The global dairy industry is changing. One of the disruptions is competition from food alternatives not produced from animals – including potential challenges from synthetic milk.
No cows or other animals are needed for synthetic milk. It may have the same biochemical composition as animal milk but is grown using an emerging biotech technique known as “precision fermentation” which produces cell-grown biomass.
More than 80% of the world’s population regularly consume dairy products. There are increasing calls to move from animal food systems to more sustainable forms of food production.
Synthetic milk provides worry-free dairy milk such as: methane emissions or animal welfare. But it has to overcome many challenges and pitfalls to become a fair, sustainable and viable alternative to animal milk.
Not a science fiction fantasy
Mine recent research examined megatrends in the global dairy sector. Plant-based milk and possibly synthetic milk emerged as a major disturbance.
Unlike synthetic meats — which can struggle to match the complexity and texture of animal meats — synthetic milks are touted as having the same taste, look and feel as normal milk.
Synthetic milk is not a science fiction fantasy; it already exists. In the US, for example, the perfect day company supplies animal-free protein made from microflora, which is then: to get used to ice cream, protein powder and milk.
In Australia, start-up Eden Brew is developing synthetic milk at Werribee in Victoria. The company targets consumers who are increasingly concerned about climate change and in particular the contribution of methane from 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 as in cow’s milk.
CSIRO says: these proteins give milk many of its key properties and contribute to its creamy texture and foaming ability. Minerals, sugars, fats and flavors are added to the protein base to create the final product.
Towards a new food system?
Also in Australia, the company All G Foods raised A$25 million this month to accelerate production of its synthetic milk. Within seven years, the company wants its synthetic milk to be cheaper than cow’s milk.
If the synthetic milk industry can achieve this cost target across the board, the potential to disrupt the dairy industry is high. It could further divert humanity from traditional livestock farming to radically different food systems.
A report 2019 in the future of dairy found that by 2030, the US precision fermentation industry will create at least 700,000 jobs.
And if synthetic milk can replace dairy as an ingredient in the industrial food processing sector, it could pose major challenges for companies producing powdered milk for the ingredients market.
Some traditional dairies are jumping on the bandwagon. For example, the Australian dairy cooperative Norco supported the Eden Brew project and the New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra last week announced a joint venture to develop and commercialize “fermentation-derived proteins with dairy-like properties”.
Synthetic milk: the whey ahead?
The synthetic milk industry needs to grow exponentially before it becomes a major threat to animal milk. This one will need a lot of capital and investment in research and development, as well as new production infrastructure such as fermentation tanks and bioreactors.
production of conventional animal milk in the South is now greater than that of the North, largely due to the rapid growth in Asia. Certainly, the traditional dairy industry will not disappear anytime soon.
And synthetic milk is not a panacea. While the technology has huge potential for environmental and animal welfare gains, it also poses challenges and potential drawbacks.
For example, alternative proteins do not necessarily pose a challenge to the corporatization or homogenization of conventional industrial agriculture. This means that large synthetic milk producers can displace low-tech or small-scale dairy and alternative dairy systems.
In addition, synthetic milk could further displace many people from the global dairy sector. For example, if traditional dairy cooperatives in Australia and New Zealand switch to synthetic milk, where will the dairy farmers be?
As synthetic milk gains ground in the coming years, we must guard against repeating existing inequalities in the current food system.
And the traditional dairy sector must recognize that it is on the cusp of a crucial change. Faced with multiple threats, it must minimize the social benefits of both animal dairy products and its contribution to climate change.