Getting ready for lab-grown food probably a good idea

Lab-grown meat — for most, that does not sound like an enticing meal option.

But even as the agriculture industry grapples with the implications of plant-based protein production intruding into what traditionally is the preserve of livestock-based protein, it might soon have to come to terms with the even more disruptive technology of precision fermentation.

Independent think-tank RethinkX examines this technology and concludes in the subtitle of its paper that it means “the disruption of the cow, and the collapse of industrial livestock farming.”

That is cheery news for livestock producers and the crop farmers who supply them with feedstuffs, isn’t it?

I don’t mean this column to be a downer, but it is valuable to know what is happening in food labs around the world and its potential to upend the entrenched narrative that the biggest issue facing agriculture is how to feed humanity.

The authors of the report at RethinkX note the “aim of this report is to start a conversation and focus decision-makers’ attention on the scale, speed, and impact of the modern food disruption.”

So what is RethinkX and should we give it any credence?

RethinkX believes traditional analysts underestimate the impacts, speed and scale of technological advancement and the potential of the convergence of a host of technologies to not just change our way of life, but to totally disrupt it.

One of the founders is Tony Seba, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, author and what I would call a futurist.

I wrote about his ideas two years ago in a column “Electric vehicle revolution poses threat to biofuel.”

Seba and the team at RethinkX believe the electric vehicle revolution is inevitable due to the continually plummeting cost of batteries and the inherently lower cost of maintaining electric-powered vehicles versus internal combustion ones.

He argues the transition to renewable power is also inevitable because of ever cheaper and more efficient batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.

The same belief in technology is at work in “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030: The second domestication of plants and animals, the disruptions of the cow and the collapse of industrial livestock farming,” written by Seba and Catherine Tubb, available at www.rethinkx.com.

The first domestication, through human intervention in breeding over thousands of years, was the creation of the crops and animals we use in agriculture today.

Crops and livestock are the living “factories” that produce the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals our bodies need.

The second domestication now occurring is of micro-organisms such as yeast, bacteria and fungi to produce the same ingredients but, Seba and Tubbs argue, at a fraction of the cost of traditional agriculture and with much less use of land, water and generation of pollution.

Using precision designed recipes to feed the microbes, manufacturers use fermentation and bioreactors to produce an infinite number of ingredients made into the familiar foods and to venture into new food forms even more nutritious and flavourful.

Such food production might be in its infancy but products are already being made commercially.

You might think that the plant-based burgers that have captured headlines in the past year are the pioneers here. They’ve moved the boundaries of what consumers consider as meat, but they are not really the lab-made products of precision fermentation, although the hemeprotein that makes the plant-based burgers meat-like is made by fermentation of genetically engineered yeast.

The true sodbusters are firms such as Perfect Day, a company that uses gene-altered micro-organisms to produce through fermentation whey and casein that are turned into lactose-free cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

Clara Foods uses an engineered yeast and fermentation to produce a chicken-free egg white.

Motif FoodWorks works with several universities on improving the taste and texture of meat and dairy analogues.

These are small startups with expensive products.

But Seba and Tubbs say this high tech food will undergo the same exponentially falling costs as computing, genetic sequencing, solar and battery technology.

If it cost $1 million to produce a kilogram of fermentation product 20 years ago , it costs $100 today and $10 by the middle of the current decade and even less a few years later, meaning they will cost a fraction of what traditional crop and animal agriculture can produce.

And to totally disrupt existing industries quickly does not require these manufactured products to replace your breakfast egg or supper steak.

They could replace the egg ingredients in frozen cakes, capture a good share of the industrial milk sector, a percentage of the hamburger market and the animal-derived ingredients found in cosmetics.

All this eats away at the revenues of the livestock sector that is profitable only because it can sell every part of the animal. As they say with pork, everything is processed except for the oink.

Seba and Tubbs think the United States meat industry could lose half its revenue as early as 2030 with equally shocking implications for feedgrain production, farm revenue, farmland values, international trade, rural communities, the environment and the list goes on.

The authors are hugely optimistic about the power of technology and the experience of sectors of exponentially falling costs are applicable to the food industry.

Even if costs fall as they forecast, I think that consumer acceptance will be a high hurdle to overcome for this food to be rapidly embraced.

Just because technology is available does not mean that it will be used.

Look at the experience in the European Union, where even the type of farming practised in North America suffers much suspicion.

But some people are open to new food concepts. American consumer research company Charleston Orwig found that youths 18-24 are surprisingly open to trying synthetic or lab-grown food. The interest drops off with older consumers.

Seba and Tubbs are true believers, but even they recognize this linkage between technology and public acceptance.

“The disruption of food and agriculture is inevitable — modern products will be cheaper and superior in every conceivable way — but policymakers, investors, businesses, and civil society as a whole have the power to slow down or speed up their adoption,” they write.

Also, the adoption of new technology can be thrown off by things like the pandemic and economic recession we are now enduring.

Once COVID-19 is beaten by medical science and stops dominating public discourse, I expect we’ll start hearing a lot more about this potentially agriculture-shaking food technology in the news and at agricultural conferences.

It is certainly not something to ignore.

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