Say the word ‘cow’ to most people and the image that comes to mind is of a four-legged beast munching ruminatively on grass in a bucolic surrounding. At one level this is correct, but at another, it is totally incorrect. The direction in which science is pushing implies a reconsideration of the cow (or any other animal for that matter) as simply a package of nutrients: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and the like. Furthermore, if the authors of a recent report are correct, then even that scene of the cow in the field may disappear before not too long…
We were intrigued to read a report called “Rethinking Food & Agriculture,” published recently by RethinkX, an independent US-based think-thank which focuses on technological change. For sure, its forecasts are designed to capture attention, but they do bear consideration. Per the report, by 2030, demand for cow-based products will have fallen by 70%. Even prior to this date, the authors contend that the US cattle industry will be “effectively bankrupt” with America’s cow population having at least halved. Pigs and chickens will not be immune, but more startlingly, crop farming volumes (such as soy and corn) are also forecast to have shrunk by more than 50%.
The factor driving such radical projections is the emergence of a new model; think of it as food-as-software. In this future world, foods will be engineered by scientists at a molecular level and then uploaded to databases. These could then theoretically be accessed by food ‘designers’ anywhere in the world. Conventional farming and food production would be replaced by what some are calling precision biology – the effective marriage of genetic engineering and synthetic biology with distributed cloud and machine learning technologies.
Given the nascent success of ‘alternative proteins’ such as the Beyond and Impossible burgers, further innovation in this field seems inevitable. However, to suggest that conventional food products may disappear within a generation seems potential hyperbole. While your author does not have a background in science, it remains unclear how scalable might be these emerging technologies, above and beyond whether either regulators approve, or consumers accept them. Alt meat/protein should be seen as complementary in our view rather than simply as a pure substitute. The debate will continue to run.
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