Future Foods

By Robert Hickson 26/02/2013

Will farm livestock become endangered species? Social, economic and environmental drivers are converging to not only look at producing food more efficiently and sustainably, but are also stimulating new ways to produce meat or remove the need for it altogether. Such changes, if successful, could have substantial effects on New Zealand’s agricultural and economic landscapes.

Lab-grown meat has been worked on for a while, and convergence with other technologies is starting. Modern Meadow  is aiming to print meat. In vitro production of meat still has a long way to go, technically, economically and socially. There is scepticism that it will become economically viable and sufficiently scaleable. Or even appeal to consumers. But would it really be that different from currently available mechanically extracted meat products , insects or some of the delights whipped up by molecular gastronomists?

Will our culinary future need meat? Bloomberg BusinessWeek  notes the emergence of start-ups looking at plant proteins to replace meat and egg products. This goes way beyond that culinary favourite of yore – textured vegetable protein What is particularly noteworthy about these developments is that some of the key backers are VCs who have also focused on clean technologies. Some of them are hoping that the food companies will give quicker returns on investments.

Like the “food pills” of yesteryear these new technologies may not come to pass, but they warrant careful consideration because of their potential to disrupt traditional practices. If a good cheap substitute for milk powder is created what effect will that have on our milk producers? A premium price for real milk or a quaint cottage industry?

Alongside vertical farming and technologies to enhance food safety these developments signal a higher tech approach to food production, and increasing emphasis on production practices, that New Zealand may not be sufficiently prepared for.

 The Future Food project undertaken by ESR, Plant & Food Research, and others, considered the implications of some new technologies and social factors on food production here, but didn’t consider the full range of technological innovation occurring in the food sector. 

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