Sarah Harper Photo Credit: Florence Charvin

How do you like your steak? Farm raised and medium rare … reconstituted veges, pulses, nuts and seeds shaped to look like the real thing … or fermentation factory replicas cultured in a giant petri dish?

Welcome to the protein revolution – mass-produced food from bio-labs for the protein poor, plant-based alternatives for vegans and voyeurs of variety or, for those who can still afford it, premium farm or ocean-raised the way nature intended.

The convergence of climate change, environmentalism, global poverty, generational resistance to meat farming and breakthroughs in bioscience and cellular technology have bought us to the brink of a second revolution in farming and food production.

Within a decade the traditional food chain will face mass disruption as micro-organisms are ‘programmed’, genetically synthesised and fermented in huge vats or 3D printed to emulate steak, mince, sausages, chicken, bacon and fish fillets.

Global investment in plant-based and laboratory generated protein has given rise to dire predictions that ‘industrial’ dairy is doomed and pork, chicken, lamb and fish consumption is heading for a rapid decline.

Independent researcher RethinkX claims “superior”, more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and “more convenient protein of unimaginable variety” will be five times cheaper than existing animal protein by 2030, ten times more affordable by 2035 eventually “approaching the cost of sugar”.

Dr Rosie Bosworth, a thought leader focused on future foods and new strategies for green agriculture, is taking the protein revolution seriously. “If we don’t … New Zealand will be in big trouble in the long term.”

An important warning for a country with 81% of its agricultural land devoted to sheep & beef farming and dairying, carrying nearly 40 million livestock that generated $7.9 million in meat export value and $15.9 million in dairy product export value in 2019.

McPlant momentum

Alongside the converging megatrends in bio-tech and “GenZ and Millennials…steering away from meats” there’s the consumer marketing power of Burger King, creating vegan burgers, and the McPlant burger, co-created by McDonald’s and Beyond Meat.

“That is the start of the commercial demand that will shift things away from the low-value cuts of meat a lot of farmers are supplying,” says Bosworth.

Amplifying the trend is celebrity investment and endorsement including David Attenborough’s recent call, urging people to have less children and adopt a plant-based diet to save the planet. 

There’s a predictable backlash from Kiwi meat producers and marketers who believe New Zealand can hold its own with high quality, natural, farm-grown produce.

Would Esk Valley Meats sales and marketing manager Sarah Harper consider lab grown sausages or plant-based patties? “No way … I want them made like they have been forever.”

Esk Valley Meats was one of three Hawke’s Bay meat producers who took out top positions in the 2020 Great New Zealand Sausage and Burger Pattie Competition from 605 entries.

Having evolved from “back yard butchery” to supplying supermarkets from 2005, the company won two gold medals for its brisket burger pattie and beef brisket sausages and a silver medal for their pork, leek and fennel sausages.

Harper believes most New Zealanders prefer their meat grown out in the field and there will always be a market for premium product if farmers can be sustainable and add value.

“We can improve but we can’t supply the world. We have to embrace the new plant-based meats and burgers made on the plate … but they’re expensive.”

Harper has worked in export on both sides of the game and has UK retail experience where technology can trace Aberdeen Angus meat, for example, all the way back to the sire. 

“We’ve got a long way to go in terms of traceability so there’ll be huge changes and requirements and it’s going to get really tough.”

Value not volume

Brendan O’Connell, acting CEO of Agritech New Zealand, says global growth in alternative protein production should emphasise what’s good about our food production and long track record of innovation.

Rather than adding more dairy cows, chasing volume or allowing meat alternatives to spell doom and gloom he believes our farming systems should be more diverse and our portfolio more focused on higher value products.

However, having studied the investment shift to cheaper alternative food production systems, he agrees we’re in for a major upset.

He’s personally aware of changing ‘flexitarian’ consumer habits as represented in his own family – “one vegetarian, one part-time vegetarian and three that will eat whatever is put in front of them”.

He recently tried yellow pea-based ‘baconless bacon’ from New Zealand producer Sunfed Meats, but won’t be including it in his diet. “I didn’t really enjoy it.”

