Meat. Seafood. Dairy. Eggs. These are such an integral part of our daily diets. We cannot live without them. But the animals providing such produce are living and dying in horrible conditions. The US$7.3 trillion meat and seafood industry is tainted with factory farms, large scale fisheries, animal exploitation and cruelty, slave labourers and excessive use of antibiotics.
Take the shrimp and seafood industry, for example. I am going to share my first-hand experience of visits to some of the largest shrimp farms in the world. We have all seen the disgusting videos of slaughterhouses where cows, chickens and pigs are in overcrowded enclosures, subjected to cruelty and bad practices. But not many of us have seen how shrimps are bred.
In the oceans around us, they are bottom feeders, consuming dead fish and other marine creatures as they float by, as well as deep water plants and so on. The shrimp industry exploits this aspect by growing them in sewage water. Then cleans them with industrial bleach, dunks them into vats of antibiotics and packs them for human consumption. It is appalling. Seawater shrimp, on the other hand, are loaded with microplastics and have an alarming 1:20 ratio of by-catch. Sewage water, antibiotics, heavy metals, bleach and microplastics are elements that should never be associated with food but those are what we are putting into our mouths.
The world population is going to increase to 10 billion in the next 25 years and we need to feed all our fellow human beings. The solution my team and I are working on at Shiok Meats is cell-based clean meat that doesn’t compromise taste, flavour, texture or nutrition.
Clean meats are produced from stem cells extracted from animals in order to produce thousands of tonnes of meats in a controlled environment so that they are tasty, nutritious and sustainable. As they are produced from stem cells, their biological and chemical composition is exactly that of meat. What Shiok Meats offers is meat that comes from a different source for meat lovers as well as people who do not eat meat for ethical reasons.
An easy narrative has been put together by the industry to compare clean meats and seafood to plants and how they are grown in greenhouses. In the greenhouse, a small cutting of a plant is placed in a controlled, nutrient-rich environment. At the end of the day, what you get are still plants, vegetables and fruits with the same taste, nutrition and biological and chemical composition.
Similarly, for clean meats and seafood, stem cells have this amazing ability to keep reproducing in the right conditions. I am talking about trillions of cells in a controlled and sterile environment. In this case, a large chamber called the bioreactor. If you have seen breweries, you would have seen those huge stainless-steel tanks in which beer is brewed. Just imagine these huge tanks brewing meats and seafood instead.
Fascinated with this technology and passionate about contributing to the future of food, I co-founded Shiok Meats in 2018 with Ka Yi Ling. I have been working with various types of stem cells from my graduation through to my Masters, PhD and post-doctoral research work, and I wanted to produce clean, healthy and environment-friendly seafood using stem cells.
Ka and I started with an idea, a lot of passion and a little money. In six months, we had our first prototype – cell-based shrimp dumplings. They were delicious, succulent, sweet and had that umami flavour while being cruelty- and antibiotic-free. Our vision: to produce sustainable, delicious and healthy meats and seafood from cells with the same taste, nutrition and texture. So, before you put food in your mouth, think about where it came from and then make a conscious choice. All of us can make a difference.