NZ feathers are ruffled over dairy free milk
By Alexander Speirs, Fran O'Sullivan - Hawke's Bay Today
For such a young, small firm, California-based Muufri (Moo-free, get it?) has sure ruffled some feathers.
The three-man team, using the same principles of biotechnology behind beer, are pioneering the use of yeast to create "dairy" products in the laboratory. There's no cows, no farms, no feed and no pollution.
The research has been spun out of New Harvest -- an international scope NGO developing economically competitive alternatives to animal food products. Their most high profile involvement to date has been with cultured meat -- artificially produced meat, grown from animal cells.
Despite being years away from potentially reaching the market, mere talk of the project has drawn a swathe of criticism from the New Zealand milk sector and media. Federated Farmers dairy chairman Andrew Hoggard was quick to take the offensive saying: "Champagne has vigorously defended the use of that word and we need to do the same with milk. This stuff isn't milk and must not be called milk."
That doesn't faze the young scientists spearheading the initiative.
"I'll call the product what it is -- milk," said a defiant Ryan Pandya, CEO at Muufri talking to us from the Synthetic Biology Accelerator in Cork, Ireland, where the team has a laboratory. "We might not be able to label it as such from the outset, but people will know what the product is.
"When there's a big picture of beautiful white liquid pouring into a cup on the packaging, it'll be so clear it won't matter. We anticipate industry resistance -- but we're not going to treat that necessarily as a bad thing."
The product is not natural -- that much is abundantly clear. But so much of what constitutes the everyday diet for the average Kiwi is not natural. Be it bread, cheese or wine -- all involve processing ingredients derived from natural sources. The line gets drawn with the consumer and more often than not -- cash is king.
Pandya says: "It comes out to a much cheaper and more sustainable solution in the long run. Lowered land usage, lowered water usage and a much better outcome for the environment. Looking at the current dairying situation -- 75 cents on the dollar for a typical glass of milk goes towards feed for the animals. We're developing a process where that inputs number is more like nine cents on the dollar.
"What we're doing now is just not sustainable. You cannot make enough high quality milk to feed nine billion people using current dairy practices. It's just not feasible."
Globally, as diets shift to become more rich in animal proteins -- led by the emerging economies of China, India and the major Latam nations, it's clear that current approaches are not going to feed the world. It's simple economics -- as demand for products rises, if supply can't keep up -- prices surge.
Our dairy sector has reaped the rewards from such a shift, but we are at risk of becoming an increasingly minor part of the equation as time goes on. Should an in-vitro solution with higher resource and labour efficiencies become a future reality -- how does the market for New Zealand products change?
The response from our Minster for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy -- was uninspiring. He was quoted as saying: "I prefer our natural real milk produced from fantastic New Zealand pastures ... I won't be rushing out to buy a carton."
Full marks for blind patriotism and unwavering support of our dairy industry -- but brushing off what could emerge as a challenge to our most significant export commodity is naive.
For more than a century, the backbone of the New Zealand economy was wool exports. Whether destined for clothing or carpets, Kiwi wool was a premium commodity and we couldn't produce enough of it. Then came the downturn in the market -- the collapse of the Soviet Union -- a major consumer of wool was significant, but the emergence of synthetic fibres was the killer.
The agribusiness sector however was quick to adapt to the change. A drop in demand was quickly followed by a change in production mix -- sheep meat and dairy became more prominent and New Zealand remained on the right side of the value equation. If test-tube foods are to be part of the future -- whether now or 30 years from now -- as a country, we need to be at the vanguard of any change.
Don't believe us? Take a look at the US where Microsoft founder Bill Gates is backing Beyond Meats to make synthetic chicken.
Source: The New Zealand Herald