Bush-Matters Op-Ed – “The digital shopping trolley: from chump chops to spider goats”

29 May 2015

It won’t come as a surprise for anyone to read that I have always enjoyed a good, hearty dinner.

Even when I worked the long night shifts in the police during my younger years, I could almost always set aside time to sit down to a decent meal, especially a roast or some chump chops with a side of vegetables and gravy.

For many of my generation, this was the food that filled our dinner plates through our childhoods and into our young adulthood.

As we grew older, we found pleasure in sharing home cooked meals among our circles of friends and colleagues, as opposed to the modern trend of eating fast food or visiting restaurants.

We raised our children to believe that a helpful filling on the dinner plate was central to providing the sustenance needed to perform at your best at work and at play.

I have pause to think of these more simple culinary tastes whenever we start any discussion about what food and fibre we could be putting into our supermarket shopping trolleys in the future.

Some of the exhibits being tested and developed on the fringes of agriculture can often sound like something emerging from a B-grade Science Fiction movie or the house of horrors at the Brisbane Royal Show.

Just consider a few examples.

On one supermarket shelf in the future we could see beef that has been grown from a test tube, using cattle stem cells. There are claims 10 tonnes of meat could be produced from a small piece of muscle.

The European scientist developing this technology sparked strong debate among producers when he appeared at the Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association conference earlier this year, especially when it was claimed the product could become a price competitive alternative to natural beef within decades.

On another shelf in the future we could have the results of research at Utah State University where goats have been crossed with spider DNA to grow dragline silk, which is among the strongest substances known to man.

These genetically modified goats produce milk containing large quantities of an extra protein, which can be extracted and spun into spider silk thread. This silk can then be used for everything from surgical sutures to bulletproof vests.

In the future, we could see pharmacists offering bananas, potatoes and eggs that have been grown with in-built vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B.

It means people might one day have a choice between a needle or a banana when receiving their vaccinations.

Some of these products are real threats to traditional and natural agriculture and they should be monitored to ensure we understand these competitive threats and combat any scurrilous claims to environmental superiority to agricultural product.

However, some of these scientific advancements will eventually provide real opportunities for further value-adding, which should provide a price premium.

Our ability to adapt to the changing business landscape and respond to consumer trends will define our success in the so-called Asian Century.

As Australian agriculture begins looking for opportunities to transition our agricultural economy from primarily a commodity product for export to a value added product for export, it is clear we will need strong industry communication and strategic development between all the various stakeholders in agribusiness.

It is pleasing, therefore, to see the launch of the Food Leaders Australia group in Toowoomba this month.

A partnership between the Toowoomba Surat Basin Enterprise and the University of Southern Queensland, the group has the ambition of positioning itself as a “one stop shop” for agribusiness looking to develop new products and access new export markets, particularly in Asia.

Jo Sheppard, who is the General Manager of Agribusiness and Export at the Toowoomba Surat Basin Enterprise, recently told the ABC she wanted to make Southern Queensland “the Silicon Valley of food innovation”.

The group wants to emulate the forward-thinking culture that drives Silicon Valley.

But to understand the need to create a “silicon valley of food innovation,” you only have to consider the “food innovation of silicon valley.”

From Google to Facebook, the tech-obsessed Californian enclave has delivered many life changing inventions to our homes and businesses.

But I doubt many farmers will be celebrating the region’s small, yet influential growing fascination with synthetic food.

These protein-packed products that come in powder form carry kitschy names such as Soylent (named ironically after the 1970s Science Fiction film), Schmoylent and Schmilk and reportedly taste like bland, gritty pancake batter.

These “meals” are cheap. A meal generally costs upward of $US50 at Silicon Valley-area restaurants, but a week’s worth of Soylent or Schmoylent totals only $US85.

As one tech entrepreneur was quoted in The New York Times: “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”

With reports Silicon Valley residents are on waiting lists of up to six months to access these products, the companies that have developed the food-stuff are drawing strong interest and money from internet entrepreneurs.

We can only hope, as I suspect will be the case, that this form of tastebud denial will be a passing fad.

But, despite our inherent views, it is new addition to the food industry landscape that we could never have believed we needed to think about several decades ago. We must learn to understand it.

Silicon Valley has also recently entered into food grocery e-commerce.

Food and beverage is the largest retail category in the US, with about $US600 billion a year in sales, yet, despite this, less than 1 per cent of food and beverage sales currently occurring online.

There is large growth forecasted – it is estimated between 2013 and 2018; online grocery sales will grow at an annual growth rate of 21.1 per cent, reaching nearly $US18 billion by the end of the decade.

For comparison, offline grocery sales will rise by 3.1 per cent annually during the same period.

Silicon Valley has commenced business activity in online food and beverage retailing with food and grocery e-commerce and delivery companies raising almost $500 million in investment capital in just the first six months of 2014.

Closer to our own region, Chinese tech entrepreneurs have already entered the food and grocery marketplace intensely.

Yihaodian – China’s first online supermarket – launched 1000 reality stores across the country in October 2012, allowing shoppers to use their smartphones to view a virtual supermarket with 1200 meters of floor space and 1000 items in stock.

They can then fill virtual shopping baskets by scanning the item codes before checkout.

The company delivers their purchases directly to their homes in a day or two.

These changing purchasing preferences and habits of our end users will impact how we carry out our business.

It is in this global environment that the Food Leaders Australia group has been launched with a guiding ambition to provide a platform for Australian agriculture’s international competitiveness to better connect, build alliances and develop strategies as we work to take advantage of the Asian Century.

In 2015, the internet is still young, smart phone technology is developing and companies are still experimenting with new ways of attracting customers, reducing costs, and earning a profit.

As it always has – the marketplace will reward sensible innovation that responds to consumer demand – now and into the future.

This is a simple equation that agribusiness must not let be lost among the complexities of modern business.

This is the important service group such as Food Leaders Australia will provide.

Nevertheless, the speed of innovation will bring more changes and challenges to a single generation that some previous generations faced over the course of their entire lives.

These are the best of times and the worst of times. But, as agricultural producers, we will fall behind at our own peril.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my chump chops and gravy while I still can.