Keith Woodford discusses agri-food disruption risks from synthetic food, seeing New Zealand product futures based on what high-end consumers want, rather than what we produce

By Keith Woodford*

It has become fashionable for agri-food commentators to talk of disruptive change. In particular, in recent months there has been much talk about industry disruption that will supposedly occur from synthetic food, with much of that grown in a laboratory. 

Until now, I have steered clear of discussing synthetic food, despite often being asked my opinion. But now, I have decided to venture forth.

The simple answer is that synthetic food does not need to be a big concern for New Zealand farmers. The important proviso is that New Zealand farmers, and the associated value chains connecting through to markets, need to focus on consumers who will pay premium prices for products that are the ‘real McCoy’.

One of my international clients suggested to me last year that food markets are going to bifurcate, with some markets being all about quality and others being all about cost.  The danger is in getting caught in no-man’s land in the middle.  I have thought a lot about that comment, and think it has merit.

In the main, synthetic foods will prosper based on competitive costing. Real food will struggle to compete if cost is its only advantage. 

Some of the comments I read about laboratory-grown foods (the so-called franken-foods) are off the mark. It is not possible to produce food without an energy source.

All food comes originally from photosynthetically-produced plants for which the energy comes from a wonderful source of nuclear combustion we call ‘the sun’. If that food is to be produced in a laboratory, then it is going to need its own energy inputs, which too will come originally from the sun, perhaps transformed into electricity or some other form of energy along the way.  

I read recently a claim by one commentator that food of the future might even be calorie-free. I don’t think that is likely! 

The human digestion system is not designed for calorie-free food. There are some exceptions which can be tolerated, such as artificial sweeteners, but all have their issues.  If something is digestible, then it is going to have calories. And if it is not digestible, then it is going to cause lots of pain together with embarrassing outcomes.

I have little doubt that synthetic meat, albeit with its share of calories and protein, is going to find a place in the market. Synthetic meat could be made in the laboratory, but more likely will be grown in the field as normal plant material from various species, and then processed into a product that looks and tastes like a meat burger.

The key scientific challenges associated with plant-based synthetic meats have already been overcome, and it is just a case of scaling up to produce a cheap product. It will be biologically more efficient than producing animal-based meat.

One of the strong attributes of synthetic meats will be uniform quality. Protein-rich legumes are likely to be the main source of the protein.

We could one day also have artificial meat made from algae, which can grow prolifically if fed a diet of carbon dioxide, water and heat.   The carbon dioxide might be piped in from a coal-burning power station. With some clever work by the food technologists, the product should taste ‘okay’, so for those who are driven by cost, it could be the answer. 

All of the above raises interesting questions for our beef industry, for which the main market is American burgers. This NZ-sourced beef, much of it from old cows, is an industrial commodity. It is then mixed with higher-fat mince from American beef animals.

From a technical perspective, a beef/soy burger should do the trick just as well as the ‘real McCoy’.  And for those who are uncomfortable about soy, there are other plant options. Most sausages are already a mix of animal and plant material, and consumers don’t seem to object to that.

Finding high-priced markets for quality New Zealand beef is going to be a challenge. Despite the drum-beating that we hear about the so-called benefits of grass-fed beef, most of our key Asian markets are yet to decipher the messages we are sending.  Most discerning Asian consumers, particularly those who are wealthy, currently prefer a grain-fed animal, and preferably one that carries unsaturated intra-muscular fat (as in Wagyu), rather than saturated extra-muscular fat.

Synthetic meat is unlikely to provide much competition for lamb, which already has a premium-market position well above other products. Once again, the big markets lie in Asia.

As long as we focus on the consumers – largely Chinese and including more than 25 million Muslim Chinese – then our sheep meat industry can prosper.  But we do have to focus on the top-end consumer and not the commodity trade. Of course, that is always easier said than done. And if we don’t like the dominance of China as a sheep-meat market, then there is nowhere much else to go except the Middle East.

 Plant-based milks are already with us. Their market share is growing, fanned by increasing numbers of vegetarians, and in part linked to milk intolerance issues.  I am working with one group that is actively pursuing opportunities for manufacturing and exporting such products from New Zealand. Currently, the almond, oats and rice milks here in New Zealand are all imported, largely from Australia.

I have gone on record many times trying to alert the New Zealand dairy industry to the risks we face from milk containing A1 beta-casein. At last, the industry is awakening to the emerging issue, but many farmers are still oblivious of the need to convert to A2.

To a significant extent, it is these beta-casein issues that are opening the door for plant-based synthetic milks. From a dairy industry perspective, I have major concerns as to how that is now going to play out. 

The emerging franken-notion of milk grown in an artificial udder, constructed from stem cells, and supported in a laboratory environment, is far too many steps along the franken-food pathway for me to be comfortable. It may indeed be feasible in the not too distant future and it will be biologically efficient. There will be no greenhouse gases, no urine and no poo. But social acceptability will be another issue.

I sense that there are other disruptive consumer-led food trends that will be influential, but these will be back to diverse simpler foods and away from technology-led synthetic products.  In particular, I see increasing interest in gluten-free grains.

I am myself intolerant to gluten, which, like A1 beta-casein, contains opioid peptides (fragments) which can affect digestion. However, these opioid peptides from gluten are less strong than those found in A1 beta-casein.

Our modern wheats are much higher in gluten than traditional varieties, and the gluten certainly enhances the physical characteristics of wheat for bread-making and cakes.  However, for some of us this gluten upsets our digestive processes, and also fans diverse inflammatory conditions.

It is sometimes stated in the media that gluten sensitivities are largely in the mind. Regardless of whether or not this is true, there is an increasing demand for gluten-free products which require grains other than wheat and barley.  I expect this trend to continue, led by a combination of consumer-led behaviours and emerging science. It will create opportunities for those who wish to seize them.


*Keith Woodford is an independent consultant who holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University and Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University.  His articles are archived at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.