Last year it was revealed that, per capita, New Zealand was the seventh-worst emitter of greenhouse gases among 41 industrialised nations. While you may not be surprised to hear 40.5% of the pollution was the result of energy industries, it may come as a shock to learn 47.9% was caused by agriculture — a trend that’s typical worldwide.
According to a recent report in the Guardian, in 2016, meat and dairy giants Tyson, Cargill and JBS, created more greenhouse gases than France, lagging not far behind oil corporations such as Shell, Exon or BP. In fact, if the 20 most powerful meat and dairy companies were a country, they’d be the seventh biggest polluter on Earth. Cows alone cause more greenhouse gases than all the world’s cars, and what’s more, they emit methane which is far more toxic to the atmosphere — that’s before we even get to the issues of soiled waters and excess land use.
Kiwi future of food and agriculture specialist Dr Rosie Bosworth is taking a stand.
“Agriculture produces 18% of global greenhouse emissions which is more than all transportation combined,” she says. “Plus, 80% of industrial water-use is attributed to agriculture, and there’s the environmental degradation that comes with it. We must change the system. There’s a growing generation of people who are aware of this, who are aware of not only the environmental impact of animal farming, but the ethical and health impacts too. There is an army of socially-minded consumers demanding animal-free products.”
Rosie, who has a PhD in environmental innovation and sustainable technology development, has created a global network of likeminded leaders in the area of food futurism. She advises businesses, industry and government on “various strategic pathways forward in the future of food and agriculture”, and writes and speaks on the subject — including for TEDx — regularly.
“My passion in health and wellbeing was ingrained from a young age,” she says. “I was an active child and my mother always cooked healthy dinners. But it was accelerated when I broke my neck, back, and leg in a skiing accident overseas.” During her recovery, unable to move for many months, Rosie’s revaluation of life led her to slow down, to develop an interest in yoga (which she now teaches), meditation and a mindful way of living. It also deepened her existing passion for food and the role technology can play in creating sustainable yet highly progressive and productive industries. Rosie completed part of her PhD at the University of Maastricht — where the world’s first synthetic hamburger was grown, by Dr Mark Post — becoming involved in technologies that “were disruptive to industries, and creating paradigm shifts including renewable energy systems, ownership-free transportation, and the transition of animal-bred food and protein systems to plant-based- and synthetic proteins that could feed the world”.
“When I finished my PhD, there wasn’t much going on in the food space,” says Rosie. “So, I kept falling into other roles around clean energy and sustainability, but over time, I kept focusing on food, on how technologies were changing the face of agriculture. Eventually it just started to blow up.”
But there are still great generational and cultural divides in attitudes to alternate proteins. “Non-Western cultures, like Asia, have generally been more progressive when it comes to a plant-based diet,” Rosie says. “Up until the last few decades, they haven’t eaten so much meat — and we are already starting to see the health impacts of that. There are also generational differences when you compare millennials and generation X to baby boomers who can barely wrap their heads around eating something that isn’t produced from an animal, coupled with the attitude of ‘why should they?’ They often fall back on that old chestnut that there will always be a market for animal-derived foods.”
Research by Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School concludes that the adoption of a vegetarian diet would cut global emissions by 63% (70% for veganism) by 2050, prevent seven million premature deaths (eight million for veganism), and save US$1 billion a year in healthcare costs. Myths around the impossibility of ingesting enough protein through a plant-based diet are thankfully fast dispelling, but the notion of consuming synthetic or lab-grown meats are a tougher swallow. I ask Rosie if the language needs to change.
“Of course. I would never want to eat anything synthetic, it seems fake and unhealthy. There certainly needs to be such a shift away from such terms if the industry is to truly take off.” While plant-based proteins are self-explanatory, Rosie fears there is too much confusion and misinformation about how synthetic — or ‘clean’ — meats are grown: “When you look at how most of the world produces traditional meat, animals are often fed corn, grain and supplements, that are not natural for them to eat. They are kept in confined conditions and given hormones and antibiotics. New Zealand’s pastorally raised system is better, but still flawed. Clean meats are grown using the same animal cells, but instead of using the animal as a vehicle to grow those proteins we use another medium such as a fermentation tank. The result is a nutritious product with significantly less environmental impact, and one that is far more ethical.”
While plant-based products are presently available in ever-increasing numbers, food technology companies such as San Francisco-based Memphis Meats and Finless Foods are aiming to make their clean meats available within the next five years.
Prominent naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough argue that some form of population control such as China’s one child policy should be implemented to tackle dwindling global resources and environmental degradation. Rosie is reluctant to weigh in on that debate, but does admit that it is “the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about”: “Though there are certainly ways that technology and innovation can possibly provide solutions and wise answers to this issue, without necessarily reducing population.”
Much public perception is that animal farming is sustainable and eco-friendly. Do you fear the industry wields too much power?
“Until recently, yes. The pro-meat industry promotes itself as a ‘natural’ product. But when you look at what is involved in industrialised animal agriculture such as factory- and battery farming there are processes in the way these animals are raised and slaughtered that is far from ‘natural’. Even on free-range (pastoral) farms in New Zealand, I have heard, anecdotally from those in the industry, that the animals are not always completely pastorally raised with diets far from 100% grass-fed. People are eating meats in spite of, not because of, how it is produced.”
Where do you see New Zealand’s role in all of this?
“I definitely think livestock numbers will drop over time because as the cost of alternative protein products lessen, animal farmers won’t be able to compete. Also, more and more consumers will begin to wisen up and realise, ‘Why would I eat something that has been raised in these conditions when there are so many other more feasible options?’ As a nation, we must think about the opportunities that plant-based proteins bring, research and development gaps to seize within the clean meat sector, and how we can create our own progressive research and development around high value horticulture, how we can develop high value nutraceuticals and bioactives from our native plants and crops that can yield good income-earning capacity for the country.”
Once ‘alternative’ lifestyle choices such as veganism or practising yoga and meditation are now becoming almost mainstream, and that, Rosie adds, should fill us with hope. “There is a wider realisation that we have reached a tipping point in the industrialised world,” she says. We are reassessing what makes us happy or complete — and it has nothing to do with being busy or accumulating material goods: “We are increasingly looking for those places of solace, where we can feel centred, and ethical and animal-free products are an offshoot of that. We are moving toward a progressive food system that can feed the population in a respectful way. It’s a lofty goal, but one that need to happen if we are to ensure that the world is a happy and healthy place for the generations to come.”