TIME Science

You Won’t Believe the Source of the World’s Most Sustainable Salmon

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Farmed salmon Rogan Macdonald—Getty Images

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.

Hint: it's not the open sea or a Norwegian fjord

When you hear the term “sustainable seafood,” you might envision a fisherman pulling catch from a pristine sea.

But a few weeks ago, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, arguably the world’s most influential arbiter of seafood sustainability, gave its highest stamp of approval to three companies that are about as far away from that fishing idyll as possible.

The Atlantic salmon deemed “Best Choice” by Seafood Watch were neither caught, nor from the sea. They spent their lives indoors in warehouses as far inland as Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

In the past, Seafood Watch has almost always advised consumers to avoid farmed salmon. But three indoor farms around the world have succeeded in eliminating the usual concerns about fish farming.

At these farms, there’s no risk of escapees mating with wild populations. There’s no risk of fish waste messing up the marine environment. There’s a vastly reduced risk of disease. Each of these farms recycles more than 95% of its water, and they use a smaller number of feed fish to grow their salmon than traditional farms.

There are other reasons to love these warehouse or “tank” farms. One of the farms, called Langsand Laks and located in Denmark, uses wind and geothermal energy for its electrical needs. The West Virginia farm, run by the Freshwater Institute, is using nutrient-laden fish waste to develop an aquaponic farm. And the British Columbia farm called KUTERRA, is touted as a an important job creator for Vancouver Island’s ‘Namgis tribe.

Seafood Watch’s stamp of approval may be the biggest yet for indoor, land-based aquaculture, but it’s not the first. During the past few years, a growing number of supporters—from environmental groups, often hostile to aquaculture, to sustainability-minded chefs to marine biologists—have been talking up the virtues of indoor aquaculture.

Critics say the indoor farms are little more than lab experiments until they prove their economic viability, and they point to several flops—most famously, Local Ocean. The New York fish farm graced the cover of TIME in 2011 under the headline “The Future of Fish,” and boasted of “zero discharge,” yet shuttered abruptly last year after spending its entire four-year existence in the red, according to Seafood Source. Alf-Helge Aarskog, CEO of Marine Harvest, the world’s largest salmon farmer, reportedly told a Norwegian paper that farming salmon on land was as foolish as raising pigs at sea and that fish should be raised in their natural habitat.

There are certainly good reasons for farming salmon in the ocean. Indoor fish farmers have to take care of so many things that nature provides: water temperature, oxygen content, pH levels, not to mention a physical environment. Even the most evangelical indoor fish farmers concede that their way is more technologically challenging and more costly than ocean farming. A 2013 study by the Freshwater Institute and Norwegian research organization SINTEF found that an indoor salmon farm was more than three times as expensive to operate as a traditional ocean pen salmon farm.

Still, despite higher costs, flops, and an industry poised to go negative on newfangled ideas, no one should count out indoor fish farming.

There have been numerous new projects announced during the last two years—from salmon farming in China’s Gobi desert to a plan to build the world’s largest indoor salmon farm in Scotland—which happens to be one of world’s major ocean salmon farms. There are now nine land-based fish farms working that produce more than 7,000 metric tons of salmon annually, according to Steve Summerfelt, who directs the Freshwater Institute’s aquaculture program. There are also dozens of smaller-scale projects cropping up, like this one in a Hong Kong high-rise and this one on a Wisconsin dairy farm.

There are some compelling pluses to indoor fish farming, even if your chief concern is profit. Fish grow faster indoors, proponents say, and fewer die. There is less need, if any, for vaccinations and antibiotics, and you can reduce feed costs. There are also collateral benefits, such as using fish waste compost to grow vegetables or generate electricity. “I’m not a tree-hugger,” Bill Martin, president of indoor fish farm Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Virginia told me. “I’m a capitalist. I’m an environmentalist because it’s good business.”

With a slew of failures to learn from, fish farmers are starting to figure out the technology and how to make money indoors.

The two big indoor fish farms that have thrived for 10-plus years, Martin’s Blue Ridge and barramundi-farming Australis, aren’t selling their haul to your Safeway. They’re selling to the “live market”—consumers who want higher quality, fresher, live fish and will pay for it. Likewise, Seafood Watch-approved salmon farms are targeting sustainability-minded foodies who are happy to pay more for a fish that is clean and green.

