Anyone for artificial muscle?

Anyone for some artificial muscle?

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Having to label their products as 'artificial muscle proteins' or something similar would represent a significant hurdle for this emerging industry.

Having to label their products as 'artificial muscle proteins' or something similar would represent a significant hurdle for this emerging industry.

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Ken Wilcock delves in to the importance of the European Union.

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JUST last week, well known ex-agent Mike Wheeler alerted me to a new report that predicts the cattle industry world-wide will be little more than smoldering wreckage in 10-15 years' time as a consequence of rapid advances in technology which will drive down the cost of protein to the point that meat substitutes will cost less than half as much to produce than the animal-derived products they replace.

Titled 'Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030', the report was published last month by self-styled independent think tank, RethinkX.

The group's stated speciality is analysing and forecasting the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.

In 2017 it produced a report titled 'Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030' and the claimed Technology Disruption Framework then developed by author Tony Seba is the basis of this latest effort.

Readers can draw their own conclusions on the value of this particular report but its emergence at this point in time does at least provoke some cause to consider where this whole business is coming from.

How popular would almond milk be with the latte coffee crowd if it was more accurately labelled as nut juice. - Ken Wilcock

To that end, I turned to a research paper produced in February this year by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs based in London.

Under their mission to help governments and societies build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world, Chatham House authors Antony Froggatt and Laura Wellesley delved into Meat Analogues (plant-based 'meat' and cultured meat) from the perspective of considerations for policy makers in the EU.

Why is the EU important? 

The answer to that question goes back to 2012 when the European Commission (EC) adopted a strategy called Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe which was a commitment to develop new technologies, processes and markets in support of a sustainable, low-emissions, resource-efficient food system.

The Chatham House paper explains that a 2017 regulation then committed the EC to explore possibilities for further development of the production of plant proteins.

This led to the EC presenting in late 2018 its EU Protein Plan, the blueprint for the production of alternative proteins for human consumption.

By coincidence or design, this development of new meat alternatives was quickly identified as an important pathway to achieving the EC's Food 2030 Initiative to deliver a climate-smart, sustainable food system for Europe.

Climate smart is really just a euphemism for the EU meeting its ambitious target to reduce GHG emissions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It appears unshakeable in its belief that to achieve its climate change commitments, cows will have to go because the methane they produce amounts to 14.5pc of all human GHG emissions.

That in turn invokes a need to change eating patterns, in particular a reduction in meat consumption.

The sustainable food system goal is equally necessary from the EU perspective because meat production is seen as a principal driver of natural resource depletion, in particular its estimated usage of 40pc of global arable land, 36pc of crop calories produced and 29pc of agricultural freshwater use.

Then as the paper explains, health issues and animal welfare concerns are also implicated in the sustainability issue.

Excessive levels of meat consumption are claimed to be associated with obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers while use of antimicrobials in animals is recognised by the UN as a leading cause of the increased occurrence of antimicrobial resistance.

Despite contrary scientific analyses that question some of the key aspects of the need to intervene in red meat consumption, the EU appears resolute in its determination to forge ahead.

It has one of the world's largest public-sector R&D programs and has already committed significant public funds to supporting meat analogue innovation.

The research paper noted that between 2010 and 2013 the EU provided over 1 billion Euro for research into high-quality plant-based 'meat' products under the 'LIKEMEAT' project and in 2017 announced a further 1 billion Euro investment in innovation in the agri-food sector under its Horizon 2020 program.

But while EU policymakers see development of a meat analogue industry as a pathway to delivering on their GHG emission and sustainability targets, there are some significant challenges in store.

Firstly from the production side of the livestock and meat industry there is the not-inconsequential matter of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Considering it consumes approximately 38pc of the EU budget, it should not come as a surprise that there is strong economic and political support from EU member states for its continuation.

Farmers are well aware that much of the land that cattle occupy is not suited to arable agriculture and they do not necessarily see a role for themselves in the EU's plan to free up that land for use in renewable energy production and carbon capture.

European farmers also have a reputation for vigorous direct action when it comes to protecting the provenance of their traditional agricultural industries.

Labelling therefore looks set to become a cultural and regulatory bottleneck for these new meat alternatives as greater scrutiny of meat terminology plays out in the legislative assemblies of individual EU states and the European Court of Justice.

Having to label their products as 'artificial muscle proteins' or something similar would represent a significant hurdle for the industry. As Gruen's Will Anderson so eloquently put it on Wednesday night, how popular would almond milk be with the latte coffee crowd if it was more accurately labelled as nut juice?

Then there are other issues such as the use of GMO's in the production of plant-based 'meat', the energy intensive nature of cultured meat production and the simple fact that world-wide, the demand for real meat is increasing. Plant-based 'meat' products are off to a strong start but as Chatham House concludes, wider uptake of meat analogues among meat-eaters may depend first on a broader shift in attitudes towards greater acceptability of plant-based diets.

The story Anyone for artificial muscle? first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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