New Zealand farmers up against the tide of synthetic meat need to tell the natural story
OPINION: I was watching breakfast TV the other morning when the topic of synthetic meat came up.
Synthetic meat, also called cell-cultured meat, clean meat, vat meat, lab-grown meat and in vitro meat, is meat grown in cell cultures instead of inside animals. It is a form of cellular agriculture.
In part due to technical challenges associated with scaling and cost-reduction, cultured meat has not yet been commercialised. However, production costs have dropped from $300,000 a kilogram to just $12/kg. But it has yet to be seen whether consumers will accept cultured meat as meat.
On the telly, Dr Rosie Bosworth called it "clean meat". Under the microscope it is identical to real meat, she said. It is not synthetic; there are no hormones, antibiotics or faecal matter.
A small swab of animal DNA is put into a soupy nutrient broth which enables it to grow and proliferate into portions of meat. Once at an edible size it is attached to a "scaffold" which helps it take on the form of a real lifelike piece of meat, be it steak, chicken breast or mince.
This redefines the playing field for farmers.
Should they be worried? Yes, they should be, she said. Particularly those farmers in the commodity sector who are selling low value produce or commodity meat. This is a game changer particularly when the prices come down and undercut them.
When faced with two options what option would you choose, particularly as a millennial consumer?
Raising and feeding an animal uses a large amount of resources for a small portion of meat. On the other hand, clean meat does not require slaughter, antibiotics or hormones, feed, water or land use.
There are many benefits of lab grown meat, Bosworth said. Long shelf life because there are none of the associated germs, pathogens and faecal matter associated with slaughterhouses that can contaminate meat. It can be grown in urban centres in brewery type situations. There is less disease, less hormones - the benefits are endless.
TV1 ran a poll asking if people would eat synthetic meat and 90 per cent said no.
Is this a barrier? Absolutely, Bosworth said.
A couple of things are at play here. It's called synthetic meat, but there needs to be education on what this is and what it isn't. It isn't synthetic meat, it is clean meat. It is DNA identical. New Zealand's population is used to pastorally raised meat and has a baby boomer generation that is really attached to the provenance of its food. But there is this upcoming millennial market offshore that is not used to NZ's premium products - these are the consumers that will be commanding clean meat. And what about fast food outlets? They will be starting to use this in their products.
So, what do I think?
I side with Southland farmer columnist Peter McDonald who believes that clean meat will become a reality for many millions worldwide; it has to. Increasing the supply of traditional proteins to satisfy the demand of an ever-growing middle class will not be feasible. Synthetic based proteins will fill the space that traditional biological animal systems cannot. Environmental proteins with low energy components will feed the masses and our traditional biological systems of growing meat will not compete on unit cost with an industrial system.
So, are synthetic proteins a threat to New Zealand's farms and economy? Probably. So, what should we do?
There are a couple of options.
One option is to ignore it and hope it will go away. After all, our wool industry collectively pulled back on industry investment at the same time as synthetic fibres started to flourish. We had the opportunity to position wool above synthetics but instead we let our wool story fall away. The fantastic attributes of wool have been largely forgotten by a generation of consumers.
Or secondly, we could be proactive, identify the threat and see it as an opportunity to elevate our own key attributes as a country to selective markets. Market our protein story aggressively to wealthy consumers globally. Differentiating ourselves and then securing that elite position is necessary. We cannot afford to meekly watch this unfold without firing a shot.
The Government must start bringing our relevant industries together to jointly map out an overarching programme to future-proof our way of life for the foreseeable future. In a nutshell, we must protect our own position.