Stuff - Keith Woodford: The wheat and chaff of synthetic food

Professor Keith Woodford writes:

It has become fashionable for agri-food commentators to talk of disruptive change. In particular, in recent months there has been much talk about industry disruption that will supposedly occur from synthetic food, with much of that grown in a laboratory. 

Until now, I have steered clear of discussing synthetic food, despite often being asked my opinion. But now, I have decided to venture forth.

The simple answer is that synthetic food does not need to be a big concern for New Zealand farmers. The important proviso is that New Zealand farmers, and the associated value chains connecting through to markets, need to focus on consumers who will pay premium prices for products that are the "real McCoy".

One of my international clients suggested to me last year that food markets were going to bifurcate, with some markets being all about quality and others being all about cost.  The danger was in getting caught in no-man's-land in the middle.  I have thought a lot about that comment, and I think it has merit.

In the main, synthetic foods will prosper based on competitive costing. Real food will struggle to compete if cost is its only advantage. 

Some of the comments I read about laboratory-grown foods (the so-called franken-foods) are off the mark. It is not possible to produce food without an energy source.

All food comes originally from photosynthetically-produced plants for which the energy comes from a wonderful source of nuclear combustion we call the sun. If that food is to be produced in a laboratory, then it is going to need its own energy inputs, which too will come originally from the sun, perhaps transformed into electricity or some other form of energy along the way.

I read recently a claim by one commentator that food of the future might even be calorie-free. I don't think that is likely. 

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 Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.