Livestock sector can’t ignore push for protein alternatives

Joy among Canadian livestock producers because of forecasts of rising global meat demand in coming decades as incomes rise could be limited as new competitors enter the field.

We are not talking about competition from South America or Russia but rather from the high tech food development kitchens of American corporations rooted in the disruptive technology mindset of Silicon Valley.

Artificial meat stories figured prominently in our recent innovation issue.

If the proponents are as successful as they hope, this development could shake agriculture to its core, affecting not only livestock producers but slashing the demand for oilseed meal, feedgrains and pasture and upsetting the animal health and supply industries, as well as meat packers.

Livestock producers have given little thought to competition from meat substitutes. Burgers with tofu patties or portobello mushrooms seemed a weak and dreary alternative, appealing only to vegetarians.

For the majority of mainstream meat eaters, nothing could compete with a juicy, flavourful burger or steak fresh off the barbecue.

However, a host of well-funded corporations are working hard to come up with plant-based faux meat with the superior taste and texture needed to compete head to head with the real thing. Their goal is for consumers to desire their product rather than just settle for it.

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Other companies are engaged in even more esoteric science to grow meat in the lab, using stem cells from livestock. Their goal is real meat without having to raise and slaughter livestock.

Some of the proponents are full of bravado, such as Pat Brown, a biochemist who left the Stanford School of Medicine to found Impossible Foods, a high profile faux meat firm.

In interviews, he likens the meat sector to a horse and buggy industry, doomed to be replaced by a new technology — “It’s just a question of who takes it down and how soon.”

Such boasting is hard to take seriously. Meat has been a mainstay of diets since the first humans learned to walk.

However, in this age of rapid technological innovation, disruption is everywhere. Truck and taxi drivers are threatened by Uber and self driving vehicles. Robots and computers with artificial intelligence are replacing assembly line and clerical workers.

And the merchants of meatless meat think they have a message that will resonate with consumers. They contend that animals are inefficient producers of meat, requiring vast quantities of water, land and fuel to produce a pound of meat while creating mountains of waste and billowing out climate-threatening methane.

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Throw in the argument that their product will end the slaughter and suffering of billions of animals and you might win the support of millions of poorly informed consumers trying to do the right thing.

But will it succeed? Could artificial meat compete like margarine does with butter? Or would it be like what almond milk is to cow’s milk? Or will it will fail like new Coke.

Consumers are suspicious of technology applied to food. Would those who reject GMOs embrace meat made in the lab? What position would restaurant and grocery chains take?

We don’t have the answers. We can only report the news and recommend that livestock producers think about the potential implications, vast as they are, and devise strategies to prove to consumers they have a natural, sustainable food whose taste can’t be beat.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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  • Braden Schmidt

    There is one very important issue that this article does not address regarding the “replacement” of meat with artificial meat. That issue is about land use. Livestock production requires a large amount of land in the form of both pasture and perennial forages. These types of crops, and especially native prairie, are extremely important in the efforts to mitigate climate change by storing carbon. Land that grows forages is a carbon sink whereas annually cultivated acres store much less, if any, depending on the method of tillage. The point is: replacing the livestock sector with an artificial crop-derived source of protein would increase pressure to convert pasture acres to cultivated acres. This is bad because pasture and perennial forage impart huge public benefits such as: carbon storage, flood prevention, water purification, wildlife refuge, and of course forage crops.
    I’m sorry to upset the inflated sense of “technical innovation” with the use of alternative proteins, but the livestock sector isn’t going anywhere.

    • Harold

      I think that in our efforts to feed everyone else, that we have environmentally over produced, and yet continue to create more international customers leaving the shortage and the high price of demand, whereas Canadians can no longer afford our own product. Solid in sales, now there is a new golden opportunity to make even more money by creating an alternative new product which allows the “poor”Canadians to eat cake, (cow cake)
      I agree. The livestock sector isn’t going anywhere.