Thursday, 16 November 2017

Feed the World with Cellular Agriculture

Is anyone else getting serious pleasure from the media blitz over cellular agriculture? Meat and dairy products without the animals is the basic pitch. Food-like products, containing protein, are being grown in labs and will soon be released to markets they will rapidly dominate, apparently.

I'm a big supporter of this plan, which might sound odd coming from a New Zealand dairy farming economist. Here's my reasoning.

Start with the markets. Cellular protein is potentially attractive to two groups.

  • Vegans or near-vegans who loathe the animal farming industry but love the taste of dairy & meat and don't mind eating gmos; and
  • People who buy on price and can't afford to worry about the provenance of their food. 
It is not yet clear how this stuff is going to be pitched to the market, but presumably the suppliers will try to capture both of these groups. I find it hard to understand the first group and suspect it is neither large or enduring. The second group is much larger. If it were tapped, prices for cellular protein would fall and the vegans would be stoked.

In this low-price scenario, cellular protein would compete with the output of mainstream animal farming in NZ and elsewhere. I hope & trust that Fonterra & others are worrying about this, modelling the production costs of faux animal protein (fap), investor expectations of those costs and market acceptance of the products. 

Let's help them out a bit. Assume that fap is a commodity freight train coming at us. It's a low cost high volume for our product. How should we respond? There are two main options for NZ farmers. Fight them, or join them:

  • go up-market, focusing on a more wealthy market segment, who care enough about food quality that they'll pay extra to avoid the fap; or
  • sell animals and start farming plants as inputs into the fap factories to support the cellular agriculture industry.

I really like that cellular agriculture is forcing this choice on us.

My own interests are not affected much by where the country goes on this choice. There is already a big disconnect between what we supply (soil biology & zero pesticides) and what Fonterra pay us for (milk solids). Market disruption from a low-price artificial gmo protein doesn't look like a negative to me.

On the contrary, cellular agriculture undercuts William Rolleston* and his fellow travellers who have been spending up large on lawyers & lobbyists to promote outdoor gmos in New Zealand. This gives me great pleasure. My economic research in connection with draft local government plans in Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Northland found that there were net local benefits from banning outdoor cultivation of gmos.

Among the counter-arguments was that New Zealand farmers have a moral obligation to feed the world, and that gmos are needed to do so. This 'feed the world' argument is common but it seems useless now. Indoor gmo promoters are gazumping those promoting outdoor gmo cultivation by producing heaps of cheap food for the world, apparently.

The promises of cellular agriculture are no less reliable than the promises of those seeking outdoor cultivation of gmos in NZ. Both camps are prone to exaggeration and the optimism of those invested in new ventures. Both camps assume consumers will be happy to eat their food. It's pretty difficult to see any difference except the outdoor people need to expose our ecosystems to contamination risk.

Contamination risk is my primary concern, so I'm delighted that we can now feed the world without it.

Now, for dessert, have a look at this photo I shamelessly stole from twitter and have a listen to this.

Last year's FedsPres is addressing the Rural Business Network on genetic tech in NZ agriculture. Ashburton is thriving as an agricultural service centre so the apparent turnout suggests a lack of enthusiasm.

Maybe everyone stayed away because they knew he'd be pimping the outdoor gmo technology again. I am reliably informed that cellular gmo agriculture didn't get a mention.

* Recognising the inevitable, I used to refer to William as Sir William. I am suspending this usage in the hope that the new govt will abolish these stupid titles (again). I hope it doesn't need to be reinstated. 

No comments:

Post a Comment