Technology is opening a whole new direction for food production, reports The Guardian.
Robotics and drones are reducing the need for humans to be on the land, while vertical farming, in which vegetables can be grown in sunless warehouses using LED lighting, gene editing and metagenics are delivering new definitions of food.
According to a recent report by the think tank RethinkX, within 15 years the rise of cell-based meat – made of animal cells grown in a bioreactor – will bankrupt the US’s huge beef industry, at the same time removing the need to grow soya and maize for feed.
New Zealand farmers who think there is an unlimited demand for the food they produce could be in for a rude shock.
Here’s another example of what global media are reporting:
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium are experimenting with larva fat to replace butter, saying that using grease from insects is more sustainable than dairy produce.
So what’s the answer for the dairy farmers and meat producers in NZ, who for so long have earned the biggest block of foreign exchange to sustain the NZ economy?
The problem is compounded by the reluctance of the Labour-led government to revise the out-dated laws which limit the scope for gene editing in research which could give NZ farmers an advantage in animal breeding and plant development.
Overseas there are important developments in soil microbiology which could be vital in making soil healthier and reduce reliance on fertilisers. The Economist recently reported there is already a market for so-called biofertilisers, which are enriched in micro-organisms reckoned to be good for the soil.
Then there are advances in technology which offer farmers the opportunity to lift productivity.
A NZ start-up, Halter, is about to launch a new product – a solar-powered tracking device which allows farmers to shift and monitor their herds remotely. It will self-herd cows and send data about their behaviour and health to farmers by phone.
The device uses sound and vibration to create a virtual boundary to keep cows in one place or to herd them to another. The collars can be programmed to bring the cows to the milking shed at certain times and identify cows on heat.
According to Halter’s founder, Craig Piggott, the collars have the potential to revolutionise the dairy sector.
Other scientific advances need to be encouraged and applied in every farming sector.
The rewards can be great, as A2 Milk has shown after years of hard work in developing and marketing a product that it claims has clear health benefits.
A2 is now sitting on a cash pile of $600m, with total revenue in the December half soaring 31.6% to $806m. Its gross margin increased to 57.2%, reflecting a continued shift to infant formula.
The success of the company is a tribute not just to its recent marketing achievements but also to its Dunedin founders, Dr Corran McLachlan, who researched the health effects of A1 beta-casein; and Howard Paterson, who was one of NZ’s richest men, and a major dairy farmer.
Think where Fonterra might be if it had picked up on the science of Dr McLachlan.
But Fonterra (while intent on restoring its financial health) hasn’t lost sight of new technologies and the contribution they can make to profitability.
According to Newsroom Pro, Fonterra has bought a stake in a Boston biotech start-up that wants to develop cow-free protein for use in products like cheese and drinks.
But while the co-op says there’s room in its future for both dairy and “dairy-like” products, it insists cow-free protein isn’t necessarily more environmentally-friendly.
Fonterra was one of several high-profile investors — others were Bill Gates and Richard Branson — in the new biotech startup called Motif Ingredients.
The Boston-based firm will use cellular agriculture to create “lab-grown” milk protein — dairy protein grown from real milk cells, without the use of factory farming.