The end of animal ag?

Oct 28, 2019 | Disruptive technologies

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Think tank RethinkX paints a grim picture for the future of animal agriculture in a recent report, predicting that ‘precision fermentation’ will be the most profound disruption in food and agriculture for 1,000 years. The change will be driven by economics, with protein cost five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than animal proteins.

In its paper The Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030 Report, the thinktank argues that instead animal agriculture will be replaced by a ‘food-as-software’ model – with foods engineered by scientists at molecular levels and uploaded to databases, accessible by food designers all over the world. Precision fermentation will not only offer a better distributed, localised food-production system that is more stable – it will also be shielded from volume and price volatility. Current factors that shape food production today, such as geography, seasonality, weather, drought, disease and other natural, economic and political factors are redundant when food production becomes a matter of accessing a database.

RethinkX says the costs of precision fermentation will continue to drop, eventually making this type of food production cheaper than animal derived foods. The cost of modern foods and other precision

fermentation products will be at least 50% and as much as 80% lower than the animal products they replace, which will translate into substantially lower prices and increased disposable incomes for consumers. The report notes that the cost of production has fallen significantly; in 2000, precision fermentation cost US$1m/kg compared to US$100/kg today.

Production volumes of the US beef and dairy industries and their suppliers will decline by more than 50% by 2030 according to RethinkX, and nearly 90% by 2035. This will lead to a collapse in farmland values by 40 to 80%, depending on alternative uses, amenity value and policy choices

The development will also benefit the environment. RethinkX estimates 60% of the land currently used for livestock and feed production in the US will be freed for other uses by 2035. Greenhouse gas emissions from cattle will drop by 60% by 2030 with net emissions as a whole from the sector declining by 45% by 2030. Major exporters of animal products, including the US, Brazil and the EU are expected to lose their geopolitical leverage over countries that are dependent on these imports. 

Industry stakeholders have had mixed responses to the report’s findings; some called the transition predicted ‘far from inevitable’ and said much will also depend on infrastructure, purchasing power, and crop availability. RethinkX cofounder Janie Arbib said while the report consisted of projections, the thinktank believed that its framework, methodology and findings are more accurate than projections produced by linear models, that lock in expensive, obsolete or uncompetitive assets.

The National Milk Producers Federation said the report’s authors were ‘living in a vegan fantasyland’, questioning the timeline of the transformation and calling the report “a millstone around the neck of the fake-foods lobby.” Consultant Jack Bobo who works at the intersection of food and technology said precision fermentation was potentially disruptive, but a collapse of the US dairy and cattle industry in the short timespan suggested in the report was “incredibly unlikely.”

Adoption of precision fermentation will ultimately be driven by consumers, influenced by the ability of technologies to deliver on taste and cost. However, concerns about “Big Food” which could be leading these changes, and will leave traditional producers and their communities in the dust may also slow any transformation.