Does NZ win or lose as world agriculture gets remade for a planet of 10b?
Scary things are coming down the road for New Zealand's food industry. Like Glyph "molecular" whiskey.
Raymond McCauley, chair of biotechnology at Silicon Valley's Singularity University, already has his audience at Grow 2019 – a ministry-backed futurist conference – gripped by what is brewing elsewhere.
World agriculture is about to be remade, he warns. It is the Green Revolution 2.0 – cracking the problem of how to feed a planet that is going to be home to about 10 billion people by 2050 without completely trashing it in the process.
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McCauley says the numbers are brutal. By mid-century, there will be an extra 2.3 billion mouths to feed. And a much larger proportion of the world will be middle-class, with middle-class dietary expectations, too.
"We'll need to grow as much food in the next 30 years as we have grown in our entire recorded history."
So the pressure will be on. McCauley says there simply won't be any choice but to turn to science – advances like lab-cultured meat, factory hydroponics and genetic engineering. Human food production will have to be reinvented from the ground up.
What does that mean for New Zealand and its pastoral farming? McCauley pauses a moment to rake his hands through his rock dude hair.
Well, the country will simply get run over in any commodity market, he replies. And it better watch out even as an exporter of top-end premium products.
The New Zealand game plan – the one promoted by national advisory groups like the newly-formed Primary Growth Council – might be to feed the global 1 per cent. Bougie food for bougie people.
The reasoning is that even if the rest of the world turns to artificial meat and fake milk, there will still be a sizeable market for our grass-fed lamb, air-freighted crayfish and off-season cherries and avocados.
But McCauley says the trouble is biotech should get good enough to start mimicking luxury delicacies too. And for a fraction of the price and environmental impact.
Take his example of Glyph whiskey, synthesised by San Francisco start-up, Endless West. Its approach is shockingly simple.
Last year it used the latest tech to pull apart a fine malt at the molecular level, then found matching sugars, esters and acids to reconstruct it, note for note, when mixed with pure grain alcohol in the laboratory.
"They analysed in extensive detail 30-year-old sherry barrel-aged whiskey which sells for US$2000 to US$3000 a bottle. And overnight, they can make a 30-year-old sherry barrel-aged whiskey that they can sell for 50 bucks a bottle."
Glyph is now on sale. And McCauley says the worst people are saying about the replica is it is "surprisingly good".
It is an illustration of the economics of biotech, McCauley says. The producers of real food need to get worried because the artificial stuff is going to be on the same rapidly-falling price curve shared by all modern technologies. Once it starts to happen, it will happen fast.
Artificial meat is already arriving as a competitor in the marketplace, he says. Last year, Air New Zealand was labelled unpatriotic after it added burgers by California's Impossible Foods to its business class menu.
Impossible's big thing is that its plant-based meat has heme protein – grown by a genetically-modified (GM) fermentation process – to give its burgers a bit of the taste and ooze of blood.
McCauley has tried them. Impossible's first iteration was fairly 'meh', he says.
"As a Texan boy, I like my beef, I like my steak. The 1.0, you'd maybe want to get it medium well-done. You didn't want to let it get cold."
But the new 2.0 version is a significant improvement. "And that's the thing with technology. It always gets better, faster, cheaper. So that Impossible burger? The last one you had is always the worst one they'll ever make."
McCauley lets it sink in. Once you are on this tech curve, you are playing a different game.
Of course, he says, the basic technology of the Impossible burger – reprocessed soy or pea protein to create a vegan fast food option – has been around for years.
But the way the heme is produced by a gene spliced into a strain of yeast and fermented in a vat is a glimpse of the next step towards the age of "cellular agriculture".
McCauley says genetic engineering is advancing to the point where microbes can be tuned to synthesise any food molecule you want. Whatever makes blue cheese, macadamia nuts, or cocoa, taste special can be isolated and brewed in industrial quantities. For peanuts.
Designer fermentation is then going to be paired with actual laboratory meat culture. Forget farming. Just collect some starter cells from a cow or pig, float them in a tray of nutrients, come back and rake off the living sheets of muscle tissue.
It sounds gross, McCauley agrees. "A lab burger – basically it's a ground-up tumour."
And there are going to be technical hurdles. To scale up production – turn the cell slurries into steak-like lumps – the cultures will need circulation systems. "There has to be vasculature."
But a solution may be to etch those. "We could do that using laser sintering or 3D printing."
If there is a profit to be made, there will be an answer.
And when the process is cracked, you will have real meat with the only farming input being the sugar water feed, and perhaps some fermented specialty flavourings, McCauley says. No grass to grow, no land to tend, no actual animals involved.
