Is Using Food As “Software” for Bioengineered Meat Really Our Future?

Scientist holding cultured mean in laboratory

A remarkable report by the independent think tank, RethinkX, predicts total collapse of the dairy and cattle industries within ten years as traditional dairy and beef products are replaced by cheaper, laboratory-derived micro-organisms programmed to serve as modern equivalents.

The report titled, “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,” states that it will be the “deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agriculture production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago.”1

RethinkX calls this the final step in “unbundling the cow.” In addition to being a food source, cattle were once prized for use as draft animals (long since replaced by tractors) and an important source of manure for fertilizing crops (since replaced by petrochemical fertilizers). Stating that “the cow – one of the oldest, largest, and most inefficient food production systems in the world – is now experiencing its final disruption. The remaining parts of the cow with any significant value – namely meat and milk, but also leather and collagen – are being replaced by superior technologies, products, and services, all enabled by the continued engineering by humans of micro-organisms.” 1

Vegetarians may not realize that they were early adopters of this grand protein disruption. The meat alternative, Quorn, that can be found at any health food store is made with a mycoprotein derived by fermenting a fungus called Fusarium venenatum. The company touts this as having a carbon footprint that is 10 times lower than beef and a water footprint 20 times lower than beef.2

Most of the cheese we eat depends on enzymes engineered in a laboratory that have replaced rennet, a naturally occurring enzyme produced in the stomachs of unweaned calves. A Gizmodo article explains that rennet was a byproduct of the veal industry, “but in the 1970s, America’s growing appetite for cheese collided with its mounting aversion to killing newborn cows. Anticipating a crisis of supply and demand, researchers turned to a then-unprecedented technology in food science…that produced cheesemaking enzymes in a beaker, instead of an animal’s stomach.”3

In 1990, Pfizer’s bioengineered form of the enzyme rennin became the first genetically engineered product approved by the FDA for human consumption. Here is how the Washington Post described Pfizer’s process back then: “The new kind of rennin is produced by biotechnology’s workhorse bacteria, a species called Escherichia coli. The bacteria were altered by implanting in them the cow gene carrying the blueprints for rennin. Since all cells read the same genetic code, the bacteria, now carrying so-called recombinant DNA, make rennet identical to the rennin calves make. The product, also known as chymosin, is used in the first stages of cheese making, where an ounce can cause 50 gallons of milk to thicken into curdles and whey.”4

The process today is known in the industry as fermentation produced chymosin (FPC) and it is estimated to be used in 90% of all cheese manufactured in the US.5 It is the same process used in producing the Impossible Burger, “a plant-based burger that included heme protein produced through protein fermentation in order to deliver a ‘meatier’ taste.” 5 Not surprisingly, the Impossible Burger website has a handy calculator that lets you measure your personal carbon and water footprint reductions based on how many burgers you eat.

The video below from BBC Newsnight asks the question, “Would you eat meat grown in a lab?” and explains that “clean meat isn’t a meat-free alternative, it’s real meat grown from animal cells.”6



That brings us back to the predicted doom of the dairy and cattle industries. RethinkX explains that costs of “precision fermentation” used for these new products are dropping as quickly as the quality and variety are increasing. “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.” 1 They call this Food-as-Software.

There is no question that there are vulnerabilities in our current food systems. A United Nations report states that the world population trajectory from now to 2030 means, “the world will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million people in developing countries, every five days! There is widespread consensus that, going forward, farmers must produce more food per unit of land, water, and agrochemicals. To do so, however, they simply cannot continue producing in the same way. They will have to do this while facing climate change, volatility, shifting nutrition needs, and the increasing scarcity of most of the physical factors of production. Agriculture is at the threshold of a necessary paradigm shift.”7 But, is Food-as-Software the answer?

Here are some specific highlights from the RethinkX report: 1

  • By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, an area almost the size of the Louisiana Purchase. If all this land were dedicated to maximizing carbon sequestration, all current sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be fully offset by 2035.

Of course, reports come and go with analysts recognizing down the road how the impact of unforeseen factors dramatically changed their predictions. I had difficulty absorbing the magnitude of change predicted by the report over the next 10 years, but in our current context of rapid change, all bets seem to be off.

I’d love to hear reader reactions to whether the concept of Food-as-Software could replace the dairy and cattle industries in the next ten years.

—R. A. Kroft


1Tubb, Catherine and Seba, Tony. 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. RethinkX. September 2019.

2Quorn. What Is Mycoprotein? Quorn website.

3Gadye, Levi. You Can thank Genetic Engineering for Your Delicious Cheese. Gizmodo. 15 June 2015.

4Gladwell, Malcolm. FDA Approves 1st Genetically Engineered Product for Food. Washington Post. 24 March 1990.

5Hinds, Taylor. Precision fermentation is nothing new and it’s here to stay. RethinkX Blog. 22 January 2020.

6BBC Newsnight. Would you eat meat grown in a lab? 4 April 2018.

7Giovannucci, Daniele et al. 2012. Food and Agriculture: the future of sustainability. A strategic input to the Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (SD21) project. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development.

R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.

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