Technology informatics

What technologies could really sink us?

By Anna Campbell

A report recently landed on my desk: ‘A marketplace without boundaries- A New Zealand perspective’ by PWC, which is linked to their annual Global CEO Survey. 

Surprisingly, it was quite an interesting read and it seems that technology is at the forefront of both local and global CEOs’ minds. 

For many, technology is viewed as a threat to growth with 66% concerned about cyber threats, 68% concerned about keeping up with the pace of change, and 76% believing consumer behaviour will be disruptive for their industries. 

In my last column I wrote about the opportunities for agri-tech as a growing part of New Zealand’s economy. After reading this PWC report, I decided the column was a pretty one-sided look at technology.

So, given our concerned CEOs, let’s flip those opportunities on their head and ask: what are the threats of technology to agriculture? 

I discussed this with a couple of my colleagues and there are some obvious ones, like the threat of social media to primary product exporters regarding potential food scandals. There is also the rising threat of  farmers in developing countries, such as Brazil, using technology to scale and outcompete our low-cost production systems.

Perhaps the more important questions to ask is: what are likely to be disruptive technologies to agriculture in the future? In other words, what technologies could really sink us?

The disruptor we came up with was synthetic meat, which apparently is only about 20 years away from being a legitimate, inexpensive consumer product. 

The very thought of synthetic meat being edible and eaten in preference to real meat seems outlandish. Yet, the global demand for protein is such that if protein becomes scarce and prices become exorbitantly high, synthetic protein is likely to be a real alternative.

Picture this: I arrive home from work, I’m hungry because I have just completed my two hour yoga class (perhaps that’s more outrageous than the thought of synthetic meat). Before leaving my class, I connect to my kitchen via my phone and ask my 3D printer to whip up a nice lean piece of ribeye, supplemented with extra iron and vitamin B12. How far off am I?

There are different types, or definitions, of synthetic meat. Currently it can be derived from vegetable products such as soy or from animal muscle cells, or a combination of dehydrated meat fibres and synthetic material. 

Whichever way you cut it, these technologies will be disruptive to the way in which we eat meat now.

I personally can’t imagine synthetic meat ever taking over the special occasion meals. When I want the real deal, I want the smell and the sizzle, I want the skin and the bones – the true carnivorous experience.  However, I can see the place for using such products in an everyday convenience manner.

Of course, there are those that do not believe synthetic meat is a threat to agriculture at all. In their view, synthetic meat is out of step with current food trends, which emphasise heath and authenticity. 

This is probably a ‘head in the sand’ view, but from it I will take my favourite word for the future of New Zealand’s agricultural industry: authenticity. 

The only way real meat and milk will survive in this new synthetic world is if we differentiate our product on the basis of authenticity and connection to all that is natural – our New Zealand story.

The way ahead for New Zealand agriculture is to produce the very best, most authentic products coming from a well-cared-for environment and healthy farming system. 

Our place in food is at the top-end. The products that will be truly disrupted by synthetic products are those in the middle or the bottom of the chain.  Don’t let that be our New Zealand produce.