(ORDO NEWS) — The global dairy industry is changing. Among these changes is competition from non-animal food alternatives, including the potential problems posed by synthetic milk.
Synthetic milk does not require the use of cows or other animals. It may have the same biochemical composition as animal milk, but is grown using a new biotechnological technology known as “precision fermentation” that produces cell-grown biomass.
More than 80 percent of the world’s population regularly consumes dairy products. Recently, there have been increasing calls to move away from animal-based food systems towards more sustainable forms of food production.
Synthetic dairy products offer dairy milk without issues like methane emissions or animal welfare. But it must overcome many challenges and pitfalls to become a fair, sustainable and viable alternative to animal-based milk.
Not science fiction fantasy
My recent research looked at megatrends in the global dairy sector. Plant-based milk and, in the future, synthetic milk has been one of the key shocks.
Unlike synthetic meat, which cannot match the complexity and texture of animal meat, synthetic milk is claimed to have the same taste, look and feel as regular dairy milk.
Synthetic milk is not a fantasy, it already exists. In the US, for example, Perfect Day supplies animal-free, microflora-derived protein that is then used to make ice cream, protein powder and milk.
In Australia, start-up Eden Brew is developing synthetic milk in Werribee, Victoria. The company targets consumers who are increasingly concerned about climate change and, in particular, the methane emitted by dairy cows.
CSIRO reportedly developed the technology behind the Eden Brew product. The process starts with yeast and uses “precision fermentation” to produce the same proteins found in cow’s milk.
CSIRO claims that these proteins give milk many of its key properties and contribute to its creamy texture and frothiness. Minerals, sugars, fats and flavors are added to the protein base to create the final product.
To a new power system?
Also in Australia, All G Foods raised A$25 million this month to speed up production of its synthetic milk. Within seven years, the company wants its synthetic milk to become cheaper than cow’s.
If the synthetic milk industry can achieve this goal of cost reduction across the board, then the potential for disruption to the dairy industry is very high. This can force humanity to move further away from traditional animal husbandry and move to radically different food systems.
A 2019 report on the future of the dairy industry estimated that at least 700,000 jobs will be created in the U.S. by 2030 in the precision fermentation industry.
And if synthetic milk can replace dairy as an ingredient in the industrial food processing sector, it could pose significant challenges for companies producing milk powder for the ingredient market.
Some traditional dairy companies are embarking on this path.
For example, Australian dairy cooperative Norco is supporting the Eden Brew project, and New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra last week announced a joint venture to develop and commercialize “fermented proteins with milk-like properties.”
The synthetic milk industry must grow exponentially before it becomes a major threat to animal dairy products. This will require large capital and investment in research and development, as well as new production infrastructure such as fermentation tanks and bioreactors.
Conventional animal milk production in the Global South now exceeds production in the Global North, largely due to rapid growth in Asia. To be sure, the traditional dairy industry is not going away anytime soon.
And synthetic milk is not a panacea. While this technology has great potential to improve ecology and animal welfare, it comes with challenges and potential drawbacks.
For example, alternative proteins do not necessarily challenge the corporatization or homogenization of traditional industrial agriculture. This means that large synthetic milk producers may crowd out low-tech or small-scale dairy – and alternative dairy – systems.
What’s more, synthetic milk could further push many people out of the global dairy sector. If, for example, traditional dairy cooperatives in Australia and New Zealand switch to producing synthetic milk, what is left for farmers?
As synthetic milk gains momentum in the coming years, we must guard against replicating existing inequalities in the current food system.
And the traditional dairy sector must recognize that it is on the cusp of dramatic change. In the face of multiple threats, he must maximize the social benefits of dairy farming and minimize its contribution to climate change.
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