The Cow – Most Successful & Most Miserable of Species

That many of us believe we are headed for a dystopic world seems clear from the fact that not a week goes by without a book, movie or cable TV series being put out depicting some new or rehashed variation on a dystopic theme.

Visions of the future, dystopic or utopic, have ever haunted our imagination. Dystopia really came into its own mid 20th century with Huxley’s eugenic vision “Brave New World” (1931) and Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare “1984” published in 1949. Hitting its stride by mid-1960’s with Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, followed by a succession of blockbuster disaster movies, the genre had come of age.

Of note at the time was a book by Harry Harrison published in 1966 entitled “Room, More Room”. The plot was basically a detective story based in New York 33 years on in 1999, by when the world’s population had reached 7 billion and New York had hit 36 million. The author got it about half right at least. World population reached seven billion in 2011. New York’s population was still only 8.4 million in 2013. The backdrop to the detective story and accompanying love interest was runaway population growth and how to feed people. The answer was the mass production of a basic staple combining sufficient nutrients to ensure survival called Soylent, made from soybean and lentils.

“But”, I hear some of you say, “that’s not right, it was made from… People!”.

No, that was a dark twist to the tale added for the movie, “Soylent Green”, which hit the screens six years later in 1973.

Few of us, except those young enough to know nothing else, can have failed to notice that the cost of our food has increased enormously in the last decade. That there is a land grab already under way whereby populous rich nations are buying vast tracts of cheap arable land, in Africa mainly, so they can feed themselves and profit from selling what’s left over to the rest of us in the event of future global food shortage. Ordinary foods, pretty much staples, but food that is real and was once cheap, now seem priced as luxuries. Only the nutritional illusion provided by packaged processed foods appears to be affordable, though in fact they are mostly bad value, monetarily and nutritionally. With world population heading toward 10 billion within the lifetime of our children, shrinking purchasing power, growing economic disparities, nuclear breakout on the cards within the decade, our screens filled by daily atrocities, not to mention climate change… is it any wonder we get the feeling the world is not headed in a good way?

Is it Really all Going to Hell?

Honest answer…. maybe. It does look like as though we are in for a rough ride as we’re forced to adapt to climate change. But will most of us starve due to climate change and overpopulation? Probably not. Not if we’re smart. We now know how to feed ourselves efficiently and nutritiously. And, more to the point, the people who will bring us cheap nutritious food stand to make untold billions by engineering a food revolution needed to do it.

It does mean we will radically have to alter the way we obtain most of our food. We don’t actually need to kill and eat the cow that processes the plant nutrients for us. In fact, given the toxic way most of these animals are raised, nowadays it’s better we don’t. We already have the technology to use plant biomass and do it ourselves, more cheaply and more healthily than an animal. What’s more, the taste and texture can be bio-engineered to be identical.

Think for a minute what means. The end of industrial livestock farming. We won’t have to kill hundreds of millions of mammals daily. We won’t have to raise them, medicate them, cut down forests to feed them, slaughter, dismember and package them. Apart from a few specialist farms, these animals could return to their natural state, smaller herds roaming the vast territories now freed up from growing the corn to feed them. Vast tracts of land can live again, freed from the daily tsunamis of animal ordure that pollutes both it, the rivers and the oceans.

The UN and other bodies estimate we kill and eat about 55 billion animals a year, not including fish. We’re talking cows, sheep, pigs and hens in the main. That’s 150 million animals slaughtered every day. That’s a vast amount of killing of sentient beings and I suspect an underestimation. But why do it if we don’t need to, if we can get the same if not better food more efficiently another way?

Silicon Valley to the Rescue

We’ve heard this sort of global world-changer scenario before but somehow nothing much seems to change. It may seem that way, but it’s not actually true. Radical change is part of our life and most of us don’t like it, but we adapt to it soon enough. Just compare the way we lead our lives today and compare it to the two preceding generations, to 1964 or 1904 say.

It is possible vested interests in the meat raising and processing industries might delay things, but I doubt they’ll manage to derail this gravy train for long. There’s just too much money to be made by too many people. It’s also the smart thing to do. The only real force against change is habit and even that, as we see, is not strong enough to resist market and demographic forces.

The Princes of Venture Capital are hungry for the new Big Idea, one that will radically change the world for the better, make them new fortunes while lending added lustre to their big swinging reps as Masters of the Multiverse.

They believe the new Big Idea is Food 2.0.

Already hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in food biotech start-ups, companies such as Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek, Soylent, Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow funded by such major players as Bill Gates, Li Ka Shing’s Horizon Ventures, Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures and August Capital. There’s also keen interest from the world’s major international food chains: Walmart, Costco and Target and Tesco (UK).

Howard Hartenbaum of August Capital sums it up, “everybody eats food. It’s one of the largest potential markets in the world. If it works the market is ungodly huge”.

We don’t Need the Cow…

In Redwood City, beating heart of Silicon Valley, watching a burger being prepared for him, sits Tim Bradshaw, San Francisco correspondent for the Financial Times (FT, UK). Having eaten the burger he reports it tastes just as a burger should, with exactly the same smell and texture. But, he goes on to relate, the ‘meat’ has never been near a cow or a meadow: it’s made entirely of vegetables in Redwood City by Impossible Foods. CEO Pat Brown comments, “we make meat a better way, transforming cheap abundant biomass into meat same way a cow does – only without the cow”.

Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, aims to liberate millions of battery hens from terminal servitude by replacing eggs with a variety of Canadian yellow pea. His first product Just Mayo is pretty far along. Next he plans replacing sugar and eggs in sour cream, salad dressing, cakes and mixes.

“Innovation in food was all about making Doritos crunchier”, Tetrick tells the FT.

“It wasn’t about how in hell do we feed 12 billion people in 2050 in a way that sustains them?”.

Josh is doing his bit with the Just Mayo, which will be 40% more cost effective than using eggs, while improving public health and benefiting the environment, he says.

Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s CEO, doesn’t care how food tastes he just wants to replace it. He’s already brought to market a gooey beige drink containing all the nutrients you need to be healthy. It’s concocted to be bland so people don’t get tired of it and they can add their own flavours. No foodie he, Rob reckons the time wasted shopping and preparing food could be better spent elsewhere. He’s been proved right. Not only has he attracted the necessary investor support; he can’t produce enough of the stuff. Even he allows that breaking bread, real bread, with family and friends is hard to beat, but otherwise…..

Other start-ups hot on the veggie trail are Beyond Meat with plant protein products and Modern Meadow, a New York-based company using muscle-cell cultivation to grow new bio materials (read meatless steaks, etc.).

The logic and the economics seem inescapable. There is no scientific reason why we can’t cut animals out of the food chain and eat vegetable-based food that is just as good for us, just as tasty as before, if not better, and do it a lot cheaper. There is every reason why we should. The benefits to the planet of our so doing are incalculable. If a proliferation of Real Beefsteak Clubs for the rich to chew on very expensive cow meat and swill vintage claret is the price to pay, then so be it. Good on ‘em… and good for us.