The COVID-19 pandemic has focused new attention on a 2019 study that predicts the conventional U.S. beef industry will collapse by 2030, with "severe" impacts on much of the rest of agriculture.

"By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe," according to the report from San Francisco-based RethinkX. which describe itself as an "independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society."

Consider the report's source when evaluating its potential accuracy, said Tim Petry, North Dakota State University livestock marketing economist who was asked by Agweek to comment on the report.

"It was written by Silicon Valley hi-tech people who want to lure billionaire investors to invest in their companies," Petry said. "And that's the case with anything. When you have something very dramatic, it's easier to get it in the papers than a report that says meat production is going to increase 1% a year."

Some key 2019 predictions have failed to come true already, Petry said.

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For example, the projection that the meat industry has reached its limits on scale "absolutely has not started or come true. We're going to have record beef/pork/chicken in 2021 — and with significantly lower breeding stock than a few years ago," he said.

The report "underestimated production agriculture. They (its authors) don't understand how much more efficient we've become," he said.

The pandemic definitely affected livestock markets, but conventional meat products remain popular, Petry said.

And as individual Americans become more affluent, they're increasingly willing and able to buy high-quality meat, which also works against the report's conclusion, he said.

Other projections

The report predicts that consumption of conventionally produced meat and other animal-derived products will plummet because of growing competition from "precision fermentation, a process that enables the programming of micro-organisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule. Its costs are dropping exponentially because of rapid improvements in underlying biological and information technologies."

Because of precision fermentation, by 2030 "modern food products will cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace" and "the market for ground beef by volume will have shrunk by 70%, steak market by 30% and dairy market by almost 90%," the report predicts.

And by 2035, "U.S. demand for beef and dairy products will be down by nearly 90%, leaving only local specialty farms in operation. Industrial farmland values will collapse by 40-80%," the report said.

RethinkX has made several other dramatic projections, according to the organization's web site. The list includes:

  • "Due to major transportation disruption, 95% of U.S. car miles will be traveled in self-driving, electric shared vehicles by 2030."
  • "By 2030 electricity systems comprised entirely of solar, wind and batteries can provide both the cheapest power available and two to three times more total energy than the existing grid in the continental United States and most populated regions globally, bankrupting coal, gas and nuclear power companies."