In the BayBuzz Food Survey reported in this edition, fully 70% of respondents say they are “reducing their red meat consumption for health or environmental reasons”. A trend not to be taken lightly in a region where 90% of farm land is devoted to sheep, beef and dairy, with roughly 450,000 beef cattle and 78,000 dairy cows on about 1,800 farms.

Supermarkets and speciality stores already stock a growing range of plant-based sausages, mince, burgers, chicken strips, luncheon and other products including Kiwi offerings from Sunfed, Amino Mantra, Veggie Delights, Alt Meat Co, Grater Goods and Bean Supreme.

There’s vegan cheese and ‘non-dairy dairy’ including milk and ice cream and a growing number of Kiwi start-ups operating in this space, with groups like Plant & Food and even Fonterra exploring the options.

While the NZ Primary Industry Council, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and others are working under the ‘fit for a better world’ banner to rethink our competitive advantage, O’Connell says more detail is needed.

Protein innovators wanted

Palmerston North-based FoodHQ is trying to identify international collaborative opportunities for New Zealand companies and through Emerging Proteins NZ wants to support those working with protein sources including plant, fungi, insect, bacterial and cell-culture.

Locally it’s working through BusinessHB and Hawke’s Bay’s Food Innovation Network.

There seems to be an openness to plant-based options but eyebrows tilt at the seeming contradiction of introducing so-called ‘Frankinfoods’ into our diets after years of resisting genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The first cell-cultured hamburgers from live cow muscle stem cells were produced by a UK company in 2013. Since then scores of businesses have invested billions of dollars to produce a range of meat and seafood alternatives.

Bill Gates, Richard Branson and a wave of Silicon Valley ‘cellular agriculture’ and meat industry giants are cautiously grooming consumers for meat-like inventions grown from animal cells with large-scale production proposed within three to five years. 

Brendan O’Connell, married to Miranda (nee Cassidy) from a Hawke’s Bay farming family, says we need to have a wider conversation about the whole continuum of genetic modification and what’s known and unknown.

“We’ve been doing genetic modification in New Zealand forever, just doing it slowly through herd selection, cropping improvements and good science that’s well understood.”

O’Connell believes many consumers will be sceptical of highly processed alternative proteins, particularly “unknown levels of modification” that impinge on what might be considered natural food.

“Most people will eat what they recognise as food because they know where it comes from and what’s gone into it.”

Value chain dominos

RethinkX says the protein revolution is moving faster than traditional business planners, forecasters, trend watchers, policymakers and investors can imagine.

Its report – Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030 – predicts the collapse of large-scale meat farming worldwide within 15 years, with domino effects impacting the entire value chain including feed cropping, transport and energy.“We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago. This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics.”

The 2020 Future of Food & the Primary Sector study from Victoria University, with input from industry experts including our chief scientist, sounds a similar warning about impacts on our economy and way of life and the need for a major revamp of the food sector.

We need to plan now to adapt, invest and innovate ahead of “dramatic changes in food consumption patterns”.

The report challenges our short-term thinking, lack of focused R&D, the “splintered nature and misplaced incentives” of our scientific community, and the need to bring agriculture and food production into a more interconnected system.

A more strategic approach is needed across the terrestrial and aquatic sectors. “The common assertion that our food production is a mature industry is wrong.”

Coping with change

It suggests many smaller producers are struggling with the increased use of sensors, big data and artificial intelligence (AI), let alone “huge breakthroughs in the life sciences” such as gene editing and the rapid emergence of “non-animal-based foods” replacing meat and milk.

We need to decide which technologies will sustain the sector as new food-processing systems such as 3D printing and sustainable packaging are developed in response to consumer preferences.

The report, based on conversations with industry leaders, scientists and stakeholders, affirms our status as “a leading producer of elite primary products” that can lead the way for post-Covid economic renewal.

Sam Robinson former chair of AgResearch and board member of Silver Fern Farms, New Zealand’s largest livestock processing and marketing company, quotes Bill Gates proposing big US protein factories as the larder for the world and New Zealand as the delicatessen.

