It’s time to get ready for alternative proteins

Christopher Rosin and Hugh Campbell*

The history of agriculture is littered with technological big bang moments that have changed the trajectory of entire industries and countries.

Some like mechanization, and the arrival of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, have transformed economic and technical agricultural systems. Others have involved substitute commodities such as artificial flavourings, chemical dyes or synthetic fibers to replace wool that have threatened the existence of entire agricultural sectors, including New Zealand.

The next big disruption is alternative proteins. They promise to usher in a brave new world of environmentally friendly and animal-friendly proteins, produced by microbes in industrial vats or cell division in laboratories.

Proponents argue that alternative proteins offer a solution to many of the world’s environmental and social problems.

In particular, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health included non-animal proteins as part of a sustainable diet for a stressed planet, making a significant contribution to mitigating climate change.

Most academic publications reflect this optimism about promising science. They focus on technological advancement and solutions that require more investment of time and funding. In this version of the future, we can take our beef (equivalent) and eat it too.

But what does a shift to alternative proteins mean for agricultural systems and landscapes in countries where animal protein production sectors are an important element of rural economies?

For some critics, questions remain about who benefits, who is replaced out of existence, who captures the value, and who is left behind?

Shaping the future

These questions are particularly important for New Zealand, where agricultural sectors generate 80% of export earnings. By competing with the traditional agricultural sector, alternative proteins can change the fortunes of entire sectors and regions.

As part of the Protein Futures NZ project (funded through Our Land and Water National Science Challenge), we used economic modeling to investigate the impacts of alternative proteins on the primary sector and regional land use in New Zealand.

The first step involved finding credible growth projections for alternative protein production worldwide. Because most are not yet produced on a commercial scale, expectations of their potential and impacts vary significantly.

This uncertainty is evident in the various predictions of primary sector experts. Their assessments range from expecting minimal competition for existing agricultural sectors to foreseeing the complete replacement of traditional animal protein in New Zealand.

We turned to market assessments conducted by management consulting groups to model what might happen. These pointed to a range of potential growth for alternative proteins that we captured in four scenarios projected out to 2050.

The first of the scenarios used current growth trajectories for different forms of alternative protein (vegetable protein, precision fermentation of protein ingredients and cellular meat) to 2050. This provided a baseline for comparison .

In this first scenario, growth in global demand for protein exceeded any increase from alternative sources. Everyone benefits from the growing global demand for protein.

The other three scenarios imagined what would happen to New Zealand’s meat and dairy sectors if there was significant growth in one or more of the alternative protein types.

Our modeling suggested that the different alternative proteins would have a mixed impact on the New Zealand agricultural sector. The dairy sector would be particularly sensitive to developments in precision fermentation that produce direct substitutes for casein and whey protein. Sheep numbers decreased in scenarios two, three and four, while alternative proteins had an inconsistent impact on beef.

Broadly speaking, our modeling showed that any significant growth in one or more alternative proteins would result in fewer animals and more plants in New Zealand.

Despite the negative impacts on the meat and dairy sectors, the modeling projected relatively moderate overall economic impacts for New Zealand. Increased production of alternative proteins also showed clear environmental benefits, including lower greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s time to get ready for alternative proteins

The conclusions of the project provide much food for thought. At the very least, artificial proteins will change the world market for some important export sectors.

Our research indicates the need for policy that prepares the primary sector for changing protein markets and governing bodies for changing land use.

We also make the following observations:

The appeal of alternative proteins lies in their reduced environmental impacts and increased animal welfare. For New Zealand to be competitive in these sectors, producers must emphasize production practices that mitigate impacts on climate, water, soils, biodiversity and animal welfare.

There are opportunities to switch production to plant proteins or plant products that supply the nutrients, usually on a liquid basis, that feed the microbes in the precision fermentation and the cells of the cellular meat.

New Zealand can also benefit from investment in technologies that harness renewable energy to produce protein.

History tells us that substitutes for traditional agricultural products can significantly alter the viability of previously profitable commodities.

Alternative proteins are very likely to lead to significant land use changes along with better outcomes for some key environmental and welfare factors. Now is the time to develop policies that enable a resilient response to this impact.

The authors would like to acknowledge the rest of the Protein Futures research team: Jon Manhire, Rob Burton, Stuart Ford, Klaus Mittenzwei, John Reid, Miranda Mirosa, John Saunders, Simon Barber, Sarah OConnell, Kate Tomlinson, Ann Moriarty, Angus Sinclair Thompson. and Brent Paehua. We also thank the industry experts who contributed to the interviews.

*Christopher Rosin, Senior Lecturer in Political Ecology, University of Lincoln, New Zealand and Hugh Campbell, Professor of Sociology, Gender Studies and Criminology, University of Otago.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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