Will a moo still do?
Food technologist Anna Benny believes it is possible — and probable — that commercial scale, functional replicas of dairy ingredients made without animals will become commonplace within the next 10 years.
Rather than being produced by a dairy cow — a familiar scene in New Zealand’s rural countryside — they would be grown via cellular agriculture, produced with precision fermentation or isolated from plants.
Mrs Benny says the world has moved on and she believes ‘‘alternative protein’’ will be a term consigned to the past.
A deep understanding of foods at a molecular level and how that influenced function and flavour was bringing appealing products to the market, whether it was a vege burger that ‘‘bleeds’’ orice cream made with animal›free dairy protein, she said.
And it was no longer just protein in the spotlight; new technologies could replicate fats and other components of animal products.
Alternative protein had not affected New Zealand’s primary industries in any major way so far, Mrs Benny said.
Risk was often considered in relation to the meat industry, but it was dairy that was the ‘‘low› hanging fruit’’ for alternatives.
Meat was complex as it had many structural, textural and inconsistent aspects, making it very complicated to replicate successfully.
In contrast, milk was a homogenous product; it was always a liquid consisting of 87% water and 13% solids.
Alternative dairy represented a ‘‘significant risk’’ to the industry due to the reliance on commodity ingredient products, which would be easiest to replicate, Mrs Benny said. Advanced economies that New Zealand tended to compare itself with were moving rapidly, investing in research via partnerships between government, research institutions and industry, and New Zealand risked being left behind.
When dairy products became ingredients in processed food items, they were treated as commodities, comparable with the same product specification made all over the world and competing only on price.
‘‘They lose their origin story, which is what New Zealand prides itself on.
‘‘Consumers don’t value the fact that the milk powder in their processed food, such as a chocolate bar, is made with New Zealand milk powder, so any competitive story associated with New Zealand production methods is lost,’’ she wrote in her report.
Plant›based liquid dairy alternatives such asoat and soy milk were not a threat as New Zealand exported only a small amount of liquid milk, Mrs Benny said.
Precision fermentation technology bypassed traditional farming processes, using a tank of microbes consuming sugar to produce exactly the same molecules as milk — if they were assessed under a microscope, it would be impossible to tell whether they were from a cow or a fermentation tank, she said.
Funding for alternative protein was growing. The industry had many enablers: high net›worth backers such as Bill Gates were investing via their venture capital firms.
‘‘This is a global movement, driven by purpose›orientated start›ups and accelerated by large food corporates looking to meet sustainability goals and maintain their social licence to operate.’’
There needed to be open› minded coverage of the challenges and opportunities New Zealand could face from emerging technologies — not ‘‘them and us’’ rhetoric.
‘‘While the current market for NZ dairy is strong, it is incredibly important this drives investment into future adaptation rather than endorsing the current business model.
‘‘There is a real risk here and by burying our heads in the sand, we could well miss the opportunity to react.
‘‘I truly believe that the industry has the strength to weather this disruption, but to do so successfully requires a shift in mindset and strategy from multiple angles. It’s a shift that is mostly being overlooked.’’