There’s also another argument you’ll increasingly hear from the “go indoor” crowd. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

Journalist Paul Greenberg, perhaps the closest thing to a Michael Pollan of seafood, often points out a staggering statistic: nearly 90% of American seafood is imported. In his newest book American Catch, Greenberg argues that environmentally concerned consumers should seek out sustainable American sources of wild caught seafood. He also highlights the potential of land-based, closed-containment farms, such as the Massachusetts-based Australis to provide Americans with a source of sustainable and locally sourced seafood.

The idea of Atlantic salmon harvested in a West Virginia warehouse might not strike one as appealing as salmon that hails from a Norwegian fjord. But when you start considering the state of world fisheries, the soaring seafood consumption, the ridiculousness of the global seafood chain (fish caught in Alaska, processed in China, sold in Miami), well, then that antibiotic-free, zero-discharge West Virginia warehouse-raised salmon is pretty damn appealing.

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food, but he is perhaps best-known as the guy who ate the Frankenburger.Schonwald writes and speaks frequently about the future of food and agriculture. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, and The Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Macalester College and Columbia University’s journalism school, Schonwald lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife, children, and indoor aquaponic system.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME health

Forget Kale. Try These Three REAL Superfoods

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Drumstick herb or Moringa oleifera dangdumrong—Getty Images

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.

They can purify water, feed a family of four for 50 years, and help combat climate change — and you've probably never heard of them

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of kale.

But kale is absolutely, positively not a superfood.

A superfood is high in protein, low in fat, gluten-free, loaded with omega-3s, bursting with antioxidants and overflowing with folate, fiber and phytonutrients. But the vast majority of what gets called a superfood these days should be called “health food.” Yes, health food is a perfectly suitable descriptor for goji berries, pomegranates and chia seeds.

To get an idea of a true superfood, look at quinoa. The Andean grain is more than just a high protein, low-fat, gluten-free alternative to rice or pasta. Quinoa is not only one of the only plants in the world that provides a complete source of protein. It is also an extraordinarily resilient plant. You can grow it at just about any altitude, from sea-level up to 13,000 feet. It can withstand a wide range of temperatures, and needs very little water to survive. There’s a reason why the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” and not “The International Year of the Goji Berry.”

Kelp is another example of a true superfood. It’s not merely high in protein, low in fat and loaded with heart-healthy antioxidants. It grows at turbo speed (9 to 12 feet in three months) without the need for fresh water or fertilizer. Kelp could provide the world with a vast new source of sustainable protein — and potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Kelp forests are carbon sinks.)

Real superfoods possess super-traits — like the ability to grow astronomically fast in some of the world’s harshest climates. Or the ability to make dirty water safe for drinking. Or the ability to feed a family of four for 50 years. Here are three superfoods, largely unknown in the United States now, that will quite possibly become the next quinoa.

The Moringa Tree

It’s often called the “the miracle tree” or the “tree of life.” In the Philippines, they call it a “mother’s best friend.” In Senegal, it’s the “never die tree.”

Virtually every part of the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) — pods that taste like string beans, leaves redolent of spinach, seeds reminiscent of peanuts, roots that taste like horseradish — is edible and packed with nutrients. A small serving of the humble-looking moringa’s tiny leaves has seven times the amount of vitamin C of an orange, four times the calcium of milk, and four times the beta-carotene of carrots, according to nutrition researcher C. Gopalan’s Nutritive Value of Indian Foods. Not surprisingly, the tree, which is native to north India, is developing a cult following among natural foods enthusiasts.

But the slender, scrawny looking tree has got far more than nutrition going for it. The moringa might be the fastest growing valuable plant in the world — it grows up to 15 feet, from seed, in its first year. Because it’s drought-resistant, the moringa can grow freakishly fast in precisely the hot, dry subtropical areas where malnutrition is most prevalent, and where other crops wither (hence “the never die” nickname).

The moringa is also a promising biofuel and medicinal source. For hundreds of years, people have been using the moringa for everything from cooking oil and cosmetics to animal feed and cleaning agent. But undoubtedly the most amazing quality of the moringa is that it can purify water. Just drop some crushed moringa seeds in a bucket of dirty, unsafe water, and within about an hour, that water will be safe to drink. Scientists say it’s because the moringa seeds produce chemicals that cause dirt and bacteria and other pollutants to settle. The moringa seed could provide a simple yet valuable tool in poor communities where diarrhea caused by water-borne bacteria is one of the biggest sources of childhood fatalities, according to a paper in Current Protocols in Microbiology.

