By 2030, the dairy and cattle industries will have collapsed, as animal-derived foods are replaced by modern equivalents, and the rest of the livestock industry will suffer a similar fate, according to “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030 -- The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming,” a report released by RethinkX.
“This is primarily a protein disruption, driven by economics,” says Tony Seba, co-founder and co-author of the report. “This is not one disruption, but many in parallel, with each overlapping, reinforcing and accelerating the others.”
“Technology we call precision fermentation and a new production model called food-as-software are dramatically driving down the costs and driving up the quality of manufactured proteins,” says Catherine Tubb, co-author of the report. “The industrial livestock industry is one of the oldest, largest and most inefficient food production systems in the world. Modern ingredients and foods are about 10 times more efficient across the board – from land and water use to feedstock consumption and energy use.”
Precision fermentation (PF) is a process that enables the programming of microorganisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule. Due to rapid improvements in underlying biological and information technologies, the cost of PF development and production is dropping exponentially – from $1 million per kilogram in 2000 to about $100 today. Assuming existing technologies, the report projects that these costs will fall to $10 per kilogram by 2023-25, meaning PF proteins will be five times cheaper than traditional animal proteins by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035.
The report details the way different parts of the cow (meat, milk, collagen and leather) and the markets they serve will be disrupted separately and concurrently by different technologies and business-model innovations that overlap, reinforce and accelerate one another.
The authors refer to this disruption as “death by a thousand cuts.” Product after product that comes from the cow will be replaced by cheaper, higher-quality modern foods, triggering a death spiral of increasing prices, decreasing demand and reversing economies of scale for the industrial livestock industry.
“The key to understanding the disruption of the cow is that PF only needs to disrupt 3.3% of the milk bottle—the key functional proteins—to bring about the collapse of the entire cow milk industry. This is a B2B disruption, not just a simple one-for-one substitution of end products, and does not hinge on changing human behavior,” says Seba. “PF proteins are already being produced commercially. Costs are decreasing exponentially while quality and variety increase exponentially. The industrial cattle farming industry will collapse long before we see modern technologies produce the ‘perfect’ cellular steak at a competitive price.”
The report analyzes the way technology and new models of production flip the current food production system on its head. Instead of growing a whole cow to break it down into products, food will be built up at the molecular level to precise specifications. Developments are made in a similar manner to the software industry – the databases of individual molecules can be updated and shared by scientists with production facilities across the world, where food engineers design products in the same way that software developers develop apps for smartphones.
All aspects of this food-as-software model are building biological parts databases (biobricks), designing molecules/ingredients, designing microorganisms to produce these molecules via PF and designing molecular cookbooks to integrate them into end-user products. Food producers will produce food locally, using locally-grown feedstock.
Highlights of the report findings include:
- By 2030, the number of cows in the United States will fall by 50%. Production volumes of the U.S. beef and dairy industries and their suppliers will be cut by more than half.
- By 2030, the market for ground beef by volume will shrink by 70%, the steak market by 30% and the dairy market by almost 90%. The markets for other cow products (leather, collagen, etc.) are likely to decline by more than 90%. In total, demand for cow products will fall by 70%.
- By 2030, the U.S. dairy and cattle industries will have collapsed, leaving only local specialty farms in operation.
- By 2035, demand for cow products will fall by 80%-90% and U.S. beef and dairy industry (and their suppliers) revenues, at current prices, will be down nearly 90%.
- Farmland values will collapse by 40%-80%.
- The volume of crops needed to feed cattle in the United States will fall by 50% from 155 million tons in 2018 to 80 million tons in 2030, causing cattle feed production revenues, at current prices, to fall by more than 50% from 60 billion in 2019 to less than $30 billion in 2030.
- Other livestock industries will suffer similar disruptions, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.
Food cost savings
- The cost of modern foods and products will be at least 50% and as much as 80% lower than the animal products they replace, which will translate into substantially lower prices and increased disposable incomes. The average U.S. family will save more than $1,200 a year in food costs, keeping an additional $100 billion a year in Americans’ pockets by 2030.
Jobs lost and gained
- Half of the 1.2 million jobs in U.S. beef and dairy production, including supply chain, along with their associated industries, will be lost by 2030, climbing toward 90% by 2035.
- The emerging U.S. modern foods industry will create at least 700,000 jobs by 2030 and up to 1 million jobs by 2035.
Modern foods will be far more efficient than animal-derived products. Up to 100 times more land efficient, 10-25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient and 10 times more water efficient than industrial livestock. They will also produce an order of magnitude less waste.
- By 2035, 60% of the land currently used for livestock and feed production will be freed for other uses. These 485 million acres equate to 13 times the size of Iowa. If all this land were dedicated to maximize carbon sequestration, all current sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be fully offset by 2035.
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from cattle will drop by 60% by 2030, on course to nearly 80% by 2035. Even when the modern food production that replaces animal agriculture is included, net emissions from the sector as a whole will decline by 45% by 2030, on course to 65% by 2035.
Water consumption in cattle production and associated feed cropland irrigation will fall by 50% by 2030, on course to 75% by 2035. Even when the modern food production that replaces animal agriculture is included, net water consumption in the sector as a whole will decline by 35% by 2030, on course to 60% by 2035.
Oil demand from the U.S. agriculture industry (currently 150 million barrels of oil equivalent a year) will fall by at least 50% by 2030.
The modern food system will be decentralized and therefore more stable and resilient, thereby increasing food security.
Nutritional benefits could have profound impact on health, particularly conditions such as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes that are estimated to cost the United States $1.7 trillion each year. The way they are produced should also ensure a sharp reduction in foodborne illness.
Trade relations and geo-politics will shift due to a decentralized food production system.
Any country will be able to capture the opportunities associated with a global industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Mainstream analyses fail to account for the complex interactions of disruption, hence their failure to foresee its speed, scale and impact,” says Tubb.
“This disruption is inevitable,” says Jamie Arbib, co-founder. “The positive impacts – from food security to climate change – are profound. But, policymakers, investors, businesses and voters have some power over this disruption’s speed, scale, impacts and who benefits. One of the first and most critical decisions is to ensure an open marketplace. Will this be a market that promotes openness, transparency and competition? Or will it be a market — like the pharmaceutical industry — dominated by a few monopolies with the power to restrict or prevent the realization of the enormous economic, social and environmental benefits?”
For policymakers, the report identifies critical choices that can accelerate or slow down the disruption, and that can magnify or curtail its benefits.
“We aim to start a conversation,” says Arbib. “We want to focus decision-makers’ attention and ensure they understand the choices ahead. We are still early in the disruption cycle, and projections are just that, but we believe our framework, methodology and findings are more accurate than those produced by linear models that risk locking in expensive, obsolete and uncompetitive assets, technologies and skillsets. To unlock the full potential of this and every other technological disruption, we need to embrace an approach that better reflects the complex, dynamic and rapidly-changing world we live in.”