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Synthetic Proteins - Major Threat or Opportunity

November 5, 2017

As Promised this is the article I wrote for the NZ Farmer magazine that will be appearing in Monday 6th November's edition article for NZ Farmer.

Synthetic Proteins – Major Threat or Opportunity

 

At a time when livestock farming in NZ is facing its greatest threat, we could also be, if we chose, be on the verge of exciting new times for our industry.


Synthetic proteins have appeared out of nowhere in the last 5 years and it is only a matter of time if we do nothing, before they start to hurt NZ farmers.


Make no mistake this will leave the wool industries decision that synthetic carpets could never replicate or compete with wool, in the minor league.  We are meat, dairy food producers of some of the highest quality commodities in the world.  This time we have much more to lose.


The multi billionaires driving these new synthetic and plant based products aren’t just after the bottom end of the food chain, they want the top end, they want the whole food chain for animal proteins.  Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 by self-professed vegan multi billionaire Pat Brown.  He states, “We want 100% of the market, not just a niche of people avoiding meat or being health conscious”. Land that isn’t grazed by animals at least once a year starts to degrade, just look at some of the DOC land, but a world without farm animals is the end game for these companies.


They have signaled their intent, this will be no surprise raid.  With billions of dollars at their disposal, an online global consumer who has little knowledge or affinity with farming and a product which will only get better and cheaper, we ignore this at our peril.


So, what has been agriculture's response to this threat. Chief scientist Sir Peter Gluckman has clearly stated in recent articles the threats that exist particularly for milk but also our lamb and beef There have been some dismissive statements from some leaders in the meat industry about the threats that synthetic and plant based proteins will present farmers as they talk to their suppliers.


To succeed against this looming threat to the way we farm we need to improve our overall game plan, our social licence to farm, which includes being more financially, environmentally and socially sustainable 
On the environmental front we have encouraging signs from NZ agriculture leaders with the new “Water Accord “that brings the big rural players together to improve water quality.  But they don’t go far enough.  Groups like our own local Pomahaka Water Care group have been very successful in getting local farmers on board, to take ownership of their own waterways and turning around some very poor-quality results within five years.


But rather than treating the symptoms, isn’t our greatest opportunity here as we look for a response to the looming threat of synthetic protein, to examine the root causes to the farm issues we face and make positive changes to the way we farm in NZ.


Traditional family with increasing and more costly chemical and energy inputs has failed to deliver for sheep, beef and dairy farmers.  Trying to produce more and more commodity products to survive under a growing mountain of rural debt, while impacting negatively on our environment is just plain stupid.  


Impossible Burgers are already telling their customers on their website that compared to cattle farming they use 95% less land ,74% less water and produce 87% less greenhouse emissions. Ireland has taken the moral high ground with their brilliant Origin Green concept! What is NZ’s tag line, will 100% Pure, be enough to maintain our place as preferred suppliers of sheep, beef and dairy products to the world.


The only way we can realistically address these national and global concerns about climate change, water quality and scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of soil carbon, low commodity prices in real terms, is for a paradigm shift in NZ towards biological, regenerative and organic farm systems.


Ian Proudfoot from KPMG in his global overview in 2017 of future trends states that organic farming may become mainstream as consumers around the globe drive demand for this sector. We need to stop being production focussed and hope we will get paid better next year and start looking at where the best marketing opportunities are, not just now but in the future.


 Back on the farm our future will be determined by how we treat our soil biology. Biological and organic farm systems would not be sustainable if they didn’t work with nature and build soil carbon rather than deplete it.  Some scientists are saying that regenerative agriculture practices of minimum tillage and use of cover crops can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while also boosting soil productivity and increasing resilience to floods and drought. Our pasture lands could become one enormous carbon sink, perhaps four times more efficient than trees at storing carbon. Comments from world leaders that we are not doing our bit for reducing carbon emissions can and will impact negatively on our clean green image
I can hear the farmers say we will never be able to feed the world if we went organic.  Well the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, claims one third of food produced for human consumption already gets lost or wasted globally.  We already produce enough now for 9 b people and as the third fattest nation on earth, some of us are getting more than our fair share of calories.


