How lab-grown meat is already here

NGAI Tahu Farming chief executive Andrew Priest has tasted the future.

The "Impossible Burger" - with a fake meat patty so realistic that it drips pink blood - has grabbed headlines around the world.

"I liked it," says Priest, who tried the burger while on a US study mission with Te Hono, a "bootcamp" programme for New Zealand's primary industry leaders.

"I would say that in a blind taste test it would be really hard to taste the difference between real meat and the Impossible Burger. It looked like a medium rare burger."

So, could this sort of meat replacement technology pose a real problem to New Zealand farming?

"It's an interesting threat coming our way," Priest says. "Impossible foods aren't targeting vegans; they are targeting any consumer that has a conscience about environment and food safety - a very rich and wide ranging set of attributes to play to."

The Impossible Burger is really just a starting point for disruption in the agricultural sector, says Singularity University's Raymond McCauley.

Artificial eggs - and even more worrying for New Zealand, artificial dairy - are also in the pipeline, he says. Then there is the even more "sci-fi" technology which enables real meat to be grown artificially from stem cells.

McCauley, who will visit New Zealand in November as a guest speaker at the SingularityU conference in Christchurch, is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur working at the forefront of biotechnology.

He too has tried the Impossible Burger.

"I'm a boy from Texas so I know what a good steak tastes like," he says. "And those are pretty good."

They achieve their meat-like texture by re-engineering "plant blood" to mimic the consistency of real blood. However, the rest of the patty is just the usual vege-burger stuff, he says.

But the technology is already taking things a step further.

A Singularity University colleague of McCauley's, Mark Post, was one of the team which developed the first stem cell burger - real meat grown in a vat.

When it was developed in 2013, that cost a whopping US$350,000 ($480,686) per burger, but that is already down to around US$15.

The stem cell burgers still can't be produced on a mass scale, but Post has said he hopes they could be commercially viable inside 10 years.

Perhaps even more ominous for New Zealand is a company called Perfect Day, which has developed "cow free" milk.

Unlike soy milk or almond milk, Perfect Day is manipulating yeast in the lab to create proteins that mimic those found in cows' milk.

Perfect Day aims to be in the market next year.

Similar technologies are being developed to replace eggs - as a processed food ingredient, if not as a brunch option.

This is called cellular agriculture, McCauley says.

It's unlikely to replace premium meats and cheeses, but could have a huge impact in the mass production of processed foods which rely on milk powders and other animal proteins as ingredients.

"So what would it be like if, instead of having all those ingredients produced by animals, you had a big vat of microbes that have been reprogrammed to make a complex organic molecules. We do that now for medicine. We know that most of the insulin we use comes from reprogrammed yeast and e. coli molecules," he says.

"We've been doing it for 10,000 years, reprogramming yeast to make beer and bread and penicillin ... so could we do that on a larger scale and produce all the things that are good for us."

If that isn't enough change, try adding genetic engineering into the mix.

It's been a hot topic politically and scientifically for several years, but its potential to change the world is just getting started.

Two different things are a happening in that area, McCauley says.

One is that we are seeing small genetic tweaks to basic foods. Things that can help crops to grow with less water, or in more saline soils.

"These will be the world saving foods," he says. "For people who just need calories ... they're not worried about heritage tomatoes, they just need something to feed their children. We'll see more of this because we've got two billion more people coming by the middle of this century."

Then at the other end of the spectrum, there are people engineering more experimental foods.

"So out there, weird things, different shapes and flavours, novelty seeking and there might be some interesting things come out of that ... so much of what we consider staples didn't really exist 50 or 100 years ago."

It is hard to predict when such technologies will go mainstream, says McCauley.

That's because it isn't necessarily science that will drive the change.

Commercial adoption tends to be more about protective tariffs and politics, he says.

"Everyone always makes that sound like they want to protect the health of their people but it's more about protecting their local industries."

But there will be an economic pressure for change as more and more people - particularly in China and India - shift into the middle class.

"In the next 10-15 years as we have about one billion new people shifting into the middle class, a lot of them are going to want to eat dairy products and that's going to be a driver as pressure goes on the environment."

As an example, thing about chocolate, McCauley says.

"China has really discovered chocolate and consumption is expected to double by 2022. There are not enough cocoa plants on earth to sustain that and we probably couldn't grow that many if we started now," he says.

"So to me that that means we will end up doing some biotechnology magic on it. It will be something that looks and feels and tastes like cocoa but is probably grown in a vat."

Ultimately, it will become more expensive to produce food the old way, particularly as the focus goes on global warming and the cost of protecting the environment rises.

"Everyone wants to protect the environment and everyone wants to have good food cheap," McCauley says.

For big agriculture companies, there will still be opportunity to produce premium foods in traditional ways, but they will also need to stay up to speed with new technologies.

In the next 10-15 years as we have about 1 billion new people shifting into the middle class, a lot of them are going to want to eat dairy products and that's going to be a driver as pressure goes on the environment.

"There no reason why traditional producers can't do both."

In many ways, the more pressing technological changes facing the food industry are to do with the same big data and artificial intelligence computing that is shaking up everything from accounting to calling a taxi, he says.

We should expect to see increasing use of sensors and analytics in consumer appliances -- microwaves that can count calories and assess the nutritional benefits of food, for example.

Smart technology is also shaking up food production by making it much easier to track foodstuffs from pasture to plate.

DNA testing is enabling farmers to better assess the quality of livestock earlier in their life cycle.

But, says McCauley, these technologies don't grab the headlines because they aren't as weird as some of the big biotech changes.

New Zealand farming is already at the forefront of some of these technological advances - Priest describes them as the tools that will help us meet the challenges of more fundamental disruption around food production.

But he believes we need to start talking about the challenges created by fake meat and artificial dairy - and sooner rather than later.

"This is a big disruption and I think we need to treat it seriously," Priest says.

"If we are serious about our sustainability and our grass-fed story, these sorts of technologies mean everyone has to get on the bus and have this discussion about what we need to do."

Burger joint
Founded by Patrick Brown, Impossible Foods is a Silicon Valley company started in 2011. It spent the next five years (and more than $220m) researching every aspect of the sensory experience of meat, from how it looks raw, to how it sizzles, to its texture.

What is it made of?

The Impossible Burger is made from simple ingredients found in nature, including wheat, coconut oil and potatoes. There is also a special ingredient, called "heme." Heme gives meat its characteristic colour and taste. Exceptionally abundant in animal muscle, heme is also a basic building block of life in all organisms, including plants. The company discovered how to take heme from plants and produce it using fermentation.

Full ingredient list

Water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavours, 2 per cent or less of: leghemoglobin (heme protein), yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan gum, thiamine (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.

How much does it cost?

Burgers went on sale in New York in July for around $15.

What next?

Impossible Foods wants to develop chicken, pork, fish or yoghurt entirely from plants. The company says it will bring other products to market according to regional food preferences and customer demand.

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