Landcorp became a state-owned enterprise in 1987 as part of the fourth Labour Government’s massive economic transformation.
Production systems that can make burgers in a lab or use plants to replace meat or milk are attracting huge investment, he says. But the biggest threat to New Zealand farming is complacency.
To meet the challenge Landcorp is experimenting with new ideas such as milking deer for high-end cosmetics and hydroponic growing in central Wellington.
Carden’s comments followed a presentation on ‘Disruptive Food Technology’ at the Environmental Defence Society’s Auckland conference which emphasised the investment and progress in alternatives.
Carden responded “we don’t disagree at all: we see the same trends, the same shifts in technology, the same consumer demands”.
But as the chief executive of a $2 billion business he has the job of making this transition to the future. Landcorp is studying new farm systems.
“Any protein source now that historically has come from animals can be replicated from plants with a taste profile that is virtually identical,” he says.
“The implications of all that after 130 years of farming animals -- I speak as someone responsible for looking after 900,000 animals day by day -- is that we will have to diversify our land use to farm more plant-based than animal-based.
“There is no doubt that with the amount of money going into production systems for alternatives such as the Impossible Burger, NZ must forever surrender being a low cost producer of animal protein or animal protein-like products.
“We will absolutely be out-competed by this technology; their goal is to feed at least half the world’s population with these products.”
NZ’s livestock industry has to go high-end.
However, Carden says the animal protein industry globally – which accounts for half the world’s workforce – will fight back. It is seen as a massive threat and the battle will intensify, he believes.
Carden says farmers hate hearing people say they need to ‘move up the value chain’ because how to do it is a hard question.
“So for something as simple as meat… we are thinking really hard about how we produce the best flavoured meat with real functional benefits to you.”
Carden says Landcorp is increasingly trying to produce milk that is different.
“We don’t want to produce commodity milk because there will be substitutes much cheaper to produce. We have to produce high-end, grass-fed PK-free milk that we hope we can get a premium for.
“We have to start thinking much more progressively about the animals and what they can produce for us.”
Carden says NZ has some of the best sheep farmers in the world, but hadn’t thought to milk them until recently. Sheep produce “a highly nutritious milk” so Landcorp has started a sheep milking business.
“We’ve even started to milk deer – not a job for the fainthearted,” he says.
Few countries farm deer and Carden thinks Landcorp is the only company in the world milking them.
“It produces this unbelievable substance which we are now turning into handcreams and facecreams for the global market.” People have asked about drinking the milk, but a latte would cost $23.
“But you’ll feel 10 years younger,” he jokes.
“So when people talk about going up the value chain and adding value and going niche, we are doing it… but it is hard and very costly. And it takes a long time but it is possible.”
Landcorp has set up its first hydroponic farms in central Wellington, on a small scale so far.
“We currently feed ourselves lunch… but we are experimenting.”
A great irony, he says, is that agriculture is returning to its roots, “going back to nature having far more respect for what nature can do”.
Carden sees much more opportunity than threat in the coming changes.
“But I am well aware that those threats are coming and the only danger we have is complacency.”