Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could enjoy all the complex flavor of meat without any animals having to perish? And wouldn’t it be great to also reduce environmental pollution? While we’re at it, what if we could grow complex food ingredients without requiring massive swaths of lands, pesticides and antibiotics?
This may sound far-fetched, but it could be our reality in the 2030s. However, while this emerging technology may make massive environmental and animal rights gains, what economic impact will it have?
Before we look to the future of farming, let’s explore the gains made with lab-made food so far.
The veggie burger starts tasting like a beef burger
Until very recently, it was extremely easy to identify a veggie burger; the texture couldn’t come close to matching a meat burger. However, the recent introduction of the Beyond Burger (2015) and the Impossible Burger (2016) has raised the bar for plant-based meat substitutes. Notably, by infusing the Impossible Burger with heme (which naturally occurs in beef), its developers have created a very tasty burger that performs extremely close to the “real thing.”
You can now get Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger at fast-food chains like Burger King, Del Taco, Carl’s Jr/Hardees and White Castle, as well as in casual dining chains like TGI Fridays, Red Robin, Cheesecake Factory and Denny’s.
While plant-based meat has made massive gains for tasting better, there are still many people who are unwilling to give up animal-based meat. However, they may squirm when you ask them to think in-depth about the death that had to occur in order to put that tasty meat on their plate.
What if you could grow actual meat without any animals having to die? This is becoming a major area of focus. In 2013, the world’s first lab-grown meat burger was cooked and eaten in London, but it came with a stiff price tag, costing £215,000 to produce. Furthermore, it left a fairly underwhelming taste in the mouths of those who consumed it. However, the price to manufacture lab-grown meat is declining and the flavor is improving as technology advances.
Moving the whole farm into the lab
Meat isn’t the only food product now being manufactured off the farm. “Ferming” is an emerging technology that brews microbes into food ingredients, which taste as good as the farmed alternative.
Recently, Guardian journalist George Monbiot was the first member of the public to taste Solar Food’s flour—it’s made in a Helsinki lab from just water and bacteria. Trying pancakes made from this flour, Monbiot remarked, “It tasted…just like a pancake.” Solar Foods is building its first manufacturing plant, with aims to open it in the next year. They have their sights set on more than flour, hoping to manufacture lab-grown fish, milk, eggs, oil and meat, as well as carbohydrate ingredients for starches like pasta or potato chips…pretty much anything except fresh fruits and veggies.
Solar Foods is using a hydrogen pathway that’s 10 times more efficient than photosynthesis. Their land efficiency is estimated to use 20,000 times less space than farming land. And researchers from RethinkX assert that fermentation techniques will produce protein that’s “10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035.”
An environmental win
All this efficiency holds great promise from an environmental perspective. Imagine a world without farm waste, reduced use of pesticides, less water waste and lower carbon emissions. Imagine more free-roaming wildlife, healthier soil and more affordable food.
Alternatively, if we continue with our current agricultural model, our hunger demands may outpace our ability to feed mankind by 2050.
A humanitarian win
Beyond the environmental benefits, these new lab-grown food models hold promise on a humanitarian level as well. With more affordable food sources, we may be able to eradicate hunger crises and promote greater food security.
Our current fishing and agriculture industries also take advantage of slave labor. Perhaps by growing our food inside a warehouse, we can reduce modern-day slavery.
An economic loss?
Anytime disruptive technology steamrolls onto the scene, there’s always some businesses left behind. If farms’ only production becomes fruits and vegetables, there are bound to be millions of people who will lose their jobs. Certainly, new jobs in ferming will emerge, but the net impact still spells unfortunate job loss for the farming and food processing industry.
The future is bright
Technology has uprooted many industries over the years. We no longer need switchboard operators, bowling alley pinsetters or lamplighters. Broadly speaking, economic recessions were avoided when these obsolete workers simply found employment in other industries.
Certainly, the farming industry will not fade into oblivion without a fight. However, the societal advantages of the emerging ferming industry may be so powerful that the farming industry, as we know it, will soon be just a memory.