A recent report by US and UK-based future ‘think tank’ RethinkX (Protein technology to collapse animal farming within 10 years – NZ Herald 8 October), understandably caused ripples in New Zealand, with our heavy economic reliance on primary industries.
Pointing to a principle of “Food as a Software” the authors predict a future when cows - and animal protein - are a thing of the past. Focusing on the development of technologies such as precision fermentation they suggest healthy, cheaper and more sustainable food will be globally accessible.
Some years ago, I visited a massive “protein production facility” in Southern California, dubbed “Cowschwitz” by activists because of animals’ living conditions.
Animals stood side by side, eating feed that had been trucked miles. The aim was to show us that this was the way the world would be fed. At a restaurant, owned by the ranch, I was served an inch-thick steak covering my entire plate. I managed about a quarter; the rest was discarded.
Trying to convince ourselves we need to produce enough food, cheaply enough, so we have the luxury of discarding it didn’t make sense to me then . . . and still doesn’t. The disconnect between the motivation for production and access to food occurs because it is not just a simple act of producing more and the world’s population will eat.
Inevitably, the primary sector is facing massive disruption - due to the demands of meeting emissions reductions targets, as well as the ‘disruptor’ of changing diets. RethinkX authors Tubb and Seba envision a future that is ‘post cow’. If the alternative is ‘Cowschwitz’ I would embrace such a future; but it’s not that simple.
Food supply and distribution are complex systems, as much geopolitically determined as supply/demand controlled. What then, can be made of this model that claims to level the playing field?
Plant based food systems are not new, but within a short timeframe we have moved from a small number of vegetarian alternatives to wide availability. Countdown in New Zealand, for instance, recently reported a surge in demand for alternative proteins.
The RethinkX authors, however, aren’t describing a simple substitution model, such as replacing meat in a hamburger with vegetables. They see an evolution where businesses substitute ingredients, fortification of food and development of food in different forms.
They predict that by 2030, 70 per cent of ‘beef’ will come from ‘modern production methods’, namely precision fermentation and cell-based meat production. They suggest adoption will occur even before these foods achieve price parity with conventional food:
There are some obvious limitations to this model. There is no universal science regarding food - for example, the growth hormone ractopamine is banned in almost every country apart from the US.
The report points to a future we are already heading towards, but it may be simplistic to think the revolution will be universal.
What we eat is determined by factors such as what food is available, cultural and religious beliefs, allergies or intolerances and government regulations.
Tubb and Seba’s modelling requires what they determine as ‘a benign policy environment’, while acknowledging elements such as trade policy, IP, subsidies and ingredients approval as potential hurdles to adoption.
The report is worth reading: it challenges how we think about food production and proposes a future of sufficient food, produced with reduced impact on resources and environment.
However, it raises a number of questions. For instance, how universally will the technology be available? While the authors argue that the current system of raising cattle for food is inefficient, it does have some equality to it. Obvious limitations, such as the need for land, feed and water aside, most countries can raise cattle.
The US-centric model may not find favour in countries with dubious IP protection or subject to heavy-handed trade partners. The risk of food production being controlled by a few companies, as within the tech world, will cause reservations. These will need to be offset against the ability to address malnourishment and the exploitation and depletion of natural resources. Investigation into the safety and long-term health impacts of novel foods also remains an emerging area.
The fundamental question is – will it actually make a difference when ‘levelling of the playing field’ to make access to food available to all has been hampered by geopolitics and poverty?
In a world where malnutrition and obesity exist, we have to look beyond food production to food distribution and power within the food system. Will this modern food model help in redressing this imbalance? I will watch with great interest how this technological evolution unfolds.
This article was originally published in the NZ Herald, 5 November 2019: "Food as a software: Will protein technology actually restore balance to the global food system?"