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Book Review: The rise of the new food engineers

Guide Books Review: The biggest threat to your farm isn’t commodity prices or interest rates. It’s science, and what’s going on in these labs

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Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030: The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming

How will agriculture, society and the environment be impacted by the onset of intense and broad disruption? It’s way more than COVID-19.

Take a big breath and read Catherine Tubb and Tony Seba’s book title — Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030: The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming.

It’s a lot of words, but the take-home is this: Not only are our farms under threat, the science is already here, and it is breathtaking.

This “second domestication” of plants and animals will be based on micro-organisms. In the near future, humanity will unplug these micro-organisms from their current hosts (e.g the physical cow). In other words, we’ll farm the micro-organisms, not the cows, and it’ll be incredibly productive.

It’s a “food-as-software” revolution that will enable food engineers to design food products as if they were app developers, at least according to this study, and it will see them replace the traditional livestock production model in scale, reach and efficiency.

The touted benefit to this type of production system is lower production and supply chain cost. For example, the authors state that “modern foods” will be approximately 10 times more efficient than a steer at converting feed into end products. Less feed consumed means less land required to grow it, which also means less water used, and less waste produced. This “unbundling of the cow” also reduces the time required to grow a cow from two to three years to just a few weeks. 

Another food in harm’s way is milk. After all, the authors point out, the food-as-software model only needs to replace 3.3 per cent of what’s in a milk bottle — the key functional proteins — to “bring about the collapse of the whole cow milk industry.”

When can we expect all of these changes to take effect? When will we see entire industries collapse? 

According to the authors it has already begun and “we can anticipate (that) these…(modern) proteins will reach cost parity with their animal-derived equivalent by 2023-2025 … By 2030, we expect almost 90 per cent of U.S. dairy protein demand to come from (modern) alternatives.”

The authors identify four main agents that could accelerate or decelerate modern food disruption: consumers, businesses, investors and policy-makers. The actions and choices of each group are interdependent and there will be incentives and hindrances for each. Additionally, some parts of the value chain will be disproportionately affected by these drastic shifts: for example, animal feed, fertilizer, and pesticide suppliers as well as machinery manufacturers and dealers, abattoirs, processors, and packagers.

Impacts on land use and value will be significant. The authors say that about 95 per cent less land will be required for protein production through modern methods, leaving massive swaths of land available for a “number of land use options”. In terms of broader social, environmental and health implications, there will be a net gain particularly in developing countries and among North America’s poorest families.

Geopolitically, “trade relations will shift because decentralized food production will be far less constrained by geographic and climatic conditions than traditional livestock and agriculture.” And since “the agriculture sector is entwined with the broader economy,” changes within the industry will ripple outwards to other economic sectors, just as the reverse is true.

The authors point specifically to a decrease in oil consumption, but an increase in a demand for electricity.

While we do already produce some products directly from micro-organisms using these methods, like orange flavouring, vitamins and cannabinoids, it remains to be seen how consumers will react to such a novel and vast manipulation of life itself — particularly to the invention of proteins that are not currently found in nature. However, the perceived upside is that “(p)roducers will be able to develop a lower-cost product that replicates the taste and feel but improves on other attributes, including tolerability, digestibility and nutrition.”

Where will the opportunities in the new supply chain be? Who will the winners be? The authors have a gentle but firm warning: “The successful food and agricultural businesses of today may not be the ultimate winners. Incumbent businesses are often handicapped by incentives, mindset, and organizational structures and processes that favour incremental improvement over disruptive innovation.” Are you ready? 

About the author

Contributor

April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.

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