Which came first? Actually, you might not need the chicken at all pretty soon. (Black Press Media File Photo)

Which came first? Actually, you might not need the chicken at all pretty soon. (Black Press Media File Photo)

Painful Truth: Eggs without chickens?

What does that do to poultry farmers?

We need to start thinking about how to bail out Canada’s egg and dairy producers.

The threat isn’t a trade war with the United States. It’s not an avian flu or an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. It’s not even a new wave of fear about cholesterol.

It’s science.

You may remember the Impossible Burger, the plant-based burger that became a bit of a sensation before the pandemic, popping up in various burger chains and grocery store meat cases?

The secret sauce for the burger is heme, a molecule that Impossible Foods created by genetically modifying yeast and then fermenting it, creating a huge supply of the stuff that could then be put into the burgers. This made the burgers actually taste properly meaty.

It turns out that fermentation can be used to make all sorts of useful biological materials. It’s been used in just that way since the 1980s to make insulin, without having to kill animals for it. But the new wave of start ups and wild-eyed inventors aren’t looking to make medications – they’re trying to replicate proteins.

Specifically, they’re going after the proteins found in eggs and milk.

Already, there are companies selling “milk proteins without cows” and “egg whites without chickens.”

Mostly this is on a small scale so far. No company has yet sold a product that replicates everything in milk, all in one beverage.

And when it comes to eggs, the challenge is even more difficult. Even if you can create the proteins in egg whites, and those in egg yolks, how could you ever combine them into a single-serving calcium-enclosed container the way a chicken does?

It might be impossible, or a goal decades away. Maybe you’ll never fry or poach a chicken-free egg in your life.

But that doesn’t mean these technologies can’t change our economy, or that you won’t see them on your plate in some form or another.

Consider for a moment all the stuff that comes from the middle aisles of the grocery store. How many products on the shelves – from bread to pasta to cereals to sauces – have some milk or egg in them?

Do you think it matters to the big industrial producers of processed food care if their egg and milk products come from a cow or a chicken or a tank, as long as they’re biologically identical?

In fact, how much more efficient will it be to eventually make those products without going to the bother of raising whole animals to maturity, keeping them fed and healthy, milking them and collecting eggs, and finally shipping those products to the factories?

At a certain point – maybe in a couple of years, maybe in 10 – one of these technologies is going to undermine the market for eggs or milk. And after that, there are already producers working on the problem of creating everything from industrially-developed steaks to tuna fillets.

Canadian farmers shouldn’t be blindsided. We need our government to assess these technologies, and consider plans to figure out how much they’ll affect the industries, before the wave of change arrives.

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