NZ must urgently rethink its future as a food producer

It seems to be that the larger an organisation, the greater the time spent on internal matters, or what could otherwise be described as ''politics''.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has been an advocate for splitting groups up when they get too big in order to try to keep people having an outward focus and a sense of ownership.

Right now, wherever I travel in rural New Zealand and whether it is farmers I speak with or industry people, the main topic of conversation is environmental regulations. This is understandable, given the raft of regulatory changes coming into the sector, but it also worries me because when we are so tied up fighting New Zealand politics and thinking within our geographical boundaries, what are we missing?

During September a report was released by US-based independent think-tank RethinkX ''Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030''.

Their opening gambit ''We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago.''

In a nutshell, the authors believe that the rise in cellular agriculture, where food is engineered by scientists at a molecular level, uploaded to databases and accessed by food designers anywhere in the world, will replace all conventional agricultural systems in little more than a decade.

To put this science into economic reality, the US cattle industry is predicted to be effectively bankrupt by 2030, when demand for cow-based products will have dropped by 70%.

Other livestock markets, including fish and poultry, will follow a similar trajectory. The production of these modern foods will not only be cheaper and more environmentally beneficial, the foods will be nutritionally superior in nearly every functional attribute.

I felt both alarmed and cynical on my first read of the report. The company is San Francisco-based so it's hard to believe they are not getting carried away with the hype and vast quantities of investment money being ploughed into alternative food production and do they have vested interests in making such claims?

However, I have to put cynicism aside as I am reminded that the CEO of Blockbuster, John Antioco, literally laughed at the co-founder of Netflix, Marc Randolph, when he was offered Netflix to buy, at $US50million. Blockbuster had 9000 stores. How many does it have now?

The RethinkX report also goes into the phasing of these new types of foods, with the disruption starting firstly as ingredient substitution. This will be a business-to-business, rather than consumer-led disruption and it is easy to imagine how this might work for products like sugar, whey protein and egg powders.

Following ingredient substitution comes the substitution of end-products completely - business-consumer. Firstly, this is mixing new with old products before total one-to-one substitution, where complete, complex food products, such as meat, milk and vegetables are completely swapped out by cellular replacements, potentially brewed in a local food entity.

Like most disruption in the making, all of this seems hard to envisage: no whole vegetables, no mincemeat, no roast-chicken? Sure, it might be technically feasible, but what about emotions, traditions and trust associated with whole foods?

Even if the predictions come true at half the rate the authors suggest, the New Zealand economy is in for one hell of a belting.

Environmental debates about fencing waterways will seem laughable in an environment where there are no livestock.

I have always said that alternative food products are a threat to commoditised food and sadly, New Zealand still sells at least 70% of our agricultural products as commodities.

Many of our dairy products are sold as ingredients, potentially the first group to be disrupted.

New Zealand agriculture and the New Zealand Government had better get thinking and acting fast on what value-added food products and new export industries look like for us or we will be disrupted out of business before the waiting time for new fence-ways has even been dented.

In the words of William Pollard: ''Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.''

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.


"However, I have to put cynicism aside as I am reminded that the CEO of Blockbuster, John Antioco, literally laughed at the co-founder of Netflix, Marc Randolph, when he was offered Netflix to buy, at $US50million. Blockbuster had 9000 stores. How many does it have now?"
Yeah. I can see the link between digital technology and food.... NOT !
As usual, first a truth, everyone in the rural sector is talking about the overload of regulation hitting their sector, hard.
Then comes the fantasy.
It's just more fear mongering by the radical left.






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