Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The case for calm on alternative proteins

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Whatever the vehicle, we are on the road to a sustainable menu, David Eade says.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In this series, the Eating the Elephant lads each explore an unpopular opinion in farming

Sharing food with others is a symbolic experience. At its core, it’s about respect and trust. My wife and I had the pleasure of breaking bread with two recent PhDs from Oxford University. Both were scientists. One of them specialised in alternative foods – specifically precision fermentation (producing protein similar to milk and eggs in large fermentation tanks) and cell-cultured meat (meat-like protein grown from animal stem cells). 

As a sheep and beef farmer, I approached the conversation with both caution and curiosity.  If their argument turned out to be compelling, I would have a duty of care to my family to seriously consider selling the farm and maybe investing in a precision fermentation startup. 

Our conversation covered a lot of ground and many of their points went over my head. We covered the basics – like what it takes to physically produce such a variety of protein types. Then we talked through the cultural aspects associated with sharing food, and how these social norms could stop or slow consumer uptake. Science often sounds scarier than nature when it comes to food. 

Throughout our conversation it became clear that scientists and farmers are trying to solve the same problem in very different ways – the need to produce protein without any negative environmental and social costs. 

I have long held the view that alternatively produced proteins will act as a substitute to any product that is an ingredient (for example, milk powder) or is provided to feed the masses (for example, beef mince). The tipping point for mass consumption will be based on price. When the cost of producing the same amount of protein is cheaper in the lab than in the paddock, we will see increased demand for alternative proteins. The simple reason being that many primary products are commodities with consumers being very sensitive to price. 

I am normally drawn to novel solutions such as cellular meat and precision fermentation. However, what struck me in this case is that both technologies are trying to mimic the inner workings of what I have out in my paddock. I have a precision fermentation tank (the rumen in every cow) and plenty of cellular meat (their muscle tissue). The question is, who has the harder challenge? The scientist looking to remove the animal from the system, or the livestock farmer looking to remove the emissions from the animal? 

Some numbers put agricultural methane emissions at 43% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. A number that is very high compared to other countries. According to our dinner guests, methane emissions are potent, but short lived, whereas carbon emissions are less potent but long term. What these PhDs helped me appreciate is that we – the livestock farmers of NZ – have an opportunity to almost halve our nation’s greenhouse gases numbers in a short period when we get the right tools. 

A scientific race has begun between PhDs like those around our dinner table and the scientists working in ruminant-based livestock systems. The latter are busy creating vaccines, feed additives and other solutions to reduce the emissions profile of livestock. Less capital is flowing to reduce the emissions from livestock, given the area is not shiny and new like alternative proteins. 

But here’s the key takeout – even with all their capital, the PhDs agreed that a solution to reduce methane emissions in ruminants will likely scale sooner, and potentially result in a bigger short-term impact than both cellular meat and precision fermentation can deliver. 

In short, pasture raised meat still has a place on the dinner plate and innovation within this space represents one of the greatest contributions our sector can make to a low-emissions, liveable future. I find that exciting. 

It is conversations like these that help reframe perceived threats to our sector. Potential solutions are never black and white – the future is not 100% red meat or alternative meat, farms planted in 100% pine trees or no pine trees at all. The future is one of nuance.    

Put another way, the consumer of the future will likely enjoy a diet that is free of most, maybe all, environmental and social side-effects. She will start her day with a smoothie made with precision-fermented oat milk, lunch will be a cellular meat stir fry, afternoon snack will be cultured yoghurt with a handful of nuts, and that night she might enjoy a carbon-positive steak, reared on a Kiwi farm. 

All the items on her day’s menu are yet to be achieved on a commercial scale because they all face the same challenges of capital constraints, scientific challenges or a combination of both. But all of us – livestock farmers and PhDs – are on the pathway to a sustainable menu, and there is no going back. 

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