I’ve been a mad supporter of the burgeoning alternative protein space (particularly cellular agriculture) for about 2 years now. I’m so keen in fact, that I’m studying biotechnology at university and aim to get started in some kind of research soon. Because I’m so passionate, I talk about it a lot and post things on social media that get noticed by friends and family. Many of my extended family are farmers or live in rural areas dedicated to farming. These days, understandably, there’s not a lot said between us, but I do often get asked by others — “What about the farmers?”. They ask what would happen to farmers and their families if animals were removed from our food system. This is similar to the question supporters of the coal industry ask — “What about jobs?”
There are so many responses to these questions. It all comes down to perspective, priorities and how far back and how far forward you’re willing to look. One quick assessment of the whole human story and you appreciate that the only constant in that story has been change.
The job landscape is going to change no matter what. Simple human innovation seems to be able to drive that alone without any great pressing needs. Like Smart Phones for example — we all depend on them now, but I don’t think there was a particularly urgent need for them at the time they first hit the market. When you couple innovation with genuine need, the inevitability of change is even greater. The current food system, especially animal agriculture, is destroying our planet and simply will not feed 10 billion of us in a few decades. The need for change here is dire.
I listened to a great podcast this morning by Kyle Thiermann with Elliot Swartz from The Good Food Institute talking about alternative proteins. It was obvious that Elliot really opened Kyle’s eyes up to the amazing potential of cell-based meats, creating yet another avid supporter in the process. (YES!) Their discussion was full of great insights (definitely worth a listen) but one thing which stuck in my mind was how Kyle answered the “What about the farmers?” question. He said: “If your industry is having such a negative impact on the rest of the world, we should innovate out of that. There is no set number of jobs that are available in the world and cell-based meats are going to create a whole new line of jobs that we didn’t know about before.”
To me, this sums it up. Priorities. We have great need now to innovate away from animals and this must take precedence. However, this does not mean that farmers should necessarily suffer. Innovation needs to take their livelihoods into account too.
In response to Kyle, Elliot qualified his point a bit by mentioning a good proportion of cell ag jobs will probably be automated, meaning there may be less jobs. Nonetheless he says, there will be plenty for farmers to do helping meet demand for new plant-based proteins.
It’s going to be so interesting to see how the job landscape changes over the next few decades. Even outside of the food industry AI and automation will be changing things — just because they can, and whether we like it or not.
I personally hope that like plant-based alternatives, cell ag will also be able to employ some people that are involved in animal agriculture today. I would love to see that. In a 2017 article, the founder of Future Meat in Israel suggested farmers could literally turn their barns into factories containing bioreactors instead of thousands of animals. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I think such inclusivity is something that needs to be given priority.
The Cellular Agriculture Society recognises this. They promote a number of initiatives around the evolution of cell ag and their Transition Initiative is one that actively focuses on training and employment of current animal ag workers. Another organisation called the Farm Transformation Institute is solely dedicated to researching transition pathways for farmers and providing them with data and financial support as they make changes.
So, what about the farmers? Yes — valid question. We need to consider how these new technologies will impact existing vocations and livelihoods. It’s imperative these are not forgotten in the race towards innovation, and it’s great to see some are already working on it. However, the need to move away from animal farming as we know it is urgent, and change - whether some people like it or not — is something we must insist on.