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We've Reached 'Peak Cow,' Report Says

Elsa Partan
A new report says cheap laborabory production of protein for food will drive the cattle industry out of business in about a decade.

The Impossible Burger has put high tech meat alternatives on people’s plates and minds. But just how big could this emerging sector become? And how soon? A new analysis says it could make the cow all but obsolete in a matter of years.

The report, by RethinkX about the future of agriculture says that by 2030 the cattle farming industry will be nearly bankrupt. RethinkX (pronounced “rethink, X”) is a think tank that focuses on tech-driven disruption and its implications for society.

“Essentially, the cost of producing protein is going to come down, fast,” said Catherine Tubb, a senior analyst with RethinkX and co-author of the report.

“So, it's five times cheaper by 2030—and ten times by 2035—than existing methods. And so, ultimately, this means 50 percent fewer cows by 2030. And it won't stop there.” 

Instead of farming cattle for meat, vats of customized protein-producing yeast are the future of food, the report says.

“This is a technology that's been around since 1979,” Tubb said. “It's how we produce insulin now…and other molecules, biologic pharmaceuticals, for example.”

Tubb said the changes are being driven by the falling cost of production. Originally, it cost about one million dollars to produce a kilogram of a protein using this technology. Today, it’s $100 per kilogram.

“We anticipate this will fall even further, so that by 2025 it hits cost parity with dairy protein, which is about 10 dollars per kilo. And it's really at this point…it becomes disruptive.”

About 30 percent of milk is sold “business to business,” in other words, as an ingredient in another food product.

“Once you wipe out that 30 percent of demand, then you just wipe out what you need from cows," Tubb said.

“So, for example, you've seen this with the bankruptcy of Dean Foods in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s an industry that's operating on very financially vulnerable margins and it's very economically unsound, I would say.”

One of the goals of the report is to warn workers of the huge changes that could be on the horizon, she said.

“People usually underestimate how quickly these changes can happen,” she said. “You want to protect the workers—not protect the jobs necessarily—but protect the workers. How are you going to protect people…protect whole communities, that rely on these industries that just may not exist in 15 to 20 years?”

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.