuff. This isn’t the first time a company has tried to make sustainable shrimp. Despite a few million dollars of funding over the past few years, real-life shrimp breeder Net Zero Aqualife hasn’t produced much of a product to speak of. And the vegetarian shrimp options out there either look or taste nothing like real shrimp–or they look the part but have an intermittently functional website. New Wave Foods’s website doesn’t have a lot of content on it, but at least it works smoothly.
“One hurdle that I do see,” Barnes says, “is in our perception of algae. When I talk to people, usually they’re like, ‘What are you talking about? This is pond scum.'” She says that algae is more–and more common–than people think: “You probably already consumed something this week that has an algae ingredient.” If people actually end up liking the taste, it’s not hard to imagine her algal argument getting even more convincing.
1 UPDATE 4:15pm Eastern, 8/4/16: This story has been updated to correct the statement that Google’s chef will switch to New Wave’s shrimp in 2017. New Wave has demoed its product at Google, but the tech company has no plans to make a switch.