When one of the largest meat-processing companies in the world announces focused research into the development of alternative proteins, I’m paying attention.
Tyson’s allocation of US$150 million to a venture capital fund to research meat alternatives allows us a glimpse into the future of traditional meat and poultry protein sources.
The idea is not new — the first burger grown from cell culture was cooked in 2013. I found it interesting that although researchers claim in vitro or synthetic meat should not need antibiotics, the culture was suspended in a serum containing antibiotics. So the core of the development of muscle fibres was based on an atmosphere which may preclude resistance. And although to me that seems counter to an ethical stand, the investment into alternate proteins that metabolize like meat and have similar taste and texture is growing.
So is the fight at the counter for consumers’ attention through labelling.
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While nutrient information is often missing, other attribute claims most certainly are not. The increase in sales when labels claim the product is antibiotic free, hormone free, organic, or natural is a strong motivator to play in that arena. It’s not ethical to make a health claim that cannot be backed, but attribute features (such as grass fed) are clear to consumers. Truth in labelling will become a focus in an increasingly transparent world. Even the buying experience will change.
While scientists continue to look for alternatives to many of the intensively nutrient-dense foods available to us through agriculture, Amazon has built its first bricks-and-mortar grocery and ready-meals food store that has no lineups or checkouts. This experience is through an app on your smartphone. The items are registered automatically as you take them off the shelf and the bill is sent to your Amazon account. The information that Amazon harvests from this activity could deeply shake up conventional retail.
And just where does agriculture sit in all of this?
Food and Farm Care Canada reports that only seven per cent of consumers can relate to the farm. That leaves 93 per cent of the population, largely urban, that do not know us.
So how do we connect with urban folks who are shopping more often, label dependent, and looking for the ultimate or alternative in an eating experience? I believe the answer lies not only in what we do and participate in, but in engaging urban allies. Nutritionists, chefs, the odd music or movie star, fashion models, athletes, home designers, magazine editors, professors, artists, writers, and government. And even toy makers!
This past Christmas I tried everything (save the black market) to buy a Career Farmer Barbie. They were sold out, back ordered and I had to go on a waiting list. This is amazing!
What is so special about a Barbie doll? Most young girls own a Barbie at some point and they can be influential. Although the skinny doll is totally unrealistic in shape (I never look like that when I do chores), the career Barbie can shape a young girl’s thoughts into a profession such as veterinarian (Career Farm Vet Barbie is a hit), farmer, pediatrician, or pilot. There is information about the career doll and it’s a decent description for anyone who is distanced from the farm reading: “From science to the arts, agriculture to athletics, and oceans to ice, Barbie doll has done it all. So she knows what it takes to bring food to the table. Farmers need to know about weather, science, plant science, and animal science. From sowing time to harvest, they work the land and care for their animals to help feed the world.”
In a nutshell, scattered among the chaos of new shopping experiences, confusing labels, and scientists creating meat with knitting needles is a very simple and familiar Barbie doll with her gumboots and checkered shirt, telling a little story about agriculture. Her presence is the pathway to the consumer of tomorrow and she will be a cherished and memorable friend to more than just one child.
Sometimes the game looks long and hard from the tractor seat or saddle but we can win by default especially when children influence parents. A young student interviewed by CBC this winter said this about life programs at school, “They should teach us how to grow food.”
I will always pay close attention to science and technology, food and consumer trends but so will toy makers and teenagers. Urban and rural children and adults are interested in food, how it is grown or made, how it keeps them healthy and how to buy it without hassle. It seems that they are seeking the connection that will narrow the 93 per cent gap and it is up to us, as farmers, to be on that journey with them.