The price per kilo will fall to cents, and suppliers will be able to boast they are supplying protein with a near zero environmental footprint.
McCauley says you might think manufactured meat must stop at the commodity products. But as Glyph shows, nothing is preventing biotechnology stealing all the flavour and texture secrets of generations of patient farming.
And the start-ups will be doing things Kiwi producers can't yet imagine. Like why not woolly mammoth steaks?
McCauley says they found those frozen carcasses buried in the permafrost. Scrape off a few cells. Begin a culture. He can imagine the sales pitch.
"It's got to be delicious as the first animal eaten to extinction by the human race. And if you want the perfect Paleo diet … ."
Yup. What is New Zealand's agricultural strategy going to be given this possible future?
SMALL ENOUGH TO GET SIDE-SWIPED
Grow 2019, held at Christchurch's Horncastle Arena in April, was a conference meant to get farmers and exporters thinking.
Organiser Kaila Colbin, of Boma NZ – who also runs TEDx events and represents the Singularity University – says some things, like the artificial meat threat, might feel old news, having been talked about for a number of years.
But now they are close to becoming market realities. And the fact the conference was sponsored by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is a sign that disruption is expected.
New Zealand is both small enough to hope to be a pioneer of those changes, yet also small enough to get side-swiped by changes it didn't see coming. So antennae are twitching.
For the 600 attendees, McCauley's opening keynote address was probably a little far over the horizon to get them too worried. It is hard to imagine the reinvention of world food production will happen quite that fast.
However other presentations did begin to paint a picture of how a technological convergence – and social transformation – will impact on current farming and food supply.
A strand of the conference the many dairy farmers and fruit growers could relate to was galloping automation. A poll of the floor showed that labour issues were their biggest general concern.
US biohacker Tim Cannon – famed for the many different sensors he has implanted under his own skin – kicked off a session, talking about how he is now taking the same technology to market as embedded veterinarian devices for farm stock.
"Tested first on humans," as Cannon quips, these microchip neck implants monitor a cow's vital signs, including heart rate, temperature, oxygen saturation and head position.
The last one tells the farmer whether a herd is active and eating normally, says Cannon. So the health of stock can be monitored remotely, a sick animal picked out immediately.
Two Australian beef producers are doing trials now. Cannon says the devices have a three-year power supply even though the cattle are slaughtered after 18 months. That way an implant can be recovered and used twice, keeping the unit cost down to an acceptable $5 to $10 an animal.
A market-ready innovation. And New Zealand might have something even smarter in this line under development by Auckland start-up Halter.
On its Morrinsville farm, Halter is testing a solar-powered collar for dairy cows. It has the same health sensors and also a GPS tracking and speaker system to control a cow's movements in a field.
Harry She, Halter's head of data science, says a vibrating signal conditions the cow, training it to move on to a new patch of ground.
Rather than the farmer having to walk around behind a herd, opening gates and shifting electric fences, the day's movements can be simply programmed remotely. A large part of the job can be entirely automated.
Throwaway devices and clever software can save on much of traditional farm labour. And New Zealand, as an agricultural innovator, can even hope to drive this kind of advance. It is another potential export earner.
Tauranga orchardist Steven Saunders told of how he set up Robotics Plus and now – having signed global tie-ups with Japan's Yamaha and some of the US's largest growers – his automated apple packing system is being taken to the world.
But information technology is not just going to let farmers become more efficient. It is going to make differences across the whole food supply chain.
Really want to save the world, asks Amy Keller, co-founder of California's PurePlus+? Start doing something about the massive amount of wastage in the current system.
Keller says for every bag of fruit and vegetables brought home from the supermarket, another half bag has been lost either as spoilage during the harvesting process, or later rejected by the retailer. All the bent carrots and over-ripe bananas nobody wants.
Answering McCauley's point, "In reality, we produce enough food to feed 10b people," she says. The tech challenge is to eliminate this loss of what is already being grown.
It turns out PurePlus+ wants to do its bit by building a business "upcycling" unwanted produce into a range of dried micronutrient powders.
A similar "save the world" pitch is made by Abi Ramanan, chief executive of ImpactVision. Again she points out that a third of food production is wasted.
Drill down and what the San Francisco start-up is actually selling is hyperspectral scanning – an expensive technology suddenly become cheap enough to do things like measure the moisture content, and hence ripening time, of individual avocados as they roll down the packing line.
Farmers appreciate efficiency. The Grow 2019 audience was finding it easy to understand riding this aspect of a coming agri-tech curve.
On my table, I found myself sat alongside former 1990s Finance Minister Ruth Richardson. She chuntered approvingly at these applications of science to primary production.