And of course, some scientists will proudly claim there is no science to back up biological or organic farm systems.  I wonder if scientists on both sides of the fence are guilty of dismissing research that doesn’t suit their own personal message.


Rodale Institute in the US has run a side by side comparison of conventional and organic farm cropping systems since 1981.  Not in the first few years of conversion but organic yield then matches conventional yields, use 45% less energy, 15-20% less water leaching 40% less greenhouse gas and had 290% higher profit per hectare. Significantly they grew over 30% more than the same conventional crops in times of drought.


On the livestock side we are already seeing a move into more organic dairy farms by some of the corporates. Organic sheep and dairy cover less than 1% of NZ land. Many of our best farmers already have the proven practical skills to make a successful transition to biological and organic systems but at present lack the support and infrastructure that conventional agriculture provides them. The gap in performance between the best farmers in each production system will continue to narrow. It’s easy to judge best to worst and dismiss organic farming but some very smart farmers are now taking the challenge and narrowing the gap.
Production driven farming made my father Colin’s generation wealthy in the 1950’,60’s,70’s decades but my generation talk about the one or two years in ten that were good financially and that’s not sustainable in the medium and long term. We must move away from having to crank every last kilogram of milk solids or meat per hectare to balance the books We need farm systems that are financially, environmentally and socially sustainable. These also need to improve the mental health of our farming families. You couldn’t give NZ farming, a pass mark in sustainability at present.


As farmers we work the hardest in the value chain to earn the first dollar, we then see that commodity product move through several hands and watch the end consumer pay 7-8 dollars for the finished product. We have to move further up the value chain, biological and organic branded products which meet recognised standards give us a better opportunity of doing this.
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We can choose to do nothing and dismiss the threat of synthetic proteins and continue as is or we can seize the opportunity to be the worlds most wealthy farmers who are the preferred suppliers of nutrient rich health and nutritional food solutions, at the same time improving our water quality, carbon and environmental footprint. Some of our companies have made a start. Anzco has a strong organic lamb and beef program into Asia. Tatua with its value add and Synlait with their A2 milk products have tapped into the lucrative health food solutions categories, but how much more would an organic label add to their farmers returns? 
Biological and organic farming don’t have all the answers, but they do improve our chances on the national stage, of regaining the social licence to farm that farmers seem to have lost from our urban majority. The major threat though, is the international one, of synthetic and plant based proteins and their multimillion dollar budgets for research and marketing. This will eat into our livelihoods if we do nothing to improve our own game plan. Most farmers are doing fantastic things on farm with environment and sustainability and producing quality products, but will it be enough to maintain our perceived number one status 

Impossible Burgers and the other wealthy global alternative protein investors who include Bill Gates have signalled their intent.  We need to use the next five to ten years wisely and make positive changes to how we want to farm, the status quo has not delivered for most farmers. We need to differentiate as far away as possible from synthetic proteins and the GE technology which these proteins rely on at present. We need to let the rest of the world fight it out for all but the top end of the market.


Who will be the leaders, who chose to move out of their comfort zone to drive this major paradigm shift on how we farm? The late Sir Peter Elworthy stood up during the 1980s and 90s and highlighted many of the tough unpopular issues, such as the opportunities that would come from the removal of subsidies and the protecting our environment, which were dismissed, by farming leaders and farmers themselves, at the time. We will need men and women of that calibre to stand up for this challenge.

 If, however, as a farming nation, we chose the safe status quo option, will our dairy and beef farmers end up like some of their sheep farming cousins, who are currently dressed in their polar fleeces and walking on synthetic carpet in their homes, lamenting the record low wool prices we continue to endure.

 

Allan Richardson
Organic sheep beef and genetics farmer for 20 years
Heriot West Otago 

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