A-9/19 The potential impact of synthetic animal protein on livestock production: The new “war against agriculture”?

The rise of organic chemistry in the 1800s quickly lead to the realisation that products previously derived from plants and animals could be derived synthetically from alternative organic sources. Although it slowly became clear that there were limitations to this technology, the goal of producing animal protein synthetically has remained a tantalising prospect for scientists, with new hopes being rekindled throughout the years as new knowledge emerged or technologies developed. The demonstration of synthetic meat (also termed in vitro meat) in 2013 revived this dream and, with the refinement of protein synthesis technologies, 31 start-ups are now working to become the first company to market synthetic animal protein. The potentially transformative nature of this technology make it essential to understand its potential to disrupt conventional agriculture at an early stage. This paper addresses this issue by examining historical substitutions that have lead to the decline or even decimation of agricultural industries, namely: alizarin (madder), indigotin (indigo) and vanillin (vanilla). Following an outlining of the historical cases themselves, it identifies substitution product complexity, ease of synthesis, compatibility with industrial processes, and contamination of the natural product as four key issues that affect the substitution transition. Analysis of the specific synthetic animal protein case suggests that, while there are many additional issues that could affect any transition, three aspects are key: development of transferrable technologies in the medical sector, potential environmental advantages, and a lack of consumer resistance to its “unnatural” nature. Finally, the paper argues that rather than a complete substitution (e.g. alizarin & indigo) a furcated market (e.g. vanillin) with various classes of protein production is likely to emerge – within which industrial livestock production will struggle to compete against cheap synthetic alternatives. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 68, Pages 33-45

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