The 'un-meat' needs of our regionsJulian Wood - 05-12-16

In 1798, Thomas Malthus, a controversial but influential political economist, predicted that the world’s population would soon outstrip its food supply and that mass famines and starvation would occur. He has been consistently proven incorrect in his predictions, largely because of innovation. Last week Dr Rosie Bosworth predicted that the agricultural base of New Zealand’s economy is well on the road to becoming “the Detroit of agriculture - a rustbelt left behind after production has moved elsewhere.” I disagree. 

We have all seen the future in movies, you push a button, or say “chicken” to a box in the wall and “chicken” magically appears on a plate. Dr Bosworth argues the future of science promises unlimited lab cultured or 3D printed food at our fingertips. Mass produced, low carbon, low guilt food heaven. However, this utopian scenario assumes that everybody will hunger for mass produced, low carbon, low guilt food options.

If the automobile industry and Detroit proves anything, it’s that there is not a lot of profit in mass produced cars. At this end of the car making market, after the initial boom, competition from overseas heats up, and producing affordable cars becomes a low profit-margin business. However, profit is still there to be made at the luxury end. If your company puts a bull or a horse on the bonnet of your car you can charge a lot of money for the privilege of being the opposite of mass produced. And in Dr Bosworth’s lab meat future, this is our opportunity.

There will still be choice. If people want cheap, mass produced, no bone, no fat, ‘un-meat’ meat, let them buy it elsewhere. New Zealand shouldn’t try and compete in what will, after the initial boom, become a mass market, low cost, low profit product. If people want and are prepared to pay for the real thing, let’s become the premium provider of that real meat, bone, and fat in the world. 

This shift to premium only product would require our primary industries to innovate and market themselves like never before. Unfortunately, within New Zealand the majority of our business research and development support and Callaghan Innovation funding appears to be captured by firms in our main urban areas, like Auckland, Canterbury, and Wellington, not in the wider regions where our primary sectors operate. We need to do more to tie our innovation funding into our wider regions and primary industries. The Government’s push for regional research institutes is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. 

Agriculture is not doomed. There will always be hunger for authenticity, and good money behind that appetite. To capitalise on an ‘un-meat’ future, we need research focused in the right areas now, and a plan to compete at the very high end of the agricultural market. 

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