The fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption of food and agriculture in 10,000 years, driven by technology and new business models, is underway according to a new report, “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020–2030.” Released by RethinkX, an independent think tank, the report predicts that by 2030, the dairy and cattle industries will have collapsed as animal-derived foods are replaced by modern equivalents that are higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce. The rest of the livestock industry will suffer a similar fate.
“Technology we call precision fermentation and a new production model called food-as-software are dramatically driving down the costs and driving up the quality of manufactured proteins,” said report co-author Catherine Tubb. “The industrial livestock industry is one of the oldest, largest, and most inefficient food-production systems in the world. Modern ingredients and foods are about 10 times more efficient across the board—from land and water use to feedstock consumption and energy use.”
Precision fermentation (PF) is a process that enables the programming of micro-organisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule. Due to rapid improvements in underlying biological and information technologies, the cost of PF development and production is dropping exponentially—from $1 million per kilogram in 2000 to about $100 today. Assuming existing technologies, the report projects that these costs will fall to $10 per kilogram by 2023–2025, meaning PF proteins will be five times cheaper than traditional animal proteins by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035.
The report details the way different parts of the cow (meat, milk, collagen, and leather) and the markets they serve will be disrupted separately and concurrently by different technologies and business-model innovations that overlap, reinforce, and accelerate one another. It also analyzes the way technology and new models of production flip the current food production system on its head. Instead of growing a whole cow to break it down into products, food will be built up at the molecular level to precise specifications. Developments are made in a similar manner to the software industry—the databases of individual molecules can be updated and shared by scientists with production facilities across the world, where food engineers design products in the same way that software developers develop apps for smartphones.
“This disruption is inevitable,” said Jamie Arbib, RethinkX cofounder. “The positive impacts—from food security to climate change—are profound. But policymakers, investors, businesses, and voters have some power over this disruption’s speed, scale, impacts, and who benefits.”