Posted: May 03, 2019 10 min. read

Are GMO and Labgrown meat our best hope for survival?

Humankind today is presented with what could be the most impactful paradox of all...

Is genetically modified food a bad thing? What if modifications make a crop resistant to drought or mould, and in doing so, avoid food going to waste? Lab-grown meat and synthetic milk might not sound immediately appealing, but what if the planet won’t be able to sustain the cows needed to nourish growing populations? Should we all become vegan, given the impact animal farming has on climate and precious soil and water resources? But what about the vital nutritional value that meat, fish and dairy provide?

Humankind today is presented with what could be the most impactful paradox of all: how to feed the world nutritiously, without destroying the environment upon which it depends? 

The answer is far from simple, and will involve a range of interventions. Some are in the hands of consumers, and others require farmers, technology and food companies, retailers and governments to act. One thing is clear, the world will need to embrace and stimulate innovative solutions and alternatives to further increase farm productivity and reduce environmental impacts before we run out of time.

Below, we lay out the challenge and urge all parties to accelerate their actions, as time is of the essence. 

The challenge
 

The tension between humanity’s success as a dominant species and the already emerging threats presented by climate change can’t have escaped too many people’s attentions.

Food production and the food system as a whole – from paddock to plate – is recognised as one of the largest influences on climate change, biodiversity loss, and water use [1]. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates the world will surpass 9.1 billion by 2050 (some say this could be as early as 2030), at which point agricultural systems will not be able to supply enough food. New technological advancements in food and agriculture are presenting themselves at a rapid pace, however these often face regulatory barriers or have insufficient market access required to scale.

Significant progress is being made, but we need to pick up the pace
 

Much progress has been made over past decades. Agricultural efforts have doubled crop yields and optimised meat production, and technology innovations in agriculture continue to sprout.

We see FMCG, retailers, chefs, and food service providers already taking some responsibility to make a positive impact on the ‘great food transformation’ by exploring credible alternatives to eating habits, such as plant-based alternatives, lab-grown meat and synthetic milk, often indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing [2 ].

Awareness of our food’s environmental footprint is on the rise among consumers [3], and there is constant debate on which alternative diet is best. Recent research revealed that livestock provide just 18% of our global calories, while taking up 83% of farmland, producing 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gases [4] and, perhaps not surprisingly fuelling the vegan and flexitarian movements.

At the same time, commercial opportunities are accelerating new formulas in sustainability and minimising food miles and organic food and health trends. In Australia, for example, Coles Local in Melbourne sources all its vegetables from Australian growers, while Woolworth’s Kitchen in Sydney focuses on organic convenience. [5,6].

To increase food supply, technological advancements enable greenhouse farming in arid climates [7] and GMOs have the ability to reduce famine by preventing crop infection and addressing climate change through minimising the use of fungicides [8-11]. Incredibly, a single gene from a wild relative of commonly farmed potatoes could reduce annual CO2 emissions by the equivalent of 14,000 cars.

Clearly, the world is making significant technological progress in the face of the multiple challenges presented by global warming. However, to drive the required step change towards a sustainable food system that fits within the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, we need to pick up the pace.

Conscious food choices: our latest tool for survival?
 

There is no silver bullet when it comes to solving this paradox. Rather, success will be driven by a large portfolio of solutions and players. And although the global conversation around climate change has a long way to go before the food system is recognised as the challenge and opportunity that it is, key voices are increasingly bringing dietary choices to the fore. 

The need to add plant-based food and clean meat as evolving instruments to humanity’s toolbox has certainly never been more critical. We don’t all have to become vegans, but there is a place for a more considered (food tech enabled) diet that benefits both the health of our people and our planet. 

And this new world is opening endless opportunities for our farmers, food companies and retailers who are willing to embrace and stimulate this change.

This article forms part of Deloitte's Future of Food series, which explores key consumer trends, environmental issues and technological advancements that provide both commercial opportunities for food businesses as well as a chance to deliver a positive societal impact.

References

[1] Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (January 2019)

[2] https://agfundernews.com/cultured-meat-startups-raise-funding.html

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714

[4] Poore, J. and Nemecek, T., 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science

[5] https://www.coles.com.au/about-coles/news/2018/11/12/coles-local-unveiled

[6] https://insidefmcg.com.au/2018/12/13/woolworths-opens-new-concept-store-in-double-bay/#daily

[7]  SCIRO Science and Solutions for Australia: Water, 2011

[8] Kawashima, C.G. et al., 2016. A pigeonpea gene confers resistance to Asian soybean rust in soybean. Nature Biotechnology

[9] Witek, K., et al., 2016. Accelerated cloning of a potato late blight-resistance gene using RenSeq and SMRT sequencing. Nature Biotechnology

[10] Steuernagel, B., et al., 2106. Rapid cloning of disease-resistance genes in plants using mutagenesis and sequence capture. Nature Biotechnology

[11] https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2017/01/16/three-new-disease-resistant-gmos-address-climate-change-save-farmers-billions/

More about the authors

Vanessa Matthijssen

Vanessa Matthijssen

Partner, Strategy Consulting

Vanessa is a strategy partner at Monitor Deloitte and leads Deloitte Australia’s Consumer Products sector group. With more than 20 years' experience advising clients in the consumer products, Agri, FM

Daniel Terrill

Daniel Terrill

Partner, Deloitte Access Economics

Dr Terrill leads teams in agribusiness, natural resource management, urban planning and regional economic development. He has a Ph.D and fifteen years of consulting experience in related industries. H

Annelieke de Wit

Annelieke de Wit

Guest blogger
Manager, Strategy & Business Design

Annelieke is a Manager in Deloitte’s Strategy & Business Design team in Auckland. Prior to Strategy & Business Design, she has had over 4 years of experience in the Strategy & Operations team in Amste

Petra Kliese

Petra Kliese

Consultant, Monitor Deloitte

Petra is a Consultant in Monitor Deloitte, Deloitte’s Strategy and Transformation Practice. Petra has experience in business service design, financial analysis, market insights, innovation and growth