(And What Happens to Ag Jobs When Alt-Protein Rises?)
What will happen to the agricultural economy if plant-based meats and cultured meats cut down on the number of animals we need to raise for food? This question, posed to me surprisingly regularly in recent weeks, has been on my mind a lot lately.
While so far this hasn’t been a concern for many in animal ag — global meat demand is increasing, not decreasing — it’s an important question to ponder since sustainable proteins appear poised to take off in a way that could bring many changes to what types of foods we grow. But this is hardly the first time a new technology may dramatically change certain agricultural sectors.
Where have all the oats gone?
The oat industry, for example, was once a major force in the US economy, going all the way back to colonial days. We were even a major oat exporter through the first half of the 20th century.
What happened in the 1950s?
Oat production dropped — and fast. By the 1980s, it was just 4% of the US grain crop. Why?
No public health charity vilified oats. There was no fad diet that banned oatmeal. Instead, oat production plummeted because motorized transport and labor took off.
As a 1987 USDA report put it: “Oats remained a major crop in the United States until about the midfifties when acreage and production began to decline. Replacement of horses by tractors, trucks, and cars greatly reduced the population of a major consumer of oats.”
In other words, oats’ biggest customers, horses, all of a sudden were obsolete. Or more accurately, humanity’s reliance on horses for labor was rendered obsolete, both on our farms and in our streets. As a result, major changes were afoot (ahoof?) for American oat farms.
But before we cry over all these spilled oats, rest assured it’s not as if the oat growers were totally out of luck. Yes, they would in coming decades still have Quaker Oats and Wilford Brimley to tout their bowel-cleansing benefits, but for those growers seeking a new market, the demise of horses coincided with a massive explosion in other farm animals. Rather than beasts of burden, the new ag economy was populated with increasing numbers of chickens, turkeys, cattle, and pigs — hundreds of millions and then billions of beaks and mouths to feed, not with oats, but with soybeans and corn. Consequently, the decline in oat production coincided with a sharp increase in those crops, which to this day have maintained a virtual hegemony in U.S. feed crop production. In other words: farmers still farmed, just different crops.
From tobacco to…hummus?
Similarly, as American cigarette smoking has plummeted in recent decades, some tobacco growers have found themselves in the same boat as the oat growers of old.
What to do? Well, interestingly, if ever there were one example to illustrate how the times are a changing, America’s decline in smoking coincided with a major increase in hummus consumption. Americans may have no longer wanted to inhale tobacco plants, but they sure did want to ingest more chickpeas.
As a result, many tobacco growers shifted markedly to chickpeas.
So what does this mean for sustainable protein? We’re already seeing the effects of such a change in the dairy farming sector. As I’ve written before, plant-based milks are exploding in popularity, now comprising 13 percent of the fluid milk market in the U.S. Per capita consumption of cow’s milk in the US has been declining for decades, which is one reason the US dairy industry uses 13 million fewer cows today than it did in 1950, despite our population growth. Not only are dairy companies investing in plant-based milks, some are simply going entirely animal-free. Actually, in 2018 alone, the number of dairy cow farms in the U.S. fell by more than 2,700.
If plant-based meats take off in the same way, it’s possible we could soon see a similar fall in the number of animals raised for meat. This is what happened for several years starting in 2008, when the number of animals slaughtered for food in the US actually went down by several hundred million per year. Even after, in 2015, NASDAQ was warning investors how “the death of meat” could impact their portfolios. Such predictions of meat’s death were premature, but we did get a glimpse of how the livestock industry could actually contract.
And if that happened, would the farmers raising animals be out of luck? Only if they were unwilling to farm the crops that are increasingly enticing 21st century consumers. With a rise in plant-based meat consumption, for example, demand for wheat, pea, soy, and mushrooms (common ingredients in many such products) will of course be present, and someone will need to grow those crops. And presuming cultured meat hits the market, the cells such startups will be brewing of course still need to eat too, so crops will have to be grown that are specialized for such meat breweries (“carneries”).
Fewer Acres Farmed, and Fewer Blockbuster Video Stores
That said, it does seem inevitable that there would be fewer acres under cultivation, which could mean more acres reserved for wildlife habitat. It will take fewer resources to feed ourselves with plants and cultured animal cells than with whole animals, which is of course a main selling point of these alt-proteins.
The trend for decades has been for a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans to be engaged in farming as a profession. Just as tractors and cars dethroned oats, mechanization has largely enabled us to produce food with far fewer people than ever before. That trend will likely continue, no matter what happens with these more efficient methods of producing meat, as sustainable protein technologies make it even possible to produce more with less.
Few of us shed tears for the closed Blockbuster stores (or their employees) of old while binging on Netflix. Not that many of us curse the fact that we get our photos instantly today rather than having to go to no-longer-existent brick-and-mortar photo shops employing people to develop our film for us. And I doubt you’re pining for the days when hailing a ride meant waiting on a random corner and praying for the taxi gods to smile upon by you by presenting an empty car like Abraham’s ram in the bush.
Everything Comes to an End, Including this Article
The economy is constantly changing, and to summon Wayne Gretsky, smart players are interested not just in where demand is today; they adapt to where it will be tomorrow. Rather than trying to arrest ag development in one particular point of time, we can acknowledge that times change, and so does the ag economy.
Indeed, we generally welcome advances in tech that make our lives better and could lighten our footprint on the planet, even if that means rearranging parts of our economy. The U.S. may no longer be the oat basket to the world, but our farming sector is still the envy of much of the planet — and will continue to be, so long as we continue embracing the innovations that will define the future of food.
Paul Shapiro is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., and the co-host of the Business for Good Podcast.