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Getting ready for the food revolution

Farming will have to embark on rapid and deep change over the next few decades. Rod Oram looks into the options and challenges facing the food production sector.

All the big opportunities, threats and challenges for New Zealand farmers were investigated at a protein conference in Auckland this week. While analysis and views varied widely among the 200 delegates, five broad themes emerged. They begin to point to a better future for farmers in economic, environmental and social terms.

First, food and farming must evolve massively to deliver big increases in the volume and nutritional value of food, and big improvements in the efficiency and environmental performance of food production and farming the world needs.

Second, we humans will need a vast range of solutions to achieve those huge goals. Some will be new technologies such as growing meat in factories from stem cells; some will be changes in consumers’ choices such as eating less meat and more plants; some will be conventional foods from unconventional sources such as plant-based meat and dairy products; and some will be big improvements in existing farming practices and systems such as focusing on rebuilding the health and fertility of soils.

Third, we will likely see many consumers, food manufacturers, farmers and agricultural sectors blend many of those solutions. This is a common theme of many recent investigations of the global food challenge, such as the EAT-Lancet Commission which sees a continuing though reduced role for dairy and meat in diets. But only if farmers substantially reduce the damage those products do to ecosystems. There will, of course, be others who fiercely defend narrower views, such as an end to animal farming, or saying every diet must have meat and dairy to meet a person’s nutritional needs.

Fourth, such huge innovation in food and farming is essential and inevitable. That will require rapid and radical change over the next few decades. Some individual farmers will fiercely defend their traditional practices or reluctantly agree to only minor change. But no nation can afford to take that approach. For the sake of the health of its environment, population and economy it will have to embark on rapid and deep change. That’s even more essential for countries like ours for which food and farming are key parts of the economy and society.

Fifth, leaders are emerging on all these issues. Some are established leaders in currently conventional food and farming practices who are pushing for reinvention; others are deeply experienced but lonely voices pushing back against existing practices; and others are coming from very different sectors, such as venture capitalists deploying their business skills to help create cellular agriculture and other radical new technologies. While the status quo is being massively defended by companies, associations, lobbyists, politicians and other conservative forces, the tides of inevitable and essential progress will overwhelm them sooner rather than later.

The revolution is already underway

To elaborate on these themes, here are some highlights from the ProteinTECH conference this week:

Worldwide over the past few years alternative protein companies have attracted US$2.2 billion in investments, with 95 percent going to plant-based products and 5 percent to cellular agriculture, said Michal Klar, chief executive of NZ-based FFN Ventures, an investor in and adviser to such companies. Meanwhile, conventional food companies have paid some US$10b to buy such startups to acquire their technologies.

Perfect Day, a US company pursuing cellular technology to produce components of milk such as whey, has attracted investment from Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest grain traders. “Perfect Day doesn’t attack dairy because it wants to be an ingredients producer for the dairy industry,” said Barnett Sporkin-Morrison, a US agricultural economist.

Fonterra sees some potential for plant-based proteins to be complementary to dairy proteins and blended with some of them, Jeremy Hill, Fonterra’s chief science and technology officer, said. To explore such possibilities it recently invested, for example, in the US$90 million venture capital fund raising by Motif, a US biotech company.

Such new sources of protein are finding growing acceptance from a broad range of the public. For example, in the US 86 percent of people who had tried the likes of plant-based meats were neither vegetarians nor vegans, said Thomas King, chief executive of Food Frontier, an Australian consultant to such new producers.

Here in New Zealand, one in 10 people don’t eat meat, one in four are reducing their meat consumption, one in seven households had tried vegetarian food in 2017, and one in four had done so this year, according to a recent survey, said Bennie Hendricks, executive general manager of Life Health Foods International, an Auckland company which is the largest supplier of plant-based meats in Australasia.

Back in 1992, New Zealand signed up to the UN climate framework at the Rio Earth Summit and our regional councils committed to improving water quality, said Guy Salmon, one of our leading environmental advocates and practitioners. But since then our performance on climate and water has got far worse. “Fixing water is very expensive and very hard. De-intensification and diversification will be necessary. I think it’s going to be divisive, urban versus rural. We need a national diversification and transition plan.”

Some of the opportunities for farming diversification were laid out by a number of speakers. Two were Thomas Sowersby and Gert-Jan Moggre, food innovation scientists at Plant & Food Research. They were two of the authors of the Crown Research Institute’s report last year on the horticultural potential for New Zealand in playing to these new trends.

It concluded: “The opportunity for New Zealand is in manufacturing high-value plant protein foods, sourcing ingredient streams from trusted sustainable and diversified production systems that meet our future climate change challenges, and delivering premium products into the ‘flexitarian’ diets of our international customers.”

Red meat has opportunities too to play to these trends if it takes a holistic approach. For example, the Omega Lamb Project is one of the industry/government ventures in the Primary Growth Partnership. Aimee Charteris, the lead animal geneticist on the project, described the 10-year journey to select and breed ewes and lambs that are healthier and produce meat with superior flavour, texture and health benefits to humans, sold under the Te Mana brand. To get to that desirable point, though the project's farmers and scientists also had to work on the plants that feed the sheep and the soils that feed the plants. “Happy soil, happy plant, happy lamb, happy human,” she said.

Phyllis Tichinin, a soil scientist, also gave a challenging presentation on the urgent need to shift from chemical to biological systems for farming. “I teach people how to grow food that heals people and the environment." For more details, please read this three-part series she has written on the Pure Advantage website. 

Where is the vision?

But despite some common ground there were still some great tensions running through all these themes in the conference. Even clearer was the absence of national conversations we must have to establish goals, shape strategies, develop programmes, invest resources and begin work on our food and farming future.

Above all we’re missing as a nation a greater vision and mission. This absence, and the solution to it, was best articulated by the last of the 21 speakers – Daniel Eb, a farmer who also runs Dirt Road Comms, a rural communications business.

First, he described the big, audacious goals of Memphis Meats, a US cellular meat company with an ambition and vision typical of our new competitors. “Cultured meats will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable,” according to Uma Valeit, its chief executive.

Then he described its values - progress, disruption and rationality; and its community of highly aware consumers, and the social communications channels they use.

Next, he described our goals as a food producing nation: “Supply the world’s finest, most sustainable meat and milk products to 40m global customers”; our vision - natural, sustainable, health; and our community – “commodities for the majorities” and “fledgling niche brands and a food systems community.”

But he said that goal was nothing more than a product statement, not a call to action; the values raised too many problems without solutions; and the communities were weak and inward looking.

Eb suggested instead our goal should be to “save the world by pioneering a new food system built for human and environmental resilience in the face of climate change"; our values kaitiakitanga (guardianship), turangawaewae (a place to stand) and leadership; and our community “5m Kiwis and our global advocates.”

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