Business Maverick


Food disruption: Our time of eating meat could be drawing to a close

Food disruption: Our time of eating meat could be drawing to a close
A Beyond Meat plant-based burger that looks and tastes like ground beef on display at the Anuga fair in Cologne, Germany, 7 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sascha Steinbach)

A monumental shift in the way that we produce and consume food, in particular protein, is essential if the Earth is to avoid a climate catastrophe. Scientists, it seems, are well on their way to a solution, but it could spell the end of the beef industry.

By 2050 the Earth will be supporting 10 billion people and its resources will be stretched to breaking point. If humans carry on with business as usual – which is to believe that the planet’s resources are infinite – demand for beef, just beef alone, will increase 95% by 2050 according to research from the World Resources Institute.

Livestock farming accounts for 14.5% of the 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by agriculture, forestry and land use at present. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if farming animals was an efficient process for creating protein, but it’s not. 

Beef, in particular, is one of the least efficient processors from a “feed input to food output” perspective.

Cows consume 100 calories for every one calorie of protein returned,” Schroders global equity analyst Isabella Hervey-Bathurst told media at an investment conference in London. “It’s a protein sink.”

Even chicken – the most efficient source of meat – only converts about 20% of gross feed energy into animal protein, she says.

This is unsustainable and unless this trend for increased livestock production and consumption is significantly decreased, agriculture will use up the whole world’s carbon “budget” by 2050.

Concern about the carbon impact of such protein production is exacerbated by the impact of extreme weather on farmland. Farming also faces growing physical risks driven by climate change. While farmers try to extract ever greater yields from farming to feed the growing population, they are facing increasing headwinds: more extreme weather, droughts, lower water availability and the negative impact of rising temperatures on animal health.

Research from Schroders suggests that to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C as per the Paris Agreement would require GHG reduction of 80% coupled with annual investment in new technologies of $2-trillion per annum.

This is both a risk and opportunity for investors. In the food industry, new technologies are emerging that could have positive implications for global warming and potentially dire implications for the meat and dairy industries.

Innovation in food is expanding and advancing the range of animal-free proteins available, says Hervey-Bathurst. 

US-based Memphis Meats is using cell culture technology to grow “real meat” in its labs. Its protein products consume 1% of the land and 1% of the water that traditionally-produced meat does. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which exploded into public consciousness in 2019, are using advanced plant-based protein technology to isolate components from the plant world which can recreate the taste and texture of meat.

While many such companies are yet to commercialise, the scale of their cost reductions and the speed of their technological development suggests widespread adoption may not be far away.

If the market for plant-based protein grows in the same way that plant-based milk has, says Hervey-Bathurst, it could be a $140-billion market in 10 years, from $14-billion today.

This sounds impossible, but new research supports these claims and suggests that scientists are on the brink of huge disruption of the traditional protein supply chain.

This is according to Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030, a report produced by RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyses and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.

According to the report, the cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar.

Proteins will also be more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be of higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.

The researchers believe this disruption will have a dramatic effect on industrial animal farming. In their central case, they estimate that by 2030 the market by volume for ground beef will have shrunk by 70%, the steak market by 30%, and the dairy market by almost 90%.

Similarly, the market by volume for other cow products such as leather and collagen is likely to have declined by more than 90%. Crop farming volumes, such as soy, corn, and alfalfa, will fall by more than 50% as the demand for feedstock falls.

If this happens, by 2030, the number of cows in the US alone will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry could be bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers that supply feedstock and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.

How could this be possible?

Rapid advances in precision biology have allowed scientists to make huge strides in precision fermentation, a process that allows them to program micro-organisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule.

Anyone who has eaten Quorn, a range of chicken and mince substitutes available in SA supermarkets will know this. All Quorn foods contain mycoprotein as an ingredient, which is derived from a mushroom fungus and is grown by fermentation.

This means the current industrialised, animal-agriculture system could be replaced with a food-as-software model, where foods are engineered by scientists at a molecular level and uploaded to databases that can be accessed by food designers anywhere in the world.

This, the researchers suggest, could result in a far more distributed, localised food-production system. The new production system will be shielded from volume and price volatility caused by the vagaries of seasonality, weather, drought, disease and other natural, economic, and political factors.

The disruption of food and agriculture looks inevitable – future products will be cheaper and superior in every conceivable way – but, as is the case with the fossil-fuel industry, there are entrenched interests that could attempt to delay the change.

Policymakers, investors, businesses, and civil society as a whole have the power to slow down or speed up the adoption of these products.

RethinkX has made the report available to start the conversation and focus decision-makers’ attention on the potential scale, speed, and impact of the modern food disruption. BM


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