While many analysts have predicted a shift away from using animals for food for a wealth of reasons, the RethinkX report seemed a bit shocking when it was first published. It was projecting an entire transformation of the food system in a bit longer than a decade — using technology that at the time was still in the R&D phase.
Consumer preference, financing and advances for alternatives to animal agriculture have moved more in the last year than any previous one. Not only has the pandemic upended food supply chains and traditional meat production, but it’s also had the effect of accelerating growth in plant-based meat, plant-based dairy and plant-based cheese. Cell-based meat is not just an idea companies are working on. Regulatory approval in Singapore has made it an actual product, and it can be close to price parity with chicken meat from an animal. Plant-based and fermented substitute companies have grown in both product availability and portfolios, but they’ve also received record-setting investment. A recent analysis from the Good Food Institute found that $3.1 billion was invested in alternative proteins in 2020.
However, the method by which RethinkX says the food system will be run still seems somewhat unlikely in the next nine years. Report authors talk about a “food-as-software” model, in which scientists would engineer food at a molecular level and upload it to databases that are accessible to food designers worldwide. The report states this can geographically spread out food production and high quality food that is not subject to price volatility or threats posed by weather, disease or trade.
While there are companies in the alternatives space that plan to primarily produce ingredients that came from animals — Perfect Day for dairy, Meat-Tech 3D for meat and New Culture Foods for cheese — these companies are all in business for themselves, filing for patents and closely guarding trade secrets. These companies, however, are willing to work with others. Perfect Day has a partnership with ADM, and Meat-Tech, which recently had an IPO on the NASDAQ exchange, has said it seeks to sell its manufacturing technology. But their research and work is probably not likely to be made available to the world for free. The specialized equipment and expertise needed to produce each type of food also makes it unlikely to turn into a simple download — at least in the near term.
At the virtual conference session last week, Arbib didn’t talk too much about the “food as software” model or the advancements in technology and scope the last year and a half have brought. He said the change really comes down to consumers’ bottom line and what is better for people and the environment.
“The real driver of this disruption, the real reason why we’re going to get off animal agriculture and the use of animals in our economy is economics,” he said. “It’s the fact that the new technologies are both cheaper and better than the old ones. But they’re a subsidiary. They’re kind of secondary drivers of disruption. Everything from climate change to human health to animal welfare — and those are definitely been strengthened through this pandemic — we’re seeing a much greater pressure, which will affect both consumer demand for these products, but also governments and regulators who will look to move.”