An MNB reader sent along a fascinating study, produced by a think tank called RethinkX, suggesting that before long, "the current industrialized, animal-agriculture system will be replaced with a Food-as-Software model, where foods are engineered by scientists at a molecular level and uploaded to databases that can be accessed by food designers anywhere in the world. This will result in a far more distributed, localized food-production system that is more stable and resilient than the one it replaces."
The study goes on: "The new production system will be shielded from volume and price volatility due to the vagaries of seasonality, weather, drought, disease and other natural, economic, and political factors. Geography will no longer offer any competitive advantage. We will move from a centralized system dependent on scarce resources to a distributed system based on abundant resources."
But let's back up a minute. This is how ReThinkX frames the transition:
"We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago. This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics. The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety.
"This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.
"The impact of this disruption on industrial animal farming will be profound. By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.
"This is the result of rapid advances in precision biology that have allowed us to make huge strides in precision fermentation, a process that allows us to program microorganisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule.
"These advances are now being combined with an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software, in which individual molecules engineered by scientists are uploaded to databases – molecular cookbooks that food engineers anywhere in the world can use to design products in the same way that software developers design apps. This model ensures constant iteration so that products improve rapidly, with each version superior and cheaper than the last. It also ensures a production system that is completely decentralized and much more stable and resilient than industrial animal agriculture, with fermentation farms located in or close to towns and cities."
Here are some of the economic impacts sketched out in the report:
• "The cost of modern foods and other precision fermentation products will be at least 50% and as much as 80% lower than the animal products they replace, which will translate into substantially lower prices and increased disposable incomes."
• "At current prices, revenues of the U.S. beef and dairy industry and their suppliers, which together exceed $400 billion today, will decline by at least 50% by 2030, and by nearly 90% by 2035. All other livestock and commercial fisheries will follow a similar trajectory."
• "The volume of crops needed to feed cattle in the U.S. will fall by 50%, from 155 million tons in 2018 to 80 million tons in 2030. This means that, at current prices, feed production revenues for cattle will fall by more than 50%, from $60 billion in 2018 to less than $30 billion in 2030."
• "The average U.S. family will save more than $1,200 a year in food costs. This will keep an additional $100 billion a year in Americans’ pockets by 2030."
You can read the report here.
It strikes me as a little ironic that FMI-The Food Industry Association and the Meat Institute’s Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education will release later today the annual Power of Meat survey … and it doesn't take much imagination to guess that the numbers will be positive. After all, people have been spending a lot of time at home cooking over the past year, and meat almost certainly will have been part of that.
The question is whether whatever advances being trumpeted are, in fact, illusory … and whether what ReThinkX calls "the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago" will in fact reduce that "power" significantly over the coming decade.