Monday, February 26, 2024

Making room on the dairy shelf for alternatives

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Existing ag production and new food technologies will in future exist side by side, says an AgResearch manager.
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By Li Day, AgResearch’s food, fibre and international sector manager

A flurry of recent media coverage about the progress of animal-free protein purports to raise doubts about the future of New Zealand’s dairy industry.

Some speculation has gone so far as to predict that if precision fermentation processes to produce dairy proteins without animals do succeed at scale, much of NZ’s animal-based industry could be wiped out in the coming years.

However, the available evidence simply does not support such a conclusion.

The growing global population will continue to increase demand for quality food proteins into the foreseeable future. This increased demand cannot be met by the existing agriculture production system, nor by new technologies alone. 

There is no question that there have been significant advances in technologies such as those in the precision fermentation and alternative protein spaces, and they hold exciting possibilities, including potentially for NZ.

However, there are still huge scientific and technological challenges in achieving the nutritional profile and functionality to match those proteins from animal systems.   

Typically, in precision fermentation, proteins such as casein or whey obtained from animals are produced instead by encoding dairy protein DNA sequences into microorganisms like yeast or fungi, and then fermenting these in vats or tanks with the relevant nutrients and sugars.

Climate change and other challenges are adding pressure to the global food system. Technology-based solutions therefore can support a global transition towards more sustainable production of protein sources and reduced environmental impact.   

Just as plant-based milks have found a place in the market, proteins from precision fermentation methods are likely gain a foothold alongside products from traditional agriculture sources, to provide consumers with alternative choices.

NZ has an excellent reputation internationally for supplying safe and quality protein products. Its pasture-based system has a lower carbon footprint and requires less energy input compared to the intensive production systems employed in much of the world.

A study by AgResearch into the carbon footprint of milk production released in 2020 confirmed that NZ is among the most efficient producers in the world.

The bigger issue right now, rather than one method displacing another, is the urgency to keep making strides to continue improving the sustainability of animal agriculture by reducing its impact on the environment, so that social licence is maintained.

Researchers are working closely with the existing industry to develop new practices and tools to further improve on their environmental performance, and there is promise with new approaches to lower greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen loss that can impact on freshwater quality.

Importantly, what we are seeing is that those in both the conventional protein industry and those working towards new plant-based or animal-free proteins are coming at these issues with an open mind. They are looking for future opportunities and embracing new technologies alongside our existing capacity of producing high quality food and ingredients.

At AgResearch, we are looking ahead to working with industry partners on how we can build the science and technology to support and adapt to these new developments in proteins in a NZ context.

We have an eye to future possibilities and challenges with the intention, alongside Massey University, to appoint a Professorial Chair in Alternative Proteins to join the Riddet Institute Centre of Research Excellence in Palmerston North.

The successful applicant will help build a new internationally recognised research capability for NZ in the rapidly emerging field of alternative protein biotechnologies, with an emphasis on precision fermentation, synthetic biology or cellular agriculture.

If we approach these global shifts with the right mindset, there are many opportunities we may be able to seize upon.

AgResearch has produced a white paper entitled Fermentation for future food systems – What are the opportunities for New Zealand? which can be viewed here.

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