Robinson says the big impact for farming and consumers will be at the commodity level. “There’s two types of food, one for calories and sustenance and one for special occasions.”

If New Zealand is to grow food profitably “we need to be focused on people who want to eat rather than those who need to eat”.

While the big investors will own the supply of calories, “the majority of our meat is not going to compete head-to-head with artificial protein,” says Robinson.

Special occasion steak

Even if meat becomes an occasional treat for those preferring a vegetarian diet, it won’t be artificial, “it’ll be the best wagyu, grass-fed, naturally and ethically raised, hormone and antibiotic free” steak which is the Silver Fern Farms market.

He says our reputation as smart farmers – staving off Covid-19, getting TB out of our herds and progressively eradicating Mycoplasma bovis (M.bovis) from our cattle – stands us in good stead as a safe, reliable food producer.

While the US, Europe and the Middle East want New Zealand meat, he says Asia and China in particular are our natural market. “They have gone beyond needing to eat … they love their food and banquets … artificial protein is only for the worker’s canteens.” 

Robinson agrees the meat industry must become more collectively and cooperatively organised like the apple industry, which develops new plant variety rights for the Asian palate. “The pastoral industry needs to invest more in R&D.”

RethinkX says the dairy industry will be the first to feel “the full force of modern food’s disruptive power” triggered by rapid advances in “precision biology” and huge strides in “precision fermentation”.

Scientists will be able to “program micro-organisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule” which, combined with a new ‘Food-as-Software’ production, will usher in a new era of food manufacture.

Protein programming

Programmed molecules will be uploaded to databases so food engineers can design molecular cookbooks enabling constant and rapid improvement of ‘food products’ undermining the cost-value equation of animal-based food sources.

Agritech’s Brendan O’Connell doesn’t see New Zealand emerging as a big player in protein fermentation or bio-farms, logistically and logically he says that needs to be done closer to the large consumer markets.

“The really big farming systems in the US and other parts of the world are going to be decimated,” and we’ll end up importing much of our lab protein because “the cheapest option will drive a lot of consumer choices”.

He believes the pre-emptive death notice for larger meat producing nations doesn’t apply to New Zealand in the same way, but it should provide a wake-up call for our existing food creation, producing and distribution sectors.

What we deliver, he says is “a rare thing” with “massive potential” if we continue to leverage our natural, sustainably produced food, become more coordinated and focus on our core strengths like regenerative farming systems.

Agritech, the recently converged body of hi-tech groups across the agribusiness sector, is seeing strong investment in local innovation to enhance natural food production.

Our exports, alongside prime meat, should include intellectual property (IP) from new protein sources, new cultivars, pasture species, management practices and technology breakthroughs.

O’Connell cites the aspirational goals of KPMG’s Agribusiness reports claiming Kiwi innovation could result in “five million people being able to feed 40 million people and potentially 5% of the diet of 800 million people”.

Specialised cropping

Dr Rosie Bosworth doesn’t see New Zealand figuring large in fermented or lab-grown meats, but potentially shining by repurposing dairying land to grow protein-rich crops.

Rather than being a “race to the bottom” swapping out one commodity sector for another, she says we need novel ways of growing, manufacturing, processing, extracting or extruding plant protein to give us a competitive edge.

There’s “huge opportunity” for fermentation technology because almost any molecular structure can be produced using equipment familiar to micro-brewers. “We could lead the world growing all sorts of materials from proteins to fats, and beyond agriculture into cosmetics”.

Bosworth wonders whether we’re having “loud enough or open enough discussions” around the possibilities as too much is uncoordinated and happening in silos and needs to be more connected. While entrepreneurs see the market opportunity there needs to be “a bit more transparency around what MBIE and the Government are looking at doing to create more forward momentum”.

Once the logistics of scaling up fermented protein and cell-based meats are sorted, “it will become a no-brainer and eventually overtake the incumbent pricing structure,” says Bosworth.

And she warns natural producers that staying in the premium end for a long time could result in the cost of meat becoming prohibitive.

Business as unusual

Sam Robinson insists farmers and meat producers are already spending more time trying to comply with every possible obstacle to their reputation than they are worrying about competition from artificial protein.

