Lately in the food world, one can read many stories about alternatives to protein from animal farming. Animal farming also gets blamed for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. With so much finger pointing, one can wonder whether animal farming has a future. Proponents of alternatives do all they can to convince everyone that the writing is already on the wall. Personally, I believe that things are far from being that simple.
To predict what scenarios are likely for the future, it is necessary to look at the issue from its many dimensions, both on the production side as on the consumption side. I prefer to look at it first from the consumption side because consumer markets shape production systems more than production systems shape consumer markets.
From the consumer end, there is already much to say. First, as the population is increasing and more people are able to afford protein, the demand for protein is increasing and will continue to do so in the coming decades. I wrote already many articles about this during the nine years of this blog and the topic is also part of my books. The fact that more and more people can afford food is a positive development. The problem is that more and more of them now actually consume more than they should. Overconsumption boosts the need for more production beyond what nutritional needs are. Overconsumption comes down to excess, waste and pushes our use of resources too far. The goal must be to help people to eat balanced meals and not to overeat. If the purpose of the suppliers of alternative protein is to push for consumption of their products and not address the issue of overconsumption, they will be just as guilty as the current protein suppliers. The future challenge is not just to replace one overconsumption with another. It is to stop overconsumption. Unfortunately, as long as our economic model is about volume growth, one should not have too many illusions. Future food prosperity is really about having always enough, not about always more. To achieve this goal, we must shift from sheer volume growth thinking to high quality (including production of course but also social and environmental) with faire distribution of the created wealth between all links of the value chains, and in particular a fair price for farmers through proper planning between supply and demand. The purpose is to supply affordable food instead of just cheap food with all the consequences that we all can see of the race towards always cheaper. Unfortunately, the volume-driven model is heavily subsidized in the wrong places and that will also have to stop if we want change.
Consumers also need to realize the true value of food instead of taking it for granted because future food is anything but for granted. Regardless of the type of protein, one thing is sure: it is precious and rare. This is much more so than for carbohydrates. Protein should be treated with respect. Here are two examples why I make this point. I remember in the 1990s the CEO of Tyson Foods explaining in a conference that the poultry industry is a producer of lean protein and he lamented that, in the US at least, the favorite use was to deep fry it in cheap oil, and thus completely change the nutritional quality of chicken meat. The second example was during a presentation by the CEO of a German fish fast food restaurant chain called Nordsee, who was mentioning that breaded fish was very popular, but not so much because fish is healthy but because fish sticks were used to be a carrier of ketchup from the plate to the mouth. If the true purpose of meat for some consumers is to be a carrier of oil or ketchup, then this is a problem. Never should a product that required the sacrifice of an animal be used to soak into cheap and unhealthy product when over consumed. Speaking of sacrifice, it is good to remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from the word “sacred”. It is true that often our dealings with animal protein looks more like sacrilegious. This is a useful detail to think about when considering consumption of meat. The thing is that animal protein should never really be a commodity. It should remain special. But that is not the way or economic model has decided.
From the production side, agriculture has followed a similar pattern as most other industries. It is about lowering costs (nothing wrong with that) and standardization (maybe a topic more susceptible to debate). Regardless of what people may think of intensive animal husbandry, this system is not here per accident. It is the reflection of how we look at economy and ourselves. Have no illusion about alternatives to animal protein; they follow exactly the same economic philosophy. I always say that the dominant production system is the one that matches the desires of the larger number of consumers. The saying “we are what we eat” is very true. If you look at it that way, you can see that our economy is just as much about intensive human husbandry as it is with farm animals. Economy is organized around three components: resources, labor and capital. Depending on the prioritization and distribution of these three components, we build different systems. A simple example can illustrate what I mean is mechanization: workers have been replaced by machines backed with capital investment in machines. The tricky thing about heavy injection of capital is that the system becomes capital-dependent. The capital must deliver a return on the investment and very often the only way is inject even more capital, just to keep the head above water. It is good for the bankers, but as many farmers and food producers will tell you, less so for them.
So, will animal farming eventually disappear? Of course, it is difficult to answer this with certainty. My opinion is that it is not going to happen any time soon, if it ever happens. What will change are the production systems. After all, the current intensive production systems have not been around since the dawn of times. They are actually fairly recent. They have changed and are continuously adapting. Production systems that are not environmentally sensible will disappear, simply because they will not be able to be profitable and competitive. The reason for this is simple: sooner or later they will not be able to ignore the negative externalities anymore from their production costs. Environmentally sensible systems will take over. Note that I do not use the term environmentally friendly but I use environmentally sensible instead. I believe it is a much better reflection of reality. Will this transition be smooth? It might be, but it is much more likely that it will not be.
