Comment: The rebellion against synthetic protein systems could well provide a massive demand for New Zealand meat and milk, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

In 2017 US-based think tank RethinkX predicted that by 2030 self-driving electric cars will dominate our roads, with 95 per cent of US passenger miles occurring in on-demand autonomous EVs owned by companies.

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This year RethinkX reported that within a mere 10 years livestock industries will be replaced by synthetic systems that create higher quality and cheaper protein than the animal-derived products they replace.

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Both reports have a lot of assumptions and extrapolations underpinning the bold statements.

Number one is that consumers will behave logically – or even in a manner aligned with their statements.

In September we had schoolchildren attending climate change rallies around the world – having been transported to these rallies in cars.

We also had joyful exuberance over Scott McLaughlin's Bathurst win – a triumph of skill and engineering involving a V8 car driven in very fast circles for 1000 kilometres whilst gobbling high-octane fuel and emitting carbon dioxide that will be around for centuries.

Adding to the muddle was the news in mid-October that global sales of electric vehicles have stalled and might even be in decline. Sanford Bernstein (part of US company Bernstein Research) estimated that after a fall in sales in July, there was a 23 per cent drop in August. Dyson, the world-famous engineering solutions company, has pulled out of EV car development.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Taste, sensation and culture

The problem with predictions is that they are hard to make about the future. Knowing this, however, doesn't make the RethinkX report on food and agriculture any less important or easier to stomach.

For New Zealand, its importance is in showing how the Northern Hemisphere feedlot and barn systems are going to have to change. In considerable contrast, the New Zealand "paddock-raised, grass-fed" meat and milk will be in demand.

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Sainsbury's Future of Food Report has a prediction for 2169: "As an antidote to the scenario of purely functional administering of nutrition for necessity, food in its fullest sense – taste, sensation and culture – may well become a practice for preserving a sense of human identity in an increasingly digitised world".

Let's think about that: taste, sensation and culture.

The New Zealand story has it all: the flavour, mouth feel and health benefits of grass-fed, free-range meat and milk. It's all natural – the shortlist of ingredients (meat and milk) provides the clue.

New Zealand animal protein also fulfils the four points that Cargill research has indicated are important to consumers. These are reduced antibiotics (New Zealand is the third-lowest user of antibiotics for farm animals in the world); using feed with sustainable ingredients (pasture); reduced pollutants (New Zealand achieves meat and milk with lower nutrient loss and fewer greenhouse gas emissions than most countries can manage); and "doing more with less".

This last point is again where New Zealand excels. Productivity gains have been greater in the agricultural sector in New Zealand than in anything but retail over the past 10 years – and without the gains in the agricultural sector, people wouldn't have been able to "support" retail.

In considerable contrast, in the UK, where the bulk of farmers make their money from subsidies and off-farm incomes, productivity is in the doldrums.

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More positives for New Zealand

Adding to the positives for New Zealand is that in March this year Cargill research indicated that two-thirds of people intend to maintain or increase their intake of animal protein in the next year, and that 80 percent of respondents "believe that animal protein can be part of an environmentally responsible diet".

While "flexitarian" becomes the new norm, the realist recognises that flexitarianism boils down to eating what we fancy, when and where we fancy it, at least in the developed world. This is in some contrast to the past when one ate what there was (assuming there was anything that could be hunted or gathered).

The likelihood for the future is that convenience will rule on a working day, and maybe the food will come from an insect farm or synthetic protein fermentation farm near the city. But on non-workdays and for celebrations, the slow-food concept will rule.

Here the food will reflect the connection between farm and fork, grass and glass, soil and saliva. It will include the New Zealand story about pastoral ecosystems.

Productivity in the managed landscapes means native biodiversity can be preserved in the large area of conservation land that New Zealand has identified for preservation into the future. All the factors from the pragmatic to the lyrical will be part of the story.

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Overseas, the two aspects of "clean label" and "indulgence foods" are separate. In New Zealand, they can be brought together. Meat and milk.

Of course, things might change, just as they might have done with electric vehicles, but the direction is logical and fits with the trend towards healthy and unprocessed food.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in soil science (nutrient cycling) and has been a vegetarian for over four decades.