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Rural Week NZ

Does Lab-Grown Meat and Milk Mean the End for New Zealand Farmers?

As the sci-fi sounding prospect becomes a reality, we ask what effect the new technology could have on our agricultural industry.

by James Borrowdale
29 May 2017, 5:01am

Image by Phillip Capper via Flickr.

"We shall escape," wrote Winston Churchill in a 1931 article titled "Fifty Years Hence", "the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." In vitro meat—that is, meat grown in a laboratory—has to an extent already fulfilled Churchill's prediction, and milk isn't far behind. A California start-up is hoping to bring to market next year milk that has never gone anywhere near, let alone through, a cow's nipple.

These developments come at a time when heightened concerns about the impact of agriculture, particularly dairy, are at the top of New Zealand's political agenda. In 2015, the Ministry for the Environment found that the area of land under dairy farming had increased by 28 percent in the preceding 10 years. The same ministry found that nearly two-thirds of the country's monitored river-swimming spots recorded levels of pollution last summer that rendered them unsafe for swimming: the biggest contributor, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found, is nutrient run-off from dairy farms. The agriculture sector is the country's largest contributor to greenhouse gas, accounting for 47.9 percent of gross emissions.

Such statistics give many—regardless of personal ethics about the morality of consuming other animals—pause to consider the morality of agriculture at large. The United Nations estimates there will be 9.6 billion humans on the planet by 2050, and as developing nations' meat consumption tends to grow with affluence—China's, for instance, rose 150 percent between 1985 and 2008—the world's need for agricultural resources will increase by a denomination that grows faster as it grows faster, with more and more stress placed on the planet.

VICE asked Mark Post, professor of vascular physiology at Holland's Maastricht University and leader of the team that unveiled an in vitro hamburger in London in 2013, how the world can cope with increased demand. "The fact of the matter is that we like meat. And all the indications point to the fact that that is not going to go away soon. So that means we have to be able to produce meat at a scale that is higher than what we are currently producing, and I don't see that happening through livestock."

Meat could soon come in a petri dish not a paddock. Image via Flickr.

Post's burger came at a cost of US$330,000, and took Post and his team three months to create, first growing 20,000 muscle fibres from cow stem cells and then painstakingly pressing them together. Post has started a company to commercialise the product, and his modelling suggests that the price, after scaling up production, will eventually come down to $11 a burger. He plans to have a product on the market within the next four years.

Post is not alone in working on technology that provides products traditionally supplied by agriculture: Perfect Day, for example, is an American company aiming to bring its cow-free milk to market next year—created using yeast and fermentation techniques similar to how beer is made and bread is leavened, it is full of the exact same proteins present in cow milk.

As with Post's meat, Perfect Day's milk has all the nutritional value of the product it seeks to replace, but it comes at a fraction of the environmental impact—the company's website says the product uses 98 percent less water than dairy farming, and produces 65 percent less greenhouse gas. As Post says of such technologies: "It allows us to create the product that we all love with less resources and less environmental impact. And this will change the business of farmers, for sure; every technology changes the economies of nations."

Wool, once an important export, now contributes only three percent of agricultural output, its value lessened by the rise of synthetic fabrics, a clear warning for its agricultural siblings.

Dr Rosie Bosworth is a technology futurist who has written extensively about the challenges posed to New Zealand's agricultural industry by the advent of new technology, once suggesting the country could become the "Detroit of agriculture" if it fails to stay abreast of change. "When companies," she says, "such as Perfect Day [can produce milk at] a fraction of the environmental input for below commodity prices then that becomes quite a precarious situation to be in, because where is our place? It doesn't make any sense to be pillaging our environment and our natural resources to produce a product that is not only no longer competitive, but is environmentally taxing on so many angles."

Agriculture, according to Treasury, contributed nearly $23 billion to the economy in 2015, nearly 70 percent of it from dairy, beef and sheep meat, and any reduction in its contribution to the economy would be felt throughout society. Wool, once an important export, now contributes only three percent of agricultural output, its value lessened by the rise of synthetic fabrics, a clear warning for its agricultural siblings.

I asked Anders Crofoot, vice-president of Federated Farmers, whether that warning was being heeded. He said he sees the rise of lab-grown substitutes presenting an "interesting" challenge to New Zealand's agricultural sector, but that the country's products—largely pitched at the premium end of the market—will withstand it. "If we're going to produce animal products, from a marketing perspective it's best to aim for the high end, where you have a really good story to tell along with it and, in which case, there should still be a market for our products."

If agriculture continues to degrade the environment, that might become a difficult story to tell with a straight face, and Crofoot acknowledges that it would be "foolish" to ignore the in vitro threat to the economy, but he also casts doubt upon the idea that consumers would ever really embrace it. "That'll be an interesting one, whether people will actually want to eat things created in vats. And maybe they will, and maybe they won't, and that's something we don't really know."

"There's nothing natural about pumping cows full of hormones and antibiotics, there's nothing natural about enforcing lactation."

Whether people are prepared to give meat grown in a lab a try is the crucial question, but perhaps a misleading one. If "natural" meat and milk is what consumers are after, Bosworth says, much of modern agricultural product probably isn't for them. "There's nothing natural about pumping cows full of hormones and antibiotics, there's nothing natural about enforcing lactation."

Nathan Guy, the Minister for Primary Industries, doesn't see the rise of in vitro meat and milk as a threat to the agriculture sector, rather as "complementary". While ignoring questions regarding the new technology's ability to limit environmental impacts, Guy told me that in order to feed the world, we need every option available, including high-quality New Zealand produce. "While some people will embrace food grown in the laboratory, many other consumers will prefer the real thing—safe, high quality natural food and that's what New Zealand has always been good at."

Post, too, takes issue with this line of argument, pointing out that many of us already consume foods of questionable origin. "We have a sausage here—it's called a frikandel—and there are all sorts of horror stories about what is in that sausage. Nobody really knows. And still it's very popular. If you ask people what's in it, they literally say, 'I don't want to know.' When people are accustomed to a product and they know it's safe then they don't really care what's in it."

He calls the advent of this technology "inevitable", but it could present unforeseen opportunities to farmers, calling them "the ultimate entrepreneurs. They will extract value from their land, one way or another." The meat needs to be fed, he says, just as animals do, and that food is still of plant origin and needs to be grown, just as it already is. There's also no reason why the country couldn't invest in the same technology, says Post. "One of the good things about this technology is you can do it everywhere. You can do this perfectly well in New Zealand."

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