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The great food disruption: part 2

Milk without the cow, meatless burgers that bleed, chicken and shrimp made from plant matter, and now foie gras without a force-fed goose in sight. A new food revolution enabled by science and biotech is brewing and, if it succeeds, animals will have little to do with the future of food. For some, that future looks rosy, but, as Dr. Rosie Bosworth writes in part two of a series, the implications for New Zealand’s agricultural sector could be less than palatable. 

So what’s driving these bounteous sums of venture capital and the world’s most talented scientists and entrepreneurs into the field of cellular agriculture and synbio? One might think that nabbing a slice of the multi-trillion dollar food pie would be the primary motivation. That’s certainly part of it. But it’s not all of it. By using synbio these startups are hoping to transform conventional agriculture’s woefully flawed business model. And there’s nothing startups like more than inefficient legacy systems (and audacious goals).

To start, animal farming – be it to produce meat or milk – is rough on the planet. According to the UN, traditional livestock farming accounts for about 18 percent of greenhouse emissions and uses nearly 40 percent of the Earth’s global land surface.

The World Resource Institute says one-third of this surface alone is used exclusively to grow the crops to feed to livestock in order for them to grow the protein we then eat. “If you were looking for a way to create food you really couldn’t do much worse than growing crops to feed them to animals so the animals convert them into meat,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute and cellular agriculture focused investment capital firm, New Crop Capital.

Friedrich says it takes 23 calories of grain to make one calorie of beef produced in a feedlot. “Even the most efficient meat on the market, chicken, requires nine calories of grain, alfalfa or whatever feed that chicken needs to get one calorie back out. That’s 800 percent waste!”

Agriculture also uses 70 percent of the world’s fresh water and is the world’s most significant polluter of the local and global waterways, a somewhat ironic scenario New Zealand has borne witness to over the last decade. According to calculations provided by Alison Dewes, a fourth generation New Zealand dairy farmer, it takes 250 litres of fresh water annually from aquifers and rivers to produce one litre of New Zealand milk on even the most sustainable of New Zealand dairy farms. And Memphis Meat’s Uma Valeti says 2,500 litres of water are used in the production of one conventionally-produced hamburger.

Then there’s the issue of the poor animal ethics associated with conventional animal agriculture and the slaughter of billions of animals globally each year. Meat eaters globally, especially New  Zealanders, may like to think all milk and meat comes from happy animals frolicking in rolling hills, as it is more often (though not always) produced here. But the reality is that most of the world’s meat and dairy production comes from overcrowded and intensely confined industrial settings like factory farms, battery cages and feedlots riddled with bacteria and cruelty. The surge in global health pandemics and outbreaks such as e-coli, salmonella, bird flu and foot and mouth disease are all largely symptomatic of intensive and confined factory-farming conditions, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. And according to the FDA, 80 percent of antibiotics produced by pharmaceuticals companies in the US are fed to farm animals.

While these figures may be less in other developed nations, the effects are far reaching. “Bacteria are learning how to get around antibiotics and may be ushering in an end of an era of antibiotics working in human medicine, with catastrophic consequences,” says Friedrich.

All the while global meat consumption has increased rapidly in recent decades, with year on year increases since 2014, according to London-based market research firm Euromonitor. OECD figures say global meat production is projected to be 16 percent higher in 2025 than in 2013-15.

David Robinson Simon, US lawyer and author of Meatonomics, says the externalised cost of the animal food system in the US alone is US$414 billion annually, 75 percent of which is spent on obesity, diabetes and heart disease related health epidemics driven by high rates of consumption of meat and dairy.

More or less?

By contrast, the benefits of synbio-enabled food and agricultural production are numerous. Not only can cultured foods like lab-grown and plant-based meats and milk proteins put an end to animal cruelty and the carnage of slaughterhouses, they also hold the potential to feed the world without the devastation of the environment in ways potentially nutritionally superior than today’s alternatives.

At scale, startups like Memphis Meats, Perfect Day and Mosa Meat claim that their products use up to 98 percent less water, 90 percent less land, 84 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, and 65 percent less energy than typical industrial animal agriculture production meat and dairy products. Plant-based alternatives like the Impossible and Beyond Burger yield similar, if not higher, environmental improvements.

“By choosing a quarter-pound Impossible Burger, instead of the same burger made from a cow, you’re saving the equivalent of taking a 10-minute shower. More water than you’d drink in a couple of months,” says Impossible Foods CEO, Patrick Brown, a molecular biologist and professor of biochemistry.

For each Impossible Burger substituted, consumers are also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of driving 29 fewer kilometres solo in a typical American car and are freeing up a land area of 75 square feet. In New Zealand terms, that’s seven square metres (a good sized bedroom) of land saved each burger.

Calorie for calorie, cultured meat alternatives are also vastly more efficient, Valeti says,  potentially eliminating the need for feeding mass quantities of animals and freeing up the land they occupy. While 23 calories of grain are required to make one calorie of beef produced in a feedlot, Memphis Meats’ process takes only three calories of input for calorie of its clean chicken meat.

Understandably, questions are being raised about just how many resources and inputs cultured meat alternatives themselves will require in their production and the associated environmental impacts. But cellular agriculture pioneers and proponents say these will be negligible.

“It’ll certainly take a lot of resources to scale (clean meat). But no matter how many resources it takes, it will definitely be more efficient than animal agriculture,” says Dr Liz Specht, senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, who works intimately on the progressing the commercialisation of cellular agriculture. “Simply because of how much is lost thermodynamically when you grow an animal to get calories out of that animal.”

Fine dining

With Mosa Meat’s first clean meat patty and Memphis Meat’s meatball costing $330,000 and $9,000 per pound respectively, cellular alternatives are way out of the price range for the average consumer.

But, much like the exponentially declining cost of genome sequencing, the cost of producing the cultured meat has plummeted over the last several years and startups are optimistic they will realistically be able to match conventional farmed alternatives within 5-10 years.

Mosa Meats announced in 2016 that it cut the price of its meat to around US$30 per pound, or $11 a burger, through further development of its process since its $330,000 launch. Memphis Meats also claims its current technology can now produce a pound of chicken for less than half of what it cost to produce its first pound of beef meatball in 2016 and the team expects to continue reducing production costs dramatically, with a target launch of its products to consumers in 2021.

“We are now producing our meat for less than $40 per gram and we plan to reduce this to just a few cents per gram over the next five years,” says Valeti. “There may be a small price premium over the first few years, but our goal is to get this on par with conventional meat.”

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