The Breadfruit

The breadfruit looks like a green soccer ball with pimples. And it tastes like sourdough bread. The first time I tried it, I thought “blah.”

But there’s a vigorous effort underway to get people to love this ugly, tasteless fruit; some believe the breadfruit could save millions of people annually from starvation.

Native to tropical regions in the South Pacific, the breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), known as Ulu in Hawaiian, is a nutritional powerhouse — one cup of breadfruit has more potassium than three bananas, according to the USDA, and it’s loaded with fiber, calcium, phosphorous, copper and other essential nutrients. Some cultivars also have high levels of beta-carotene, which makes it a promising weapon against vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of blindness in children.

The breadfruit is a remarkably low-maintenance yet extraordinarily productive tree. A mature tree yields 450 pounds of fruit per season, according to Josh Schneider, a horticulturalist at Global Breadfruit, an organization that promotes the use of the breadfruit tree. Schneider estimated in an interview that one breadfruit tree could feed a family of four for more than 50 years.

A growing group of NGOs, like Global Breadfruit and the Trees That Feed Foundation, are now dedicated to spreading the use of the trees, and it’s not just because breadfruit is one of Earth’s highest yielding food crops. Studies show that more than 80% of the world’s poor and hungry live in subtropical regions — perfect for breadfruit trees. And recent breeding improvements are accelerating the speed of a tree’s growth. Now, you can produce fruit in 2 to 3 years, Schneider said

One breadfruit evangelist, Hawaiian horticulturalist Diane Ragone, like me, didn’t care for the breadfruit on her first taste (she likened it to “undercooked potatoes”), but now thinks the fruit’s underwhelming taste is easily surmountable. Ragone’s advice: sauté them. “Think of sautéed breadfruit as a platform for any kind of cuisine or flavor,” Ragone told the Wall Street Journal. Others talk about the breadfruit’s potential as a food ingredient and as an alternative to flour. Imagine a bagel that could prevent millions of children from going blind.

The Prickly Pear Cactus

The prickly pear cactus, what botantists call opuntia ficus-indica has lots of healthy qualities — high in vitamins, fiber and antioxidants, low in fat — and it all comes from some of the driest and worst land on the planet.

Some beleaguered farmers in arid places like California’s drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley are starting to see the light. Instead of fighting water shortages and desertification, they’re adapting. One article about a maverick cactus farmer likened it to making lemonade out of lemons. And climate forecasts suggest that more farmers around the world will be drawn to a crop that can not only flourish with little or no irrigation, but can also tolerate poor soil.

The food-of-the-future cacti is not the puny cacti you’ve seen driving through Arizona. Scientists in water-starved places like Israel, California and Texas have worked for years to create food-friendly varieties, which are much bigger and have no needles. Smooth skinned and frost-resistant, today’s cacti were the subject of a 2013 United Nations report on industrial-scale cacti cultivation, highlighting successes in the developing world. But don’t think the cactus is just a “feed theworld” crop for an apocalyptic scenario.

Food writer Sam Brasch, who suggests that the prickly pear could be “the next kale,” describes its flesh as “landing somewhere between a watermelon and a kiwi.” The prickly pear is also promising because it can be used in so many ways — for juices, jams and jellies; some studies even suggest that it’s a hangover cure.

Each of these three superfoods has the potential to not only improve your health, but also improve the world–and you’ll inevitably see them at Whole Foods.

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food, but he is perhaps best-known as the guy who ate the Frankenburger. Schonwald writes and speaks frequently about the future of food and agriculture. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, and The Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Macalester College and Columbia University’s journalism school, Schonwald lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife, children, and indoor aquaponic system.

Read next: 12 Superfoods That Warm You Up

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Science

The Frankenburger Is Coming Sooner Than You Think Thanks to Google

Developer Of First Cultivated Beef Burger Mark Post
A beef burger created by stem cells harvested from a living cow is held for a photograph by Mark Post, a Dutch scientist, following a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

They may not taste great yet, but scientists, with the help of Sergey Brin, are ready to change that

It has been one year since I took part in one of the most surreal and expensive taste tests in human history. No, I didn’t eat a black Périgord truffle seasoned with gold or a bowl of beluga caviar. Last August in London, with 200 journalists and several hulking cameras staring at me, I was one of the two people to taste the so-called Frankenburger: the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, a five-ounce patty grown from cow stem cells that took a Dutch scientist four years of research and $332,000 to create.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve been asked The Question dozens of times, and each time I have given variations of the same underwhelming answer (it was ok; needs more fat). But I have also tried to make it clear that I hoped the burger I tried was just a first draft—the beginning of the meat-culturing age.

