For the first time in human history, we might not need animals for food

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Credit: Compassion in World Farming

Are we about to see protein in a new light?

When humanity looks back on this period of time, will we remember this era as one of a new dawn of the unfettered imagination we showed when we first learned how to harness the power of agriculture somewhere on the fertile banks of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates 10,000 years ago?

We stand on the edge of a precipice where radical reinvention of our food systems is essential to our future survival.  Where we need to take an imaginative new look at how we provide the protein we need to not just 7 billion people, but soon to 10 billion people.

For almost 10,000 years our humanity’s protein strategy has been farming animals for meat-based protein.  Somewhere in Mesopotamia way back in the Stone Age, we probably started with goats, where this rich supply of protein nourished the very cradle of civilization. It enabled hunter-gatherers to settle in communities, giving rise to craftsmen, priests, soldiers and scribes; who in turn invented the wheel, the chariot and the ox-drawn plough. The business of farming animals for meat emerged into a world of just 1 million people and near-untapped resources.

We now live in a crowded world with shrinking resources and impending climate change.

Agriculture now occupies half the useable land surface of the planet. Much of that available land is used to produce crops for animals reared for human protein.  Factory farmed animals eat vast quantities of grain. And, in so doing, they waste most of the grain’s food value, in terms of calories and protein, in conversion to meat. In this way, we waste crops enough to feed an extra 4 billion people.

The truth is that today the majority of humanity’s protein comes from plants, whether that is from grain or rapidly growing new industries like plant-based dairy replacements.  As an example, the plant milk market is set to top US $16 billion in 2018, up from $7 billion in 2010.  According to Innova Market Insights, plant-powered growth is set to be one of the top trends of 2017.

Despite what we believe, research shows that meat provides just 18 per cent of our protein worldwide; dairy provides only a tenth. 

Yet, to produce what amounts to little more than a quarter of humanity’s protein, we use nearly 80 per cent of the world’s farmland to rear livestock.  There’s little room for growth to feed another 3 billion people. In land-use terms, expanding livestock isn’t really an option, unless we want to take down remaining forests, the lungs of the Earth.

Climate scientists warn that if, by the middle of the century, we carry on eating meat like we are, then our food alone could trigger catastrophic climate change.

So, what can we do? 

It’s time for a new and better paradigm between nature, technology and the food business. An approach in which we tap into nature’s knowledge through biomimetic design to secure the future of food.

Food companies are starting to see this writing on the wall; making plant-based burgers that bleed; and seeing protein as something more than just meat from animals. In the United States, the home of super-size-me portions of protein, one third of Americans are already giving up meat on a regular basis, a proportion that is growing rapidly. 

This eye-catching growth is attracting the attention of meat manufacturers, eager not to miss out on protein’s new dawn.

Companies like Tyson, the world’s second biggest meat company is investing $150 million in alternative proteins, including the plant-based Beyond Meat burger.  Cargill, another of the world’s largest meat manufacturers, have changed the name of their ‘Meat’ department to ‘Protein’, in recognition that the future of protein lies elsewhere.

Cargill has joined billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, in investing in ‘clean meat’ grown from stem-cells and with only a fraction of the land, water and climate impact associated with animal protein production.

Branson believes that, 30 years from now, “we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.

Advances in synthetic technology are at last beginning to be able to take advantage of biomimetic knowledge and replicate proteins which in previous decades we have failed to do because of the complexity of proteins.

SynBioBeta 2017 Investment Update shows that over $1billion was invested in synthetic biology in the previous 12 months. Crystal Market Research shows that the industry is expected to be around $26 billion by 2025. Not all of that is directed towards food. 

But we can already produce cow’s milk without needing the actual cow. We can produce eggs that haven’t been laid by chickens, and egg white from cell cultures.  We can produce vegan cheese from synthetically produced ‘real’ cow’s milk with zero animal involvement. The avian research project is looking at producing chicken and turkey meat without chicken and turkeys.

Cellular agriculture has the ability to design more nutritious foods with longer shelf life; meat with lower saturated fat, lactose-free milk, cholesterol free eggs. We can create new foods like algae butter.  We can help plants grow with less water or land and eliminate life-threatening bacteria in food before it hits the shelves. We can engineer microbes to improve vitamin levels in dairy foods not made from cows.

The availability of synthetic technology to you and I on a DIY basis is going to give a whole new meaning to ‘don’t play with your food’. Molecular gastronomy could eventually see the demise of factory farming.

After 10,000 years of doing things the same way, humanity’s love affair with steak and cheese from a cow, could soon be over. Bring it on

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