Food

Why Plant-Based Shrimp Is the Next Veggie Burger

Meet the world's first algae- and plant-based shrimp.

Photo Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Who doesn’t love a good bit of shrimp? Well, apart from vegans, vegetarians, Kosher eaters and those unlucky few who blow up like a big balloon every time they go near the juicy sea critters. But, just for a moment, imagine a world where everyone could enjoy this deep-sea delicacy with none of the allergic, religious or environmental setbacks—and without actually killing the little guys.

This is the future New Wave Foods wants to create.

Since 2015, the California-based startup has been developing the world’s first algae- and plant-based shrimp. You read that right. By using "cutting-edge science,” the company claims it has been able to create a shrimp that is "uncompromising in taste." With support from Indie Bio, the world’s largest biotech accelerator, New Wave Foods has already begun to roll out its product to certain schools and catering companies, and by early 2018 plans to begin retailing its shrimp in California and Nevada. 

Concerned about the sustainability of shrimp, Google contacted New Wave because it wanted to reduce the amount of shrimp it was serving to its staff. When Google's executive chef tasted the New Wave Food's version, he immediately placed an order.

This might not sound like particularly exciting news for some. But if you care even a little bit about the environment (or your health), it should. Every year millions of Americans eat an average of 4.1 pounds of shrimp. In order to meet such high demand, certain sacrifices need to be made.

On the high seas, it’s the massive amount of bycatch—unwanted fish species caught up by the nets fishing for shrimp.

"While shrimp trawl fisheries only represent 2 percent of the global fish catch, they are responsible for over one-third of the world’s bycatch,” environmental reporter Jill Richardson explains on TreeHugger. "Farmed shrimp need to be housed in ponds near coasts, which comes with its own set of complications from the acres of mangrove forests cleared to make space, to the hazardous amounts of chemicals such as urea, superphosphate, and diesel used to prepare the water. That’s not to mention the pesticides and antibiotics fed to the shrimp itself.

If New Wave Foods' efforts prove successful, environmentally conscious lovers of shellfish can soon rejoice. For now, you'll have to settle for the following interview with New Wave Foods co-founder Dominique Barnes, who recently spoke with AlterNet about how her plant-based shrimp are set to change the way the world consumes those slippery suckers.

Robin Scher: You grew up in landlocked Las Vegas. How did you come to find yourself interested in sustainable seafood?

Dominique Barnes: In Las Vegas, you are surrounded by all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and 99-cent shrimp cocktails. I had always been in love with the ocean and thought to myself, how can we be consuming so much seafood in the middle of the desert? Is that sustainable? So, after a few years working as a shark biologist at the Golden Nugget casino in Vegas, I moved to California to attend the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where I earned a master's degree in marine biodiversity and conservation.

RS: Your idea for New Wave Foods began when you got accepted into the Indie Bio accelerator. What were the steps that led you to that point?

DB: A few months into the program I began to grow very frustrated because we were learning about all the problems our oceans are facing—from sea level rise to ocean acidification to overfishing—but no solutions were being presented. At some point, I was introduced to the idea of "triple bottom line" business planning, which is about creating a business that makes a sustainable profit to keep yourself running, while also keeping the needs of the planet in mind. That was really the inspiration for me to pursue an entrepreneurial path.

Around the same time, I met my co-founder, Michelle Wolf, a fellow student at Scripps, who suggested that we should apply with our idea. The accelerator takes about 10 to 15 proposals. These proposals are usually people translating research from PhDs into a business, or actual businesses just trying to take their products further. We were the only ones that were accepted with an idea just on paper.

RS: Can you describe some of the problems facing our oceans, and in particular why the shrimp industry is one of the worst offenders when it comes to sustainability?