Another question to reflect about is whether animal farming is unnecessary? My answer to this is: no! First, like it or not humans are omnivores. Our dentition can testify about that. That is the result of dozens of thousands of years and it is ingrained in our system. It is nature. We are mammals, even though there’s no shortage of groups who try to even deny our biological reality and try to reduce people –and animals- to legal entities. Between Laws of Nature and man-made laws, we will see which ones will prevail. Our first food –milk- is animal in nature. There always will be people who want to eat animal protein. Every time that economic prosperity has increased, meat consumption has increased. It does not happen per accident. When money is tight, meat is often the first thing to decrease. To get back to the question, I believe that animal farming is alright, as long as it is respectful of the environment, of the animals, and also of the farmers. I believe that animal protein is a privilege what we must cherish, not a right that we should take for granted. Animal protein is not the sole source of protein and there are many delicious dishes to make with vegetal protein. Look at Indian cuisine! If the purpose of animal farming is to stuff oneself, then yes I am with those who have an issue that approach of farming and consumption.
Of course, most of the opposition to animal farming takes place in Western countries. It is kind of a First World problem. If certain animal farming systems are environmental time bombs, other systems are actually beneficiary. In many developing countries, having a few goats or cattle is actually essential for the economy and for the survival of farmers. Pastoral systems contribute to prosperity and social stability. Another important point is the biology of ruminants. Just as much as I was mentioning the biology of humans as the results of dozens of thousands years of evolution, the same is true for animals. Ruminants are amazing processors of cellulose. Humans can thrive on grass, because we are not equipped biologically to extract nutrients from it. Ruminants are experts at that. Since there is about twice as many hectares of grasslands as there is of arable land, grasslands represent a huge food potential and ruminants are superb transformers of cellulose in high-value foods for humans in the form of milk and meat. The key is that must be done sensibly and by taking future consequences into account. Many societies around the world know the value of farm animals. If ruminants are excellent transformers of cellulose, it is also important to mention that they have never evolved to be grain eaters, at least in large quantities. Sooner or later, this will become a much more vivid issue than it is now.
Suppliers of alternative protein bring a number of arguments why their products have the potential to replace “traditional” animal meat. The environment plays a central role, in particular the issue of greenhouse gasses. They also address the animal welfare as a driver for their products. The issue of slaughterhouse by-products is also a valid argument. Theoretically, texture proteins, lab meat, insects and vegetarian diets do address these concerns, indeed. So can alternative protein push animal farming out of business? The answer is complex and I will try to answer it as concisely as possible.
The animal protein market is huge and one cannot expect to replace it overnight. Since the demand for protein is going to increase further, alternative protein would probably happy to take only a chunk of the growth. They have to create their spot in an existing and very competitive market. Textured proteins have been around for decades and they have never represented a threat to traditional meat. That does not mean that it could not change of course. Lab meat is all new and there is at this stage no solid indication that they can even compete with traditional meat on world markets any time soon. They are still a long way of representing a force in the animal protein business. Time will tell. An important detail for both textured protein and lab meat is the number of factories, incubators and texturing lines that they need to build to replace animal farms. That will represent huge investments for which they will have to earn the money to carry out. Competing with traditional animal proteins means engage fully in a commodity markets where margins are often thin. They will compete with independent farmers who are often contracted by corporations and often hardly make minimum wage. These suppliers will have to fight against the huge animal protein corporations and deal with retailers and food service companies with strong bargaining power. Will they really want to take the road to commodity markets? I doubt it, or it will be a very long journey. When I hear or see their pricing objectives, nothing tells me that they are really willing to target the mass animal protein market. It looks more to me that they will try to work from a targeted marketing strategy and will work their way into niches for quite some time. Another hurdle is the consumer perception for their products. Vegetarian products already have exposure and are well-perceived. Lab meat may be a more difficult challenge. The mere fact that lab meat producers want to call it clean meat instead and are already facing opposition from meat producers who claim that lab meat is not real meat shows that they have not solved the perception challenge, yet. Even the term meat is not a given.
Where does that leave us for the future and the issue of animal farming greenhouse gas emissions? Considering the time that I believe it will take for alternatives, I do not see that they will play as big a role as they think and/or claim. I believe that reducing greenhouse gasses emissions will have to be enforced. Regulations on production systems will have to address this. This has to happen today already. There is no time to wait until these emerging industries will have developed critical mass. Also production volumes will have to be addressed. It is likely that if we want to be serious about curbing the environmental footprint of animal husbandry, they will not be many alternatives to capping production volumes. That will be a tough one as nobody will want to be at a disadvantage with their competitors. There will be the exact same discussions as there already are with climate change and those who refuse to participate. Neither governments nor corporations will take effective measures. The answer lies with consumers. They are the ones who have the power to reduce animal protein production and changing production systems. From an environment point of view, the only real option is a reduction of global consumption of animal protein. That is the easiest and fastest path to solve the problem, but I do not expect a massive shift from omnivore to vegetarian of such amplitude that anything significant will happen. Unfortunately and just like with anything else related to climate change and overconsumption, only a minority will really act voluntarily. On the consumer side, if prices remain too cheap to trigger a change in behavior and a reduction of consumption, then overconsumption will simply continue. What I wrote in my previous article will fully apply to the topic of animal protein and animal farming.
Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.