He doesn’t like the term ‘industrial’ in relation to New Zealand as it implies feedlots and is employed by Fish and Game, Forest & Bird and Greenpeace when they’re “trying to crucify the New Zealand dairy industry”.

There are a few loose ends to be tidied up; guaranteed multilateral free trade access “for our sophisticated product” and improved marketing so “people stop sniping at us for dirty dairy”.

Generally, he’s “more confident” about the meat industry than he has been for a long time, although the composition of our 4.5 million cow dairy herd needs to be reconsidered.

Robinson says our greatest vulnerability may be “manufacturing meat” – our cows and bulls could be “taken out” by artificial protein hamburger blends …“after all it’s just a mish mash between a bun with a bit of gherkin and salad”. 

Typically, a Fresian dairy cow needs to calve annually to keep milk production flowing but only about 25% of those calves need to be female to maintain herd levels. 

The result is that a high number of bobby calves get “tapped on the head” after four days or reared to become bulls, and exported alongside end-of-life dairy cows then ground into hamburger steaks to supplement fatty trimmings from US feedlot cattle.

He suggests mating them with meatier Angus beef cattle so they’re more suited for the table rather than hamburger grind or petfood.

Innovation incomplete

While many of our farmers and producers lead the world in tracking, tracing, monitoring and managing everything from soil and water quality and pasture growth to the life, health and growth of animals, some are late to ‘gate to plate’ thinking.

Agritech New Zealand’s Aotearoa Agritech Unleashed says the main obstacles to agritech adoption are lack of useful data, data analytics and decision support tools, connectivity, trust and legal barriers, and convincing business cases that show return on investment.

Some farmers are reluctant to invest in new practices, unaware of how they might be adopted or the advantages and benefits compared to existing practices.

While the Kiwi agritech sector is relatively small by global standards with export revenue relatively flat at around $1.2 billion for the last five years, “significant opportunity as global demand grows” could take that to $17 billion.

Discerning consumers want to know about food quality and production, the “credence attributes” or points of value – where it comes from, is it environmentally friendly with low carbon footprint and sustainable?

As the Future of Food & the Primary Sector report says, export markets demand detailed reporting and measuring frameworks for all inputs as “a more circular food system emerges”.

Agriculture, horticulture, aquaculture, fisheries – and the associated production, distribution, marketing, sales, consumption and disposal – can no longer be considered in isolation from our environmental, cultural, social and economic futures.

Business as unusual

The report wants more adaptable, sustainable pastoral farming systems and increased investment “in long-term and strategic research to support an increasingly technologically-based sector facing rapid change”.

That includes removal of barriers to exploring advanced life science technologies to assist our food system.

“Business-as-usual, incremental approaches will not lead to the necessary transformation,” says the Victoria University report, which urges New Zealand to become a global thought leader in devising a “compelling and authentic new narrative”.

Despite the talk of New Zealand becoming the delicatessen for the world, food production remains uncoordinated. Simply tinkering around with an old model just won’t cut it.

The momentum away from meat is not only being driven by vegetarians and animal rights considerations, but cattle contributing to carbon emissions and leaching nitrogen into land, rivers and streams, and perhaps the desire to clear more pasture for trees.

The Netherlands plans to reduce animal protein consumption from 62% to 50% by 2025. Otago University’s Environmental Health Perspectives study claims reducing consumption of animal-based foods in New Zealand (including farming, production and waste) could save billions of dollars and cut related emissions by around 60%, the equivalent of our cars and vans.

Consider the far reaching impacts, if for example our government sets targets to reduce our traditional meat consumption in favour of the new ‘engineered’ food as part of our journey to carbon zero?

Kiwis are already paying relatively high prices for premium cuts of meat and the real ‘protein transition’ has only just begun. As the mass market is urged toward ‘more ethical’ and eventually more affordable, imported, low cost lab-manufactured protein we may end up paying even more.


US agritech bio-lab 

If we don’t meet the needs of both those who want to eat and those who need to eat we could end up losers in both hunger games. 

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