Insight - Dairy's huge role earning export dollars for New Zealand is facing a threat some say could bring it to its knees. Lab-grown milk protein is now stepping outside niche cheese and ice cream markets and into the bulk ingredient arena. As Teresa Cowie has been finding out, a fight for this bulk commodity market could have serious consequences for our dairy industry.
At a lab in San Francisco, scientists working for New Zealand synthetic dairy start-up New Culture are trying to work out how they can produce mozzarella that looks, tastes and very importantly stretches like the real thing. Across the Pacific at home in Auckland, the company's founder Matt Gibson says, as a vegan himself, the plant-based cheese offerings that refuse to melt properly and fail to satisfy in the taste department drew him towards exploring yeast fermented dairy protein, that cuts out the need for cows.
Plant-based diets are moving from niche to mainstream as consumers become more aware of the issues of animal welfare, climate change and pressure to feed the growing population. And this shift is predicted to be a huge disruption for New Zealand dairy, as makers of lab-produced products race to take over the ingredients market our farmers rely on.
Yeast fermentation of dairy protein is not an entirely new idea. But figuring out how to make it cheaper than real dairy, minimising its environmental impact and getting over the hurdle of consumer reluctance towards genetic modification are still being worked out.
In Gibson's lab, the milk used to make cheese is created by taking a gene that contains what he describes as the 'instruction manual' for a dairy protein. That set of instructions is then introduced to microbes, essentially teaching them how to make dairy proteins. When his scientists put the microbes in a fermentation tank, they ferment sugar, turning it into dairy. The scientists then harvest the proteins and combine them with plant-based fats to create a milk-like solution.
Matt Gibson has his sights set on cracking the United States mozzarella market. It's the US's number one selling cheese. American kids love sticks of it in their lunch boxes and of course pizza, and the rise in the number of companies willing to put it on the back of a scooter and deliver it to your door, makes it an attractive option.
Gibson says it's also quick to make.
"You can make mozzarella from milk within about 30 minutes. Now, that suits us, as we're still iterating mozzarella, developing our final product. So we want to be able to make as many mozzarellas as possible to be able to optimise the process and improve it."
He says if he was making a cheese like parmesan, it would have to be aged for at least a year; slowing down their process of learning what's working and what isn't. There's a race going on in Silicon Valley to crack the scaling up of the yeast fermented dairy process, and Gibson wants to be a frontrunner.
But New Zealand dairy insider, food technologist and founder of multiple dairy start-ups Danielle Appleton, says it's other Californian start-ups using similar technology specifically to ferment dairy bulk ingredients that could bring New Zealand's biggest export commodity to its knees.
The vast majority of New Zealand dairy ends up not as recognisable, nicely marketed products in the supermarket fridge, but as anonymous milk-based powders like whey protein and casein. These powders are mostly sold to big food and manufacturing companies as ingredients. Appleton says what comes from New Zealand paddocks ends up in not just obvious products like chocolate, yoghurts or packets of cheese sauce powder.
"When someone like me in the dairy industry thinks about milk, I think about the milk sugar that goes into paracetamol. I think about some of the ingredients used to make wine really crystal clear. Some other stuff that might surprise you are frozen foods, so often [dairy powder is used] to stop your chicken strips or bits of potato sticking together in the freezer and my favorite, [unusual place dairy ends up] is furniture paint."
Appleton says if synthetic protein companies can work out how to make these proteins cheaper than New Zealand dairy farmers can do it on the paddock, the dairy industry here could be wiped out. She is urging farmers and the New Zealand dairy industry to start having the difficult conversations now, so they can try to get ahead of the change:
"Because New Zealand is so incredibly, dependent on dairy. When dairy sneezes, we all get a cold. So how do we do something different? And how do we really make the most of the opportunity we've got? Because synthetic dairy; it's scary. Change is scary."
Appleton loves the dairy industry and she’s genuinely worried about what's going to happen. She grew up in a Waikato dairy town; went to primary school down the road from a dairy factory and started working at that factory after she finished her engineering degree. Fonterra even paid for one of her university degrees while she was working there.
