In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Meat, but not as we know it

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In a world hungry for protein, there'll be no limit to what we'll eat in the future

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

Whatever revulsion you may feel about the news that a lab-grown meat patty is about to be unveiled, perhaps you should, with all due respect, get over it.

The odds are high that your descendants will have no qualms about eating this pretend flesh (currently known by its working title, "schmeat").

In London this month the public will be introduced to the schmeat patty, made in a Petri dish from cells taken from the necks of cows and replicated millions of times. No cows are hurt in the making of your schmeat feast.

Anyone fearing they will be sneakily fed schmeat patties in the next, say, 50 years can probably relax. Coming in at a costly US$330,000 ($412,000) a patty at the moment, chances are we won't be slapping them between two halves of a burger bun anytime soon.

But it is a bellwether, of sorts, for a future in which the hunt for viable protein replacements for genuine meat will gain pace. Whether for ethical reasons (more vegetarians), cost (meat will be too expensive for many) or environmental concerns, meat replacement is a virtual certainty eventually.

Another indicator along these lines was outlined by the New York Times last week, in an article about Argentina's plummeting appetite for fresh red meat. In 1956, the average Argentine chewed through just over 100kg of meat each year (the world record). Today the figure stands at a (relatively) paltry 59kg. Vegetarian restaurants and pizzerias are flourishing, while the traditional steakhouse wanes.

Most importantly for a country of meat producers, exports have slumped. Argentina's meat export ranking, according to the Times, has dropped to 11th in the world - behind New Zealand. Certainly there would be few New Zealand meat farmers too upset about that, what with frozen beef prices hitting a record $8 a kg thanks to demand from China.

Diplomatic incidents, improperly filled-in paperwork, loose-lipped dairy company ex-chairmen and other such niggles can only put a small dent in what seems to be an insatiable hunger for our farm products.

But commodity markets, as we all know, are fickle, and the good times in China may come to an end at any time. The first challenge will come when US beef exports are allowed back into China after a period of quarantine and, after that, any number of fashions, fads or food-safety issues may, rightly or wrongly, be felt by our meat farmers.

Some of them have already adapted to concentrate on premium or organic meat production, targeting a more predictable national and international market of people who heed health warnings about eating too much meat, but are still looking for a high-end carnivorous treat every now and then.

But have we gone far enough to read the trends and roll with them? As anyone who buys the current meat replacement products knows, quality is improving all the time. Made largely of soy, vegetarian pies, nuggets, burger patties and sausages can all be found in increasing quantities in our standard supermarkets, although none of the big brands are local.

A huge gap in the market for someone enterprising, perhaps? There's no reason New Zealand's high quality meat produce cannot be complemented by high quality soy products, schmeat, or anything else, made by our world-class scientists and sold to a protein-hungry world.

- NZ Herald

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