New Harvest Conference New York: Synthetic Food Debate

Richard Fowler, 2016 Nuffield Scholar

The hype and debate around synthetic food seems to keep ramping up with a continuous stream of articles in the farming papers and mentions from so called futurists, but when I attended the New Harvest 2017 conference in New York last month, I got the impression that the rhetoric and the marketing is still out of tune with actual production and sales.

New Harvest is a non-profit group that aims to fund and coordinate research into ‘Cellular Agriculture’ and covers the extreme end of synthetic food including in-vitro meat production, and milk protein synthesis without the need for cows.

When I attended the 2016 conference, I got the impression that despite the incredible amount of funding and interest in the field, there were some serious hurdles like the use of bovine foetal serum for cell growth and the need to get USDA approval for novel technologies. There was also an obvious lack of farmers and food processors in the room, so there was no balanced debate or real-world experience.

This year, after giving my feedback on the 2016 conference, I was asked to speak on a panel alongside a Welsh farmer (also a Nuffield scholar) and two of the leaders from the Cell Ag world. The questions put to us included “what will happen to all the farm animals when they’re not required any more” and “is clean meat the right term to be using to describe cell cultured tissue?”

It was always going to be a tough crowd and there’s a real need to get more farmers and researchers in on the conversation. But I think we managed to get a couple of points across like “YouTube doesn’t represent different farming systems very well” and that “animal agriculture is actually a rich part of human culture.”
To me, the thing that needs the most attention from a New Zealand Agriculture point of view, is pushing back on the claims that are being made by the synthetic food companies.

Stats like ‘98% less water consumption to make cultured milk’ and ‘95% less land to make a veggie burger’ are presented like they are facts when they’re quite frankly rubbish.

I strongly believe that once some real research (instead of modelling) is done on the actual production (instead of forecasts) of synthetic food, then pastoral farming will prove more efficient and therefore cheaper and better for the environment.

That message is being diluted by the millions of dollars being pumped into the marketing of synthetic food and animal agriculture still runs the risk of being shot without a fair trial.

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