There is an excellent article in the current issue of Drovers (September 2016) titled, “Every Last Drop Counts.” The article featured an interview with UC-Irvine Prof. Jay Famiglietti, an expert on water use and the impact of climate, who discussed the challenges facing all of agriculture, especially animal agriculture.

Famiglietti referenced the Ogallala Aquifer, the massive underground water system that extends across Nebraska, Kansas and into the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. The aquifer has been seriously depleted over the last few generations, he noted, due primarily to withdrawals for irrigation, as well as residential and commercial use.

Toward the end of the interview, the good professor made an extremely provocative statement: “In the southern High Plains, farmers know they have only a few decades left [to tap into the aquifer]. They’re trying to use the water judiciously, but they recognize it won’t last forever.”

Consider the implications of that statement. A significant percentage of the nation’s cattle, dairy and feed crop production are currently dependent on the irrigation water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer. Is it really plausible to assume that the industry’s future is tied to exports to regions elsewhere in the world that are already experiencing water crises of their own?

Despite the efficiencies achieved in breeding, feeding and management of livestock, is it sustainable to predicate future production on the availability of a resource that is increasingly being depleted beyond any possible replenishment?

Those questions underlie a fascinating development that, although it’s only recently surfaced on the radar of the global food production industries, is already emerging as an option that must be seriously considered. I’m talking about “cellular agriculture, a so-called “post-agricultural” method of producing food products using sophisticated new technologies to produce what has been labeled “meatless meat,” as an example.

Now, I’ve been as strident a critic of the grandiose predictions made by virtually all of the players in the emerging field of manufacturing test-tube proteins from living animal tissue cells. Their over-the-top statements about how animal-free shamburgers will shortly revolutionize the world’s eating habits are akin to the pronouncements of scientists at the beginning of the Atomic Age about how nuclear power would produce electricity so cheaply that in the future, we wouldn’t even need to meter it.

A claim that proved to be just a bit premature.

Twin hurdles

In reality, as Henk Hoogenkamp, one of the world’s leading food formulation experts, noted in an article titled, “Post-Animal Cellular Agriculture” in The World of Ingredients magazine (one of my favorite reads), cellular technology is already well-advanced, yielding such commonly accepted products as synthetic insulin and bioengineered rennet used in making cheese.

However, commercialization of animal-free ground beef might take a while, because there are two significant hurdles that need to be overcome. The first is technological. It’s no easy feat to scale up the experimental processes that have yielded a $300,000 test-tube hamburger to a level that would allow such products to be competitively priced versus conventional foods.

Second, there is a public relations challenge to be overcome, given the opposition from both the general public and the anti-GMO activists to the use of bioengineering to replace “natural” crops and traditional foods. Because make no mistake: The only way that cellular agriculture becomes a viable food production option is through massive private-sector investment. And as the trajectory of genetic engineering of crop varieties has demonstrated, when corporate control drives research priorities, the outcomes are rarely consumer-centric.

But a backlash against the commercialization of cellular agriculture is no sure thing, because the threat of resources scarcities of energy, land and water already impacting agricultural productivity are already serious, and they’re only going to increase in the decades ahead.

What happens when the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer isn’t a future projection but a here-today reality? What do we do when irrigation sources elsewhere — like California — no longer support the level of farm productivity we’ve come to depend upon?

I’m not sure if the solution is deployment of massive bioreactors producing cow-free “milk” and animal-free “meat,” but it sure isn’t an option that ought to be dismissed. 

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.