By: Rachel Stewart

Just when you think that BigAg can’t do denial any better than dairying’s proven impact on waterways, they come up with yet another pearler. Despite all the evidence, industry leaders don’t believe plant-based meat and synthetic milk is a risk to the industry.

Whether it’s wilful denial – like with the waterways – or just plain old-fashioned ignorance, who knows? Either way, they will need to make serious adjustments to their business model – and soon.

Last year I spoke to a herd of sleepy provincial Federated Farmers dinosaurs about this imminent threat. They laughed, mocked and dismissed me as the fool they honestly think I am.

Another fool, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Peter Gluckman, told the recent NZBIO conference that great strides were being made commercialising artificial milk and meat.

He thought most milk sold worldwide in “20 to 25 years” could be synthetic, though it might be “some time” before scientists could create a T-bone steak.

Gluckman also said synthetic milk was the biggest threat to New Zealand, because of the country’s reliance on its “liquid gold” dairy exports.

I disagree with Gluckman only in his timeframes. It will be happening well within the next decade. Based on some of the investors who are driving the tech – Leonardo DiCaprio, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Richard Branson, Bill Gates – it’s a solid bet.

They get that the food revolution is here, and that the public is increasingly seeing traditional agriculture as an enemy to a steadily warming planet.

And, really, what’s not to like? No more needless animal suffering, or nitrate-laden rivers, and an end to outsized agricultural emissions. Sounds like a winner to me.

The New Zealand public is still far from fully embracing the idea of a plant-based meat patty that looks and tastes exactly like meat.

The manly men say that they would rather go without than eat such a wretched thing. And maybe, if New Zealand does this right, they won’t have to.

Instead, they can pay through the nose to have an extremely niche meat patty, or steak, while also keeping their masculinity intact.

Synthetic milk will prevail much more quickly, and is well on the way to being accepted.

With a projected 9.7 billion humans on earth by 2050, this is an intelligent response to the planetary crisis of dwindling resources.

The World Bank says global agriculture contributes 18 per cent of global greenhouse gases – 40 per cent more than all global transport emissions combined, including planes, trucks, cars and shipping.

By all accounts synthetic milk tastes exactly like the real thing. The ingredients can also be fine-tuned to be lower in cholesterol or lactose-free; a marketing goldmine in today’s health-conscious society.

One of the things that will need work is training the media (like me) to stop using the word “synthetic”.

The guru on such matters is food strategist Dr Rosie Bosworth, who divides her time between Auckland and San Francisco – where much of the new food technology is taking place.

“It’s easy to see how our fixation with the idea that pasture-raised food products will always be superior has come about. New Zealand’s farming industry and media alike have an obsession with referring to these new forms of protein as ‘synthetic’, ‘fake’, ‘GMO’ or ‘lab-grown’ – in other words, less-than-palatable faux versions of NZ pasture-raised living animals.

“The upshot? Kiwis get the impression that these new foods aren’t natural or safe to eat, and thus are definitely not something the world – especially our key export markets – would ever want to eat. But rest assured, these new foods are natural and definitely not fake. They are just produced differently.”

And, whether we like it or not, what happens globally massively affects our little corner of the world. Which is why Fonterra’s recent comments to the National Business Review are worrying.

“Milk from cows provides a natural and complex mixture, of proteins, fats, minerals and other nutrients, which will be almost impossible to manufacture, so there will always be a global, growing market for dairy. We believe there’s a place for both markets but it’s clear that the natural, nutritional strength of dairy will be the premium nutrition of choice.”

Such hubris, such confidence, such delusion.

I imagine the whalers felt exactly like that, you know, before petroleum oils and machinery lubricants were found to be cheaper and more efficient than whale oil, and the well-established industry collapsed before their very eyes.

The future has a way of arriving whether you’re ready for it or not. There are undoubtedly some issues to work through, but BigAg needs to prepare New Zealand farmers for a tidal wave of technological change – rather than coddling them into believing it’s all under control.

Doing anything else is nothing short of negligent, and cruel.

Source: Bay of Plenty Times

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