What happens when we cannot afford to eat meat anymore?

Meat may become a luxury, a nice-to-have, but not at the cost of missing meals. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Meat may become a luxury, a nice-to-have, but not at the cost of missing meals. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
My sons were discussing meat at a family dinner last night — my eldest son is flatting, while my middle son is in a university hostel, planning on flatting next year.

"Eat all the meat you can this year, because next year, you won’t be able to afford any" was the sage advice of elder son. He was scoffed at by middle son, who tends to roll his eyes when fronted with vegetarian fare.

As inflation climbs, and costs of housing becomes an increasingly large percentage of our weekly spend, what is left in the kitty for food is markedly reduced. It was sobering last week to read of the 20% of New Zealand households which struggle on a monthly basis and 12% which miss at least one meal a month through lack of funds. Meat, as part of that equation, becomes a luxury, a nice-to-have, but not at the cost of missing meals.

As commodity prices soar, I don’t begrudge farmers selling their protein to the highest bidders. Anyone who has farmed, for any length of time, will tell you that you need to ride the price waves, as the downturns will come. It has been wonderful to see local farmers undertaking community projects like "Meat the Need", but for many Kiwi families, the horse has bolted and diets are changing quickly.

My knowledge of economic theory is rudimentary — my fifth-form economics teacher looked like he was preparing to throw a chair at me in a particularly low economic theory moment. I did manage to learn the "supply-demand theory", but I can’t find a phrase for when the curve disappears completely — disruption, replacement? Regardless, middle son (ironically an economics major) is likely to be eating a lot more beans next year than he cares to imagine.

As meat and milk prices climb globally, on the back of an incoming recession, demand is likely to drop. The usual scenario is red meat is replaced with white meat, chicken or pork, however, with grain prices likely to stay high — grain supplies coming out of Ukraine having been decimated — chicken and pork prices are also likely to stay stubbornly high.

Disruption, or replacement, is on its way.

Whey and casein proteins isolated from cow’s milk made up 12% of New Zealand’s dairy export revenue last year, worth over $2.5 billion to our economy. Last week, two companies, Myprotein and Perfect Day, launched a new animal-free whey protein powder, called "Whey Forward". This product is made using precision fermentation technology. Precision fermentation is a process used to produce bio-identical milk proteins like casein or whey without the use of animals (the same technology is being used to produce meat and egg products). It is done by encoding milk protein DNA sequences into microorganisms, such as yeast or fungi, and then fermenting them with nutrients and sugar in tanks, much like the beer-brewing process.

During the fermentation process, these unique microbes produce proteins, identical to those found in cow’s milk. These proteins can be filtered into a pure milk protein isolate that can be used to create dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and ice cream — no ruminants involved. Another company, Betterland Milk, will be making a precision fermentation whole-milk product available in the US, via Amazon, late this month and in supermarkets by the end of the year.

The price of the whey products is not low enough to threaten whey as an ingredient isolated from cow’s milk, but in time, as issues of scaling are solved, prices will drop (if you want to keep up to date with the latest in this arena, I suggest following Otago local Anna Benny’s LinkedIn page, "Navigate", as a great source of information). And ... high commodity prices for meat and milk are fuelling the fire. Sustained high prices will drive the impetus to find replacement products, as companies strive to find more affordable mechanisms of supplying the world with ingredients and protein.

I have written about this before, and no doubt, I will again, mostly because I don’t think these new technologies are on our radar enough as a country of agricultural exporters. It is time-critical we do more to compete in the food technology space ourselves and in advanced manufacturing to develop high-end consumer brands — it’s great to see a new plant-milk manufacturing facility being planned for Southland — but it’s a drop in our agricultural ocean.

New Zealand agriculture feeds 40 million people, and many of those people don’t even realise or appreciate they are eating or drinking New Zealand protein. The ingredients business has given us a great platform — now we must leap into consumer brands and high-health products, connecting environmentally safe farming products with the nutritional wellbeing of consumers.

Either that, or we will be growing and eating many more beans, with minimal financial returns.

 - Anna Campbell is co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She also holds various directorships.