The Next 30 Years Could Be Crucial for New Zealand’s Meat and Dairy Sectors as Alternative Proteins Emerge

The Next 30 Years Could Be Crucial for New Zealand's Meat and Dairy Sectors as Alternative Proteins Emerge

The farming industry has experienced several technological advancements throughout history that have had a profound impact on entire industries and countries. Mechanization, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the development of substitute commodities have transformed agricultural systems and threatened the existence of certain farming sectors. The next major disruption in farming is expected to be alternative proteins, which offer environmentally and animal-friendly protein options produced through microbial processes or laboratory cell division.

Proponents of alternative proteins argue that they can provide solutions to global environmental and social problems. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health has even included non-animal proteins as an integral part of a sustainable diet for a stressed planet, contributing significantly to climate change mitigation. Most academic publications reflect this optimism and focus on technological advancements and solutions that require more investment of time and funding. In this version of the future, it is believed that we can have the benefits of traditional animal-based proteins while also enjoying the advantages of alternative proteins.

However, the shift to alternative proteins raises questions about the impact on farming systems and landscapes in countries where animal protein production is a significant part of rural economies. Critics wonder who will benefit from this shift, who will be substituted out of existence, who will capture value, and who will be left behind.

These questions are particularly important for New Zealand, where agricultural sectors generate 80% of export earnings. Alternative proteins have the potential to change the fortunes of entire sectors and regions, competing with traditional agricultural practices. To investigate the impacts of alternative proteins on New Zealand’s primary sector and regional land use, the Protein Futures NZ project used economic modeling.

The project started by gathering credible projections of global growth for alternative protein production. Due to the limited commercial-scale production of most alternative proteins, expectations and impacts vary significantly. Market assessments conducted by management consulting groups were used to model potential outcomes. Four scenarios were projected until 2050, capturing a range of potential growth for alternative proteins.

The first scenario served as a baseline, using current growth trajectories for different forms of alternative proteins. The other three scenarios explored the impact of significant growth in one or more alternative protein types on New Zealand’s meat and dairy sectors. The modeling showed mixed impacts on New Zealand’s agricultural sector, with the dairy sector being particularly sensitive to developments in precision fermentation. Sheep numbers decreased in scenarios two, three, and four, while the impact on beef was inconsistent. Overall, the modeling suggested that significant growth in alternative proteins would result in fewer animals and more plants being grown in New Zealand. Despite the negative impacts on the meat and dairy sectors, the modeling projected relatively moderate overall economic impacts for the country, along with clear environmental benefits such as lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The findings of the project highlight the need for policies that prepare the primary sector for changing protein markets and govern land use accordingly. Producers in New Zealand need to focus on production practices that mitigate environmental impacts and prioritize animal welfare to remain competitive in the alternative protein sectors. There are also opportunities to shift production to plant proteins or plant-based products that can supply nutrients for precision fermentation and cellular meat production. Additionally, New Zealand could benefit from investing in technologies that utilize renewable energy to produce proteins.

History has shown that substitutes for traditional agricultural products can significantly alter the viability of once-profitable commodities. Alternative proteins are likely to lead to significant shifts in land use while improving environmental and welfare factors. It is crucial to develop policies that enable a resilient response to this impact.

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