But as time has passed and I get fewer opportunities to say “it was one small bite for man, one giant bite for mankind,” I’ve started to wonder: Did that London event mean anything? Will it be just another weird moment in stunt-eating history? Or was it really The Beginning of the Cultured Meat Age?

The most exciting news I heard last summer was not that a cultured beef burger was actually, finally, being made—nor that I would be the guinea pig flown to London to try it. The news that got me most excited was that the mystery man bankrolling the burger was the co-founder of Google with an estimated net worth of $30.6 billion and a history of making sci-fi a reality. As soon as I heard the name Sergey Brin, I instantly thought: cultured beef could really happen.

But wait. Although Brin has nearly limitless resources, he also has limitless, omnivorous interests—everything from driverless cars to adventure space travel to asteroid mining projects. Brin didn’t attend last year’s burger tasting and hasn’t made any public comment on cultured meat for the past year. I wondered whether this was a one-burger-and-done project for him?

Not the case, said Dr. Mark Post, the Dutch scientist who created the cultured beef burger.

“He’s as determined as we are to make this happen,” Post told me, adding that he’ll be traveling to California later this month and firming up a commitment for additional funding with Brin’s foundation.

While Post declined to reveal the specific dollar amount, he said that Brin’s second round of support will increase the size of his team from five to 20. In addition to tissue engineers and food scientists, the larger team will have experts on consumer preferences and on how to get the burger approved by food regulators.

With Brin’s funding, Post said that the 2.0 version of the lab burger will have several major improvements:

More fat. My biggest complaint was that that even fried in oil and butter, by a Gordon Ramsay-trained chef, the cultured beef burger tasted about as dry as a turkey burger. The first cultured beef burger had 20,000 muscle fibers but zero fat cells. It’s fat that gives a burger its critical juiciness. And it’s fat, some believe, that drives our meat cravings. During the next year, Post’s team will focus on growing fat tissue, which is slower and more technically challenging than many assume.

More red meat. Most burger-eaters have never heard of myoglobin. But this protein, whose job is to store oxygen in muscle cells, is what makes red meat red. The first cultured beef burger lacked myoglobin, and if it wasn’t for some coloring additives—a mix of beet juice, saffron and caramel—the burger would have looked more like chicken: yellowish and white. By adding myoglobin, the next burger will not just look like red meat, it will also have a higher iron content.

No more serum derived from blood from unborn cows. By far the biggest issue Post will address in the next year is the growth factor problem, which is more or less a deal-maker or breaker for lab-grown meat. My burger was created from 20,000 strands of muscle tissue grown in fetal bovine serum. It’s not just that FBS, which is collected from unborn cows at slaughterhouses, is inconsistent with the whole animal welfare spirit of cultured meat. It’s that FBS is ridiculously expensive. Some critics, such as synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis, call the high cost of cell culture the fatal flaw of the idea. But Post believes otherwise. He said he’s experimenting with 30 vegetarian and yeast-based growth serums—broths of amino acids, salts and sugars that will mimic hormones and catalyze meat cell growth. He says two cultures are particularly promising.

It’s an ambitious agenda, but with Brin’s backing, the increased staff and growing signs of consumer interest in meat alternatives, Post has radically revised his timetable. When I first visited his lab in 2009, he scoffed at the idea that a cultured meat product would be available in 10 years. But now Post believes a commercially viable cultured meat product is achievable within seven years. He expects to finish his work in a year and a half—and then pass along his work to experts on “scaling up.”

This doesn’t mean we’ll have a cultured beef option at McDonald’s in seven years. Post warns that these first cultured beef patties (appearing in 2021, if his estimate is right) won’t be feed-the-world burgers, let alone cost-competitive with conventional meat. Post envisions cultured meat will begin as a high-end product for people who care deeply about the environment and how their meat is produced (think Prius drivers). If there’s consumer demand, production will increase and prices will fall quickly.

Another reason Post is increasingly optimistic about a commercial future for cultured meat is that his work is getting interest from a different audience. Whereas lab meat used to attract interest from science-minded journalists and connoisseurs of futuristic moonshot ideas, now Post is often giving talks to the food industry’s rank and file, from flavor companies to food additives suppliers. “They’re considering it as a business idea.”

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago-based journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.

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