However her mood became less happy when the conference turned to social issues like alternative farming and the GM debate.
New Zealand of course built much of its national identity in the 1990s on things like being anti-nuclear and anti-genetic modification.
That could clearly be a problem if McCauley is right that genetic tinkering is going to be one of the base technologies for a remake of the world's food supply. Will New Zealand let itself go there?
A somewhat limp debate ensued in a conference session on GM, showing the sides are still far apart.
Former Federated Farmers president, South Canterbury's William Rolleston, was pro. The Koanga Institute's Kay Baxter – a firm believer in regenerative farming and heritage seeds – was con. From her seat, Richardson harrumphed the market would be the one to decide.
However, along with talks from North Canterbury's Penny Clark-Hall, who runs a social licence consultancy, and Christchurch's Bailey Perryman, a promoter of urban farming co-operatives, it was clear the next stage of New Zealand primary production will have to take the public with it.
Clark-Hall says in an increasingly social media-connected world, popular opinion already bears heavily on farm practice. Just witness dirty dairying, animal cruelty, and the other familiar campaigns.
So when talking future NZ Inc strategies, what the nation will wear by way of innovation is also something the farming community is going to have to take into account, she says. Another of the scary things coming down the road.
OUR USUAL ACHILLES' HEEL
Change is coming at Kiwi farmers from every direction. That was the conference's basic message.
Perhaps the most dizzy-paced talk of all was from Melissa Clark-Reynolds, Kiwi futurologist and a director of Beef+Lamb NZ.
Clark-Reynolds says New Zealand will do its usual thing of getting focused on how technology will affect farm production. But what it should pay attention to – where it should actually invest some R&D dollars – is in understanding how farming business models are also being reinvented.
She says the winners of the game will be those who can find ways to market direct to their customers, "from grower to plate", cutting out the middle.
Take what is happening right now in vertical farming – the move to warehouse-scale hydroponics using cheap LED lighting.
Clark-Reynolds says many are rushing to invest. But the successes don't look like what you might expect. "Only 20 per cent of the vertical farms industry is making money in the US."
The mistake is building a swish new purpose-designed hangar on an industrial estate – the obvious start-up business plan. The smart operators are instead taking over unwanted premises in rough downtown city areas.
"You combine the very cheap rent of crappy old office buildings with solar power on the roof, and your inputs into your business model are almost zero," Clark-Reynolds says.
The food is then grown to order for local restaurants, specialty shops, and other top-paying customers. Like farmers' markets, it is a return to personal relationships between grower and buyer.
"So I grow that baby radicchio, some basil garnish, some fennel leaves, and whatever it is that's needed. It's cut, put in a wheelbarrow and walked around the corner."
It is a return to market garden thinking. But with high-tech lights and minimal running costs. And every city in the world can start to grow its greens this way. No need to air-freight your herbs from New Zealand.
Clark-Reynolds says it is so easy to miss how the world will in fact reinvent itself. She believes Impossible Foods' real secret – what should frighten Kiwi meat producers – is the way its business model is about selling direct to restaurants and supermarket chains.
"In the meat industry, we have a minimum of 12 steps between a farmer and a consumer. And everyone along that chain gets their piece of the profit. The thing that is scary [is] not that it's plant-based, but that its supply chain is fundamentally way more efficient."
Plucking another example of how it is customer control that will be everything, Clark-Reynolds says consider what Amazon is doing with artificial intelligence.
In New York, it can now deliver supermarket shopping inside 20 minutes – a convenience that people will pay a premium for. And it does this by predicting what you will want.
"They have so much data about you that they know by your address what you're going to buy. They stack up the trucks at 3am, do the 40-minute drive into Manhattan, and park around the corner. So when you order, they've pretty much got it boxed up."
This is the kind of marketing cleverness against which Kiwi producers are going to have to compete.
Clark-Reynolds says there will still be plenty of room for New Zealand's farm-grown foods. It is hard to imagine lab culture or hydroponics matching the nutritional density and flavour of real produce.
However simply growing a cheaper, better, lamb rack or nectarine won't be enough. New Zealand has to match the world in the delivery of its products – its wraparound service – to reach those wealthy, but picky, 1 per centers.
It has to become expert in the online story-telling, the direct relationships, which will also be part of any agri-revolution.
Personally, Clark-Reynolds thinks that New Zealand will have a harder time switching up its marketing culture. That is a bigger deal than competition from vertical farming or animal-free meat.
So indeed, more than enough to worry about. Grow 2019 concluded with plenty of thoughtful and somewhat exhausted faces in the departing crowd.