"I'm really passionate about the impact that the dairy industry has on rural communities, like the one I grew up in. The dairy industry actually educated me and looked after me for well over a decade. So I'm actually really grateful for the experiences I've had. But seeing the technology that's coming, I can see that things are changing rapidly. And the people behind me won't necessarily get those kinds of opportunities. Which begs the question, what's next?"
Facing down the threat
Adam Giddens - a sharemilker who farms his herd of 200 cows just outside Carterton in the Wairarapa - doesn't share Appleton's sense of doom about synthetics taking over the real thing. He and his wife are planning their lives around a future in the industry. They're saving to buy their own farm and he's sticking with dairy.
It's calving time on the farm and his herd is rapidly being added to; four cows in one paddock are in the process of giving birth. One of his cows needs a bit of a helping hand, so he heads over to assist. Within about a minute, the newest addition to the herd is being licked by his mother.
Back at the shed he points out the other fluffy new calves. There are no 'bobby calves' on his farm. Those that are not used as replacements for the herd are sold to other farms where they'll be reared as beef cattle.
"We will adapt, we will make it work, we'll do whatever we have to. You know, we're all passionate about farming. We're all passionate about our animals, we're passionate about our environment. We're not going to chuck it in just because someone decides they can make synthetics. We're just gonna have to get better at telling a story.”
Giddens says it's important that natural dairy makes a point of labelling its products well so people know they're buying the real thing. He also wants consumers to be aware that genetic modification is used to make dairy in the lab.
"I think they'll coexist, there will always be a demand for natural. And, you know, there's gonna be a demand for synthetics because the population’s growing. I think there is a place for synthetic proteins as long as it is disclosed that it's synthetic and people get the choice to buy it or not."
Synthetic mozzarella maker Matt Gibson doesn't buy the argument that synthetic and natural dairy will coexist happily.
"I don't think that's going to happen... There's a lot of hurdles to overcome, so by no means can we do it today. But once we get over these technical hurdles, and can scale effectively, we can get to a point where, theoretically, we can be making dairy and meat products without the animal, at a far cheaper cost."
Gibson doesn't think the majority of consumers will be swayed by whether it is natural or not. "Consumers are driven by price and the product, the taste of it. And if we can get a cheaper product that tastes just as good...I think we will see a mainstream shift away from our current dairy and meat products."
The country's largest dairy co-op is obviously considering this possibility, too. In February this year, Fonterra announced it had taken a minority stake in US-based biotech company Motif Ingredients, which also uses fermentation to make synthetic dairy proteins.
In July at ProteinTECH, a conference covering what “alternative protein means for the New Zealand primary industries”, Fonterra's chief science and technology officer Jeremy Hill said the co-op was keeping an eye on what was happening with synthetics. "There's some interesting developments. We're part of that picture and we think it's going to play a role. The question at this point is just how big." And while yeast-fermentation is often billed as "clean" dairy, Hill says it isn't without it's problems. "There's no free lunch. So when you look at these fermentation produce processes, just like cows need to eat grass, they use need to consume the nutrients. So to produce the protein, you've got to feed them a lot of sugar, and it's an awful lot of sugar... you need five to 10 grams of sugar to get one gram of protein.”
Hill says that's going to create a huge amount of biomass waste and the use of genetic modification in the lab process may also prove a stumbling block. But like Fonterra supplier Adam Giddens, Hill believes there will be a place for both.
"I think the biggest challenge isn't whether we've got disruption or substitution of one food for another, it's actually how do we produce them enough, full stop. The fact that the whole world needs to have a sustainable food system, we need to look at the role of plants, animals, and the alternatives within that picture. And then the tricky task will be communicating that, so that the consumers actually have a proper understanding when they're making their food choices.”
Those looking to the future want New Zealand's dairy industry to start thinking now, so their livelihoods and this country's earning ability are not hit badly by the disruption that is coming, but instead set up to take charge of the change and the opportunities it presents.