DB: The human population is going to grow to around 10 billion people in the near future. Food security is a huge issue and seafood is a critical part of that. We've already maxed out our fisheries and can't really take any more fish from the ocean. So now we're leaning on fish farming and aquaculture heavily to fill that gap of demand, which is only increasing. But fish farming and aquaculture have a lot of problems. In the case of shrimp, no matter whether it's wild-caught or farm-raised, you have huge environmental and social injustice problems. For one, shrimp has the highest bycatch ratio.

In the U.S., we also import 90 percent of our shrimp from Southeast Asian farms, which are mostly just deforested mangrove forests. Mangroves are really critical habitats for marine life and provide coastal protection from tsunamis and natural events. And then there are the labor conditions—probably the worst aspect of the whole thing. There is such a high volume of demand that unfortunately child slavery is being used to process a lot of shrimp. The people who are stuck in these jobs are working 12 hours a day with no pay, and they have no way to escape. Sometimes a bag of shrimp that you buy in a grocery store can come from two to five farms, and one farm can have good practices while the other one doesn't, so you never know.

In the food space, you have these great innovative companies looking at alternatives for milk, cheese, eggs, and beef, but nobody was looking at shrimp. We thought that was a huge opportunity.

RS: I guess the key to its success comes down to accurately re-creating the taste, texture and look of the real deal. Without giving away too many of your secrets, can you explain how you have gone about trying to do this using plants and algae? And the million-dollar question: has it worked?

DB: Shrimp has such a unique texture. To get that right, we really tapped into the expertise of my co-founder Michelle, who is a materials scientist engineer. She looked at shrimp muscle at a molecular level to understand what gives it different textural properties. We then used that data to select plant and algae ingredients, which gave us the same texture as shrimp. Being able to achieve that is a first.

As for appearance, we found this really great red algae extract that is actually the same compound that gives shrimp its color. We have used that to give a really authentic color to our shrimp, because, you know, most of us eat with our eyes first.

Has it worked? Well, we were demo-ing at this aquaculture event where everybody was in the mindset that we were raising fish and shellfish. When we gave people our shrimp they were like, Oh, this tastes really great. Where do you raise your shrimp?

RS: One of the criticisms of farmed shrimp is all the chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics that are used in the process. Have you managed to overcome that?

DB: Yeah, we definitely have a sustainability mandate to our ingredients. In general, most plants- and algae-farming and cultivation is much less resource-intensive than any animal agriculture. Algae especially is really exciting to me because it's the base of the food chain in the ocean, it's why we have so many different kinds of seafood, but it's also why they're so nutritious. Omega 3s are my favorite example. We eat fish for omega 3s, but where do the omega 3s come from? It's really the algae. Those ingredients can also be really sustainable to cultivate. We've come a long way with technologies that can cultivate single cell microalgae in a very confined way that does use the waste stream as feed. There's one in Brazil that works tangentially to a sugar-cane factory.

RS: Do you feel like the market's ready for your shrimp, and what are your plans for distribution?

DB: A lot more people are starting to understand that a plant-based diet is healthier for them and healthier for the environment. I think the market is having this shift right now naturally where people are beginning to understand and demand to know where their food comes from—it's not this rarefied thing anymore. We're targeting food services first, so that includes corporate dining, but also colleges and universities. In fact, universities are some of the earliest adopters; they're really progressive in the sense that they're offering more and more plant-based and vegan meals.

I think a statistic we recently came across was like 80 percent of all colleges and universities have at least one vegan offering at every single meal. One of the things about seafood in this country is that we mostly consume it outside of the home. Two-thirds to be exact. So this way we can kind of "fish" where the fish are, by serving it through these channels. After that, we’ll think about getting it into retail stores and have it much more accessible to the public.

RS: So it has all been approved and ready for that sort of rollout?

DB: Yep, it's really exciting because that's been part of our strategy's design: We want to be first movers in this space. The first with the idea, the first with the product, the first to scale it, first to market. To do that we had to make sure that everything that we're doing is FDA approved, so all of our ingredients and processes are FDA approved.

Watch New Wave Foods CEO Dominique Barnes interviewed by CGTN America: 

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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