Is lab-grown meat endangering the farm?

The farm has been a staple of Kiwi life for so long, we think of it as a constant. Regardless if we live on a farm or in the city, the New Zealand farm continues to be a part of our culture. But, according to Dr Rosie Bosworth, speaking at Tipping Points in Auckland, a conference organised by the Environmental Defence Society: this is all about to change.

A new American startup, Impossible Foods, has received US$257 million (about NZD$357 million) in funding, from investors including Bill Gates and Google Ventures. With the aim “to transform the global food system”, companies like Impossible Foods want to change the way we produce food, and big money is behind them.

“In 20 years, we want to be producing more than half of the world’s supply of all of the foods we’re getting from animals,” says Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown.

Dubbed the ‘The Second Domestication of Agriculture’ or ‘Next Generation Farming’, these tech start-ups are looking to change the way food is produced from the ground up. Or more accurately, from the cell up. These ‘disruptive’ companies are utilising the most recent advancements from biology and technology to revolutionise how we produce food.

For meat, there are two options. Firstly, you can make plants taste like meat. Impossible Foods is doing this with their burger patty: a plant-based burger that uses the molecule ‘heme’ to replicate blood and makes a burger patty which ‘bleeds’.

This is not a concept, the Impossible Burger is on the shelves now in selected shops around the United States.

Secondly, it is possible to grow meat in a lab. Described variously as cultured meat or in vitro meat, the process is the same. Tissue from an animal is used to grow and produce meat in a laboratory.

There are barriers that may stop people from converting from traditional sources of protein into an identical cultured equivalent. At the moment, the main one is money. In 2013, the project to create a cultured meat patty in the lab came in at a whopping $330,000. However, this year that number has plummeted to around $400 a patty. “These prices continue to tumble with development”, says Bosworth, and with companies like Memphis Meats looking to be at price parity within five years, and aiming to reach 2c a gram by the early 2020s ... “[at] $2 per kilo how does commodity agriculture compete with that?”

Milk, too, could be disrupted. Perfect Day, an American start-up based in California makes “milk” in fermentation tanks, which tastes like dairy, but uses up to 91 percent less land, 98 percent less water, 65 percent less energy, is antibiotic- and lactose-free. “I would hazard a guess that even if Fonterra New Zealand does really up their game with sustainability, I still don’t know if they can match those numbers,” Bosworth says.

While these disruptors are cause for concern for New Zealand’s agricultural industries, they can also be seen as an opportunity. As the world's population looks set to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the way we produce food needs to change. Currently, 40 percent of the globe’s land surface is used for food production; that's South America and Africa combined. And, from these two continents of food production, 33 percent of that cropland is used just to feed livestock.

Obviously, these developments will have an impact on New Zealand’s agricultural-based economy. This year New Zealand's primary industry exports are forecast to hit $41 billion, with agriculture and horticulture bringing in around half of that amount. These industries are among the pillars of New Zealand’s economy. About 95 percent of New Zealand’s agricultural production exported.

However, Bosworth, who is a New Zealander, is optimistic we will see this as an opportunity as well as a threat, and offers New Zealand’s agricultural sector some advice: “[We need to] tell a story around our premium products we already produce. We are the best, the most sustainable, the most pastorally raised, agricultural nation in the world, and we need to profit from that. We need to tell a proper story."

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