Rethinking Food And Agriculture In 2019
This paper, by independent business-disruption think tank RethinkX, focuses on the future of animal agriculture and the technological advancements that promise (and threaten) to revolutionize the industry. It covers technology that will become prominent in the next decades, possible timelines for widespread adoption of that technology, and the effects of these changes on humans, animals, the economy, and the environment.
The main development that the paper looks at is called precision fermentation (PF), which allows scientists to program microorganisms to create virtually any complex organic molecule, including fats, proteins, and vitamins. It’s already used today to produce many food additives, such as the enzymes required for rennet in cheese, the heme used in the Impossible Burger, and raspberry aroma. This process used to be prohibitively expensive, with a $1M per kg (of a single molecule) price tag in 2000. Today, that price is only $100/kg, and this paper predicts it will fall to below $10/kg by 2025. By 2030, they predict that the cost of producing food through PF will be less than the cost of producing through current methods, and will therefore lead to a collapse of many traditional agricultural sectors like meat and dairy.
Not only will it be cheaper, but foods produced through PF may be more nutritious than standard foods, due to the ability of scientists to fine-tune the nutrients in a product. They could engineer a burger with no cholesterol and more protein, for example. Furthermore, production of PF foods is not restricted by weather, terrain, or climate; anywhere with sufficient infrastructure could host a PF facility.
The paper predicts the first disruptions to come in the form of additives, with current animal-derived ingredients being replaced by PF-produced ones. Gelatin is a perfect example: it usually makes up a small portion of the final product and only serves to thicken whatever food it’s in. In the future, gelatin could be cheaply grown in a lab rather than the bones of cattle. This is likely to be a purely business-to-business decision, since the ingredients involved are so minor that customers will not notice or care about the production process.
Farther down the line, this paper predicts PF-molecules to be mixed into end products in more major ways. For example, whey and casein are the primary proteins in cow’s milk – what makes cow’s milk milk – but constitute only 3.3% of the volume of a typical gallon. The rest is just water, fats, vitamins, and sugar. Since all those ingredients can be obtained cheaply without animals, PF only needs to replace those proteins. Given the tremendous costs associated with animal agriculture, the paper predicts that PF will easily and cheaply be able to replicate whey and casein by 2030, driving traditional dairy farming to the margins.
The paper also briefly touches on cell-based meat technology, in which animal cells are grown in a lab to create meat without any animal coming to harm. They predict that cell-based beef will reach price-parity with traditional beef by 2025, leading to a total decline of 75% in the U.S. cow population by 2030.
The predictions in this paper, if true, would have drastic consequences for our food system. Prices and revenues of the U.S. cattle industry would decline by 90% by 2035, at which point 60% of land currently used for animal and feed production would be freed. Net emissions from the agricultural sector would fall by 65%, and agricultural water consumption by 60%. We would also be healthier, as foods could be created with fewer harmful ingredients and greater nutritional value. Foodborne illnesses would decline, as animal agriculture is responsible for a majority of outbreaks. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria could become less of a threat, since animals would no longer be receiving high doses of antibiotics.
However, the shift in food production from farms to labs would devastate the value of farmland, as much of it is in otherwise-undesirable locations and would no longer be useful for crops. Careful planning would be required to avoid this financial collapse from having widespread effects. In general, the effects of PF and other food production advances would be positive for humans, animals, and the environment, but animal advocates will need to reckon with the inevitable push-back that may result from collapsing industries.