This is The Spoon’s weekly Future Food newsletter.
Most working in the alt protein space are familiar with research showing that traditional animal agriculture is both bad for the planet and highly un-sustainable as the primary source of calories if we plan to feed 10 billion people on this planet by the year 2050.
Over the past decade, this realization — along with a growing consumer appetite for better tasting plant-forward food and huge leaps forward in food science and biotech — has resulted in massive interest on the part of investors in the alt-protein space.
In spite of the evidence, the entrenched incumbents in traditional agriculture have aggressively pushed back against the growing interest in alt-ag alternatives. For example, the Dairy Association and Cattlemen’s Associations have made significant efforts to counter the fairly substantial body of research that links animal agriculture to higher levels of greenhouse gases. They’ve also underwritten research to highlight consumer confusion about new meat alternatives, hired nutritionists to create counter-narratives about the health benefits of plant-based food, and fought against plant-based alternatives labeling their products as “meat” and “milk.”
This pushback is not a hard sell to the average small- and medium-sized farmer, who knows they will make less money if consumers eat less meat. Unless, of course, these farmers radically change the products they are selling.
Easier said than done. For most people, transitioning to a completely new career or starting a brand-new business is challenging, to say the least. For a farmer, transitioning away from animal agriculture is like doing both at the same time. Throw in other complicating factors, such as family legacies, property rights and whole lot more considerations, and you see why most livestock farmers would rather just keep doing what they’re doing, which is to sell traditional meat.
The reality is, to get more livestock farmers to convert their legacy farms towards plant-based proteins or cellular agriculture, there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done and resources to be committed, and even then many farmers will choose not to transition.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and some organizations are already endeavoring to help farmers make the switch.
On the plant-based side, Refarm’d and Transfarmation are programs that support farmers converting their existing livestock farms into plant-based products. Refarm’d provides resources to help dairy farmers start growing ingredients for plant-based milks such as almond or oat milk. Transfarmation helps farmers shift to growing high-value crops like hemp, and by helping them apply for grants to support the transition.
There aren’t currently any such programs for cell-ag, in part because the market for cell-cultivated meat is so nascent and also because cellular agriculture is a much bigger departure from what is traditionally considered farming.
What would a cell-ag farmer’s life look like? One idea, as outlined by Future Meat‘s Chief Science Officer Yaakov Nahmias, would be a hybrid approach. Existing livestock farmers would invest in bioreactors and other cultivated meat production and produce both animal meat and meat made in bioreactors.
From there, hybrid farmers would be able to compare the amount of time and resources it takes to create each product. If the prognosticators around cellular agriculture are right, cell-cultured meat will become way more efficient from a resource input-to-calorie output perspective, which should mean — beyond the up front capital and retraining costs — cell-cultured meat production should be much cheaper. Add in how much faster it is to create animal cells using cellular agriculture, and the choice may be clear: cell-cultured meat production could be a much more sustainable and competitive business in the long term than traditional farming.
It’s clear converting to plant-based or cellular agriculture future (or both) on the part of farmers will take lots of convincing and lots of resources. Lots of resources usually means government involvement, in the form of new programs, direct subsidies or tax incentives.
While the US government supports animal agriculture with billions in direct subsidies each year, there’s little to no financial support given towards building a more sustainable farmer future. That’s a shame since American meat and dairy farmer will face increasing competition from overseas producers of plant-forward, fermented and cell-cultured food products. Nation-states like Singapore and Israel, which have significantly less farmland than the US, are already betting on future food innovation as a way to become much more, if not entirely, self-sufficient for food, and it won’t be long before other countries (many of them customers of U.S. animal agriculture) take their cues from these early pioneers.
While some of the Green New Deal type legislation-makers did talk of lower-carbon footprint farming as one of the primary goals, much of the focus was on crop farms and not livestock farmers. This is partially due to the massive political influence the cattle and dairy farmer lobbies have in U.S. politics, but also because creating models for lower-carbon outputs for crops is a big enough lift in itself.
While it’s not clear what the Biden administration is thinking around cell-cultured meat production, the Biden campaign made clear ramping up the bio-manufacturing industry was one of their strategic priorities, and specifically made it part of their rural support plan outlined during the campaign.
While cultivated meat-based infrastructure investment might not be the first priority in the coming infrastructure or farm bills in the next couple years, that doesn’t mean Biden and congress can’t push for programs to begin underwrite these future transitions and to also look for creative solutions that could underpin the future of farming. Last year, the UK government announced a program aimed at investing in completely new technologies and business models around agriculture. This type of program is just one potential model for the US government as a way to begin laying the foundation for a way for livestock farmers to prepare for a post animal agriculture future.
Future Food News Round-Up
Apeel Unites Avocado Suppliers Through an Expanded Network Fighting Food Waste – Apeel Sciences announced today that more than 20 leading suppliers from the global avocado industry have joined its network in an effort to keep more food out of landfills.
MeliBio Raises a Sweet $850,000 Pre-Seed Round for Bee-Less Honey – MeliBio, a startup that makes real honey without the need for bees, announced today that it has raised an $850,000 pre-seed round of funding.
TurtleTree Scientific Partners With JSBiosciences to Develop Cell Culture Media at Commercial Scale – TurtleTree Scientific, the B2B arm of cellular ag company TurtleTree Labs, announced a new partnership with JSBiosciences to collaborate on the development of cell culture media.
Nemi Makes Sustainable Snacks From Drought-Tolerant Cactus – Chicago-based company called Nemi is using cactus as its star ingredient to make sustainable snack foods
by Michael Wolf