Lab Grown Reporting: The Future of Fish or the Land of Make-Believe

Los Angeles is called Tinsel Town because of the glitz, glamour, sizzle and style created by the hyperbole machine that is the movie business. It’s an industry that literally thrives on the magnification of made up stories. That’s why we should not be surprised that the Los Angles Magazine feature As Wild-Caught Species Vanish, Are Lab-Grown Fish the Future? is over flowing with, at times, laughable sensationalism.

The subject matter itself is fascinating and the reporting on Silicon Valley’s race to produce the first commercially viable cell-based seafood product is captivating. The narrative is even complete with competing food tech operations taking veiled swipes at each other or even overtly cursing one another. It’s quite the Hollywood tale.

But like many a movie it also has a fictional yarn woven throughout that is over the top and not true. However, unlike the silver screen, Los Angles Magazine is not asking readers to suspend disbelieve, it’s presenting it as fact.

A World Without Fish?

The reporter openly states that a world without sea bass, frozen salmon and even perhaps the most sustainably harvested wild-caught fish on the planet, Alaska Pollock, is “the future.” Calling it “joyless, hopeless, fishless.” Insisting that according to unnamed scientists the “fish apocalypse” is upon us and apparently, only lab-grown fish can save us.

Only in Hollywood do those types of nonsensical over-statements make it to print without any editorial oversight.

The topic of cell-based seafood and feeding the masses is an interesting and important one and deserves to be explored, but factual reporting about seafood sustainability should be included in that dissection.

A Blockbuster Beginning

The article starts by giving readers insight into the legitimately troubled sustainability story of the Bluefin tuna, a sushi delicacy that sells for hundreds of dollars per pound, 80% of which is consumed in Japan. That’s like profiling gas mileage concerns for U.S. commuters… but only ones who drive the Lamborghini Aventador. Bluefin is far from the poster child for seafood sustainability, but it’s also not close to your average seafood meal.

Ironically, Alaska Pollock is the quintessential seafood meal – found in fish sticks at the grocery store to fish fillets sandwiches at quick service dining, but here Los Angles Magazine sticks to its the sky is falling  narrative insisting, inexplicably, that pollock’s days are numbered and depletion and extinction are perhaps inevitable.  Simple research would find that U.S. regulators publically recognize that Alaska Pollock is not overfished and actually maintains populations above the target levels.  What’s more the fishery is cited for having “minimal impact on habitat” and is called “one of the cleanest” in terms of bycatch. Yet over and over the sustainability screenplay insists on a death knell for this fish.

Mid Movie Yawn

To add to the bleak profile of seafood, the article attacks aquaculture making lazy, inaccurate assertions, like: farmed salmon is dyed with artificial colors. It is not. In fact, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, devoted an extraordinary amount of time and research into an expose for 60 Minutes about farmed salmon where he explained that the “dyed” salmon narrative was simply a myth that needed rebutting: “It’s not accurate to call these artificial dyes. I think people conjure up this image of the farm salmon being injected with something that causes it to turn that pink color.  That’s not what’s happening here. It’s a much more natural occurring process where the farmed salmon eat a type of food that causes a reaction in the body, just like the wild salmon does, and that causes that more pinkish color.”

The perennial PCB’s in fish “concern” is regurgitated as well. The reality is that Harvard University research finds seafood broadly, not just farmed fish, makes up only 9% of the PCB’s in the average American diet, while products like vegetables make up 20%. Would Los Angles Magazine suggest its readers eat fewer vegetables?

Just the Facts Ma’am

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 91 percent of the stocks it manages are free from overfishing and a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science illustrates how 82% of the fish we actually eat come from sustainable stocks. Meanwhile, despite challenges, the UN calls the fisheries sector “crucial” to meeting its “goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition.” These facts are left out of this article.

Is it possible to write about the issue of cell-based seafood production without inaccurately suggesting the oceans are almost empty and this fantastic technology is the only hope for a future with fish?   It’s possible, but the script doesn’t quite sizzle as much. Perhaps Los Angeles Magazine has forgotten that facts, not fiction, are the cornerstone of journalism.