This article is based on RethinkX’s Food and Agriculture Report that came out in September 2019, but it was David Waterworth’s article a month ago on RethinkX’s new report that summarizes RethinkX’s research on energy, transportation and food that got me interested in the subject enough to read the whole 76 page report on my phone one morning (I recommend you use a tablet or computer, it’s not that great to read something that long on a phone). I’m a big fan of Toby Seba’s presentations on energy and transportation. I especially like his 62 page report published in October 2020 on modeling energy storage vs building massive amounts of solar to solve the intermittency problem with solar and wind. Zach did an excellent job summarizing it in this article if you don’t have the time to read it now.
I’ve mainly written on electric cars and a bit on solar energy, but now I’d like to share my thoughts on food. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, which is a rural state with a lot of farms. Most of my friends grew up on farms and told me I was lucky to live in the town and lucky that my parents didn’t make me get up early to do farm chores every day. I’m not sure if I was lucky or not. It seems like farm chores would have trained me well for adulthood, but I digress. My first work at 14 was to pull weeds in a soybean field, and later to work in a grocery store. Iowa’s largest farm products are corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle. Most of the corn and soybeans are used to feed the hogs and cattle, not for humans to eat directly.
The Efficiency Problem
When I read in the RethinkX report that cows are only 4% efficient at converting the energy in the feedstock into protein and that Precision Fermentation is 10 to 20 times more efficient, I knew I had to write on this subject. There are a lot of great reasons to drive electric cars, but in my opinion, electric cars would be a science project selling a few thousand units a year worldwide if it wasn’t for one key advantage — they are about 5 times (depending on a lot of things) more efficient at using fuel to get you to your destination and not use it to produce waste heat, noise, and vibration. We can talk all we want about how we want to save the planet, but very few people will pay a lot more for something that is better for the planet. Now, even with the huge efficiency advantages of electric motors over gas and diesel engines, it has been a huge struggle to get electric cars to the place they are now.
What The Heck Is Precision Fermentation (PF)?
Fermentation is a chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other micro-organisms. The example everyone understands is beer. In beer production (which goes back about 5000 years), we use yeast to convert sugar in the wheat to alcohol. Other ancient foods that depend on fermentation include bread and cheese. Precision Fermentation is different from regular fermentation in that the micro-organisms that do the work aren’t discovered, they are designed like a computer program (my day job is computer programming). This is both exciting and a little bit scary. By designing the micro-organisms, we can change the feedstock (what you feed them) and what they produce. Instead of producing alcohol, we can change the output to one of many proteins. The Impossible Foods burger mainly uses soy protein, but it uses a little bit of heme (that looks like blood) to give it a more meat-like taste. This soy leghemoglobin (heme) is produced using a genetically engineered yeast strain and the production process is precision fermentation. There will no doubt be a group of people who won’t like this because it is genetically engineered.
Why Milk Will Be The First Domino To Fall
RethinkX is quite confident that all animal-based agriculture around the world will be in trouble by 2030 and more trouble by 2035, when PF and other technologies like growing real animal cells without the animals. The primary cause of the disruption is price. RethinkX predicts by 2035 modern foods produced by PF and other emerging technologies will reduce costs by 80%. The first to be disrupted will be dairy milk and other dairy products, then ground beef and lastly, beef steaks, pork bacon, chicken and fish. Why do they think milk will be the first market to convert?
- Milk is only 3.3% protein, 4.9% fat, 3.4% fats, 0.7% vitamins & minerals, and 87.7% water. So PF only needs to displace the 3.3% protein to disrupt the whole industry.
- Many people are lactose intolerant today and already 13% use plant-based milk (soy, almond, oat, coconut, etc.). As precision fermentation produces better alternatives, more people will shift. I’ve been using soy, oat, and almond milk for a couple of years and find the soy milk has the most protein, oat milk has the best texture, and almond milk has the best taste. I frequently mix soy milk with almond milk that already has banana puree. Tony Seba has noticed that once disruptions get to 10%, they frequently go to 90% quite quickly. The last 10% is usually slow.
- Milk alternatives frequently have more vitamin D than regular milk (although, since the vitamin D is added to both, that could change at any time). Although it is certainly not a miracle cure for Covid-19, some research has shown that getting more vitamin D might help, especially for people who have a vitamin D deficiency. Of course, if it doesn’t help with Covid but it helps with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions, that is a good thing too.
On the other hand, milk has a powerful advertising campaign, “Got Milk?” The milk industry will be sure to use its marketing acumen to delay its demise. As the industry faces increasing competition from superior products, it is sure to attempt to use political lobbying to attempt to protect private interests. Both of those efforts will work to slow the disruption, but they won’t be able to stop it.
Milk Alternatives Will Be Great For The Planet
The following points are from ThinkX’s executive summary, which is on the entire disruption of animal agriculture, not just milk industry disruption.
- Up to 100 times as land efficient. This was a shock to me and drives 2 other implications. First, we can easily produce the food closer to where people are instead of transporting the food thousands of miles from where it is produced. The second is we could choose to reforest some of the lands freed up and that would absorb a lot of carbon naturally without some expensive unproven carbon capture technologies that many people (including me) are unsure will really work at a reasonable price.
- 10 to 25 times as feedstock efficient. This is what drives much of the land reduction. If you don’t waste 96% of the feedstock, you don’t need to grow as much.
- 20 times as time efficient. Cows take a long time to grow. Fermentation in tanks is fast. When you have an emergency (maybe an earthquake or flood) and need to increase food production quickly because you lose production somewhere else, you don’t have time to grow a lot of cows, but you might be able to convert some beer production tanks to protein production quickly.
- 10 times as water efficient. We have written recently about the water issues in the western US here and here. Reducing agriculture’s thirst for water could go a long way to help solve this problem.
As I learn more about this important transition, I hope to write more articles on this exciting subject.
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