"A Farewell to Farms" was the title of retired Massey University researcher Allan Hardacre's talk to the Whanganui Science Forum last month. Frank Gibson checked out the recipe for a meat-free future

An extruder is an essentially simple machine working like a very large syringe combined with an Archimedean screw.

You drop your ingredients in one end where two threaded shafts push the material, at high pressure, through a heating coil which takes the temperature up to as much as 200C.

The material emerges back into daylight through a nozzle that gives it its shape in the same way that a pasta maker makes sheets and tubes.

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Allan Hardacre has a career in plant breeding and food research. For the past 10 years or so he has been working on the development of high-protein foods using extruder technology and particularly HMMA (high moisture meat analogues).

His Whanganui Science Forum talk attracted a packed house and, from the questions, I could tell that the audience contained many areas of opinion and emotion.

Questions ranged from farmers asking about the potential effects of the technology on the beef and pork industries to questions related to the morality and health aspects of eating meat.

Hardacre was careful to relate his answers to solid research findings and admitted his lack of knowledge in certain areas.

He was also kind enough to give me a sample of his "chicken" which was actually extruded soya bean.

I used it to make a "chicken" curry for myself and my vegetarian wife — not the best curry I have ever made, but it was the first I have made with this "meat".

With a bit of practice and care I could make a very decent meal with this stuff.
So, the question is: "Why?"

Hardacre was quite open about his opinion that dairying and beef production in their present forms are inefficient and unsustainable methods of production of protein.
While raising sheep on steep hill country was probably the best use of such land, beef and dairy farming on flat arable land — especially in areas that were short of water already — was an inefficient way to produce protein.

The problems with effluent in waterways and methane in the atmosphere associated with dairy farming are well documented.

The recent problems with Mycoplasma bovis illustrate the pregnability of the animal protein industries in the face of infectious disease. A major influx of foot and mouth could wipe out a large part of the Kiwi economy.

For these and other reasons, plant-based protein production is potentially a money-spinner for New Zealand.

In Western countries, we do not have a shortage of protein. In fact, we tend to eat more than we need.

However, in large parts of Africa and Asia protein intake is often only a fraction of that needed for health. The effect on babies and young children is especially sad. If a child is denied sufficient protein in the first few months and years of life, brain function cannot develop fully. Even with improved diet later in life, this deficit is not made up.

We thus see protein deficiency putting extra burdens on already weak economies. The people growing up with protein-deficient diets are less able to drag their country into a richer state.

So is the world as a whole going to run out of protein? Hardacre showed a graph which, if not actually Malthusian, seemed to indicate that population is climbing faster than food production. It is a little more complex than this.

Calorie intakes of rich and poor people are actually pretty similar. The difference is in the protein with the rich consuming much more than the poor. This means that to feed everybody adequately we need a much bigger increase in protein production than the simple factor of population increase would indicate. We have probably got the farming technology to do this, but the effect of this sort of intensity on the environment could be disastrous.

The realpolitik of this is simple. We are already seeing wars caused by access to water. The possibility of conflict arising from protein-deficient underdeveloped countries watching the developed nations suffering from an epidemic of obesity is obvious. The West thus needs to be thinking more altruistically in terms of food production and not simply looking for the greatest profit margin as a measure of success.

At this point Hardacre looked at European history. In the Middle Ages, contrary to Hollywood, only the rich ate much meat. Most of the population got their protein from broad beans.

Figures for digestibility showed that while eggs, meat and fish did yield more protein than soy and other pulses, the difference was irrelevant for most Western eaters and could easily be made up by eating just a little more plant protein material.

The figures for dry protein produced per hectare per year on New Zealand arable land showed wheat, soy and particularly legumes (broad beans) to be orders of magnitude greater than beef or milk without factoring in damage to water courses and nitrate build-up. Legumes also allow a further grass crop on the same land over a year.

In other words, growing the correct plants will give a much better yield of protein than beef or milk production, and, in the case of milk, the area required to grow feed was not factored into the figures, which would reduce the relative efficiency further.

Brief mention was made of eating insects and laboratory-grown meat. Insects suffer from an image problem and (at the moment) laboratory grown meat costs about $300,000 per kilogram. Both may be viable in the future.

Extraction of the raw material from the plants is straightforward and there is a growing market for proteins extracted from soy, broad beans, oats, peas, lupin and lentil among others. They are then mixed with flavouring and colourings made from other plant products such as beetroot and yeast and fed through the extruder.

There is much scope for discussion on this topic. Do we want to exist on a diet of extruded protein? Why not simply eat the original plant products? What are the economic and social implications? Thought and discussion are needed.

Frank Gibson is a semi-retired teacher of mathematics and physics who has lived in the Whanganui region since 1989.