Plant based burgers, ‘milk’ sourced from pea protein and drinks made from algae. These are the meals once limited to science fiction movie food fed to intrepid astronauts awakening from their deep space hibernated slumber.
But faster than many in New Zealand would believe, they are now a reality in supermarket chillers and shelves, smartly marketed, well researched and backed by millions in capital more likely sourced from Silicon Valley than farmer co-ops and food companies.
The type of threat this new wave of protein alternatives represent to New Zealand’s traditional pastoral agricultural systems has been described as “existential” by science leader Professor Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser in October last year.
Thought leader and business developer Dr Rosie Bosworth also cautioned in the National Business Review that New Zealand’s primary sector risked becoming the “Detroit of agriculture”.
This was on grounds its demand for limited resources would make it unsustainable as lab grown protein becomes more prevalent and cheaper with production growth.
She warned the sector has been complacent about the rise in the threat, and would struggle to compete with commodity produced alternative protein as it scaled up.
Sir Peter’s warnings accompanied three possible courses of actions for the country.
They included sticking with ruminant based farming but adopting new practices that may involve using genetically modified feed sources, switching to GM free plant sourced ingredients, or investing in the full supply chain to produce meat and milk alternative protein foods.
The alarm call prompted a rapid response from the country’s largest dairy processor Fonterra in national media.
A spokesman responded saying milk from cows contains a complex mix of proteins fats and minerals that would be almost impossible to manufacture, ensuring a global, growing market for dairy with its nutritional strength delivering it as the premium nutrition choice.
Fonterra is working closely with AgResearch on a study aimed at unravelling the complexities of milk to find what components are unique, and can even contribute to the recently discovered “brain-gut” wellness axis.
This relatively new field of study has discovered the gut contains neurons similar to what the brain has, and through these communication networks links emotive and cognitive centres of the brain to intestinal function.
Ultimately researchers hope to prove dairy is a genuine “smart food” whose consumption not only delivers nutritive benefits, but also improvements in children’s brain development, and maintaining cognitive awareness in aging consumers.
Researchers hypothesis only through the unique combinations of nutrients and minerals found in milk can this effect be gained, rather than created in a lab from a single plant sourced product.
However this has not assuaged concerns of some who have likened Fonterra’s faith in dairy to wool stalwarts in the sixties when synthetics started to make their play in clothing and carpet use.
Dipton farmer Peter McDonald highlighted the sense of unease many farmers feel, in a column published earlier this year.
He said ignoring it and hoping it will go away is not an option, and pointed out how the wool industry backed out of industry investment, just as synthetic fibres started to gain a foot hold with increased investment.
Meantime synthetics have been around for several decades, and a generation of consumers have little, if any idea about wool’s natural attributes and as a material it continues to founder in its coarse form.
Nuffield scholar and Te Puke dairy farmer Richard Fowler made the synthetic food sector his subject of research in 2016.
He found a slickly marketed industry playing cleverly on inferences about traditional agriculture’s weaknesses, implying it was inferior or more harmful to animals than what these companies offered.
He found an industry still very much in the capital raising stage, but also one that also presented a number of opportunities for the pastoral sector.
The intensive cut and carry dairy operations in the United States capture New Zealand’s extensive pastoral systems in their negative slipstream, and synthetic milk companies play that into their promotion.
“The general consensus is there is little difference in carbon emissions between a pasture based farming model and an intensive confinement model, despite the best animal welfare standards in the world.”
He said the New Zealand farming model risked being “lined up and shot” alongside other countries without a real trial.
Dairy Co-operatives Association of NZ Executive Director Kimberly Crewther said the dairy sector was fighting for its corner on three fronts. One was defending the use of the term “milk” and other dairy terms in product labels from non-dairy sources.
This had already resulted in a Vita Soy soy and coconut milk advertisement being pulled nationally earlier this year.
The second front was supporting research into dairy’s unique nutritional properties, like the AgResearch work into milk’s deeper nutritional importance.
The third area is ensuring the industry can stand up and be counted for providing a sustainable, environmentally friendly food product that can command a premium on international markets.
Richard Fowler was concerned that despite international efforts to clean up the use of “milk” in describing some products, it would only be a distraction from a product requiring a better fight on a strategic front.
“It may be as simple as having a better understanding of our true water and carbon footprints. These don’t get talked about, but we need to find whether we really are better, worse or the same as these new food types in these areas.”
He also challenged New Zealand industry processors to make a move into synthetic food investment, or at least engage with some of the big existing players. This may also provide business opportunities.
“It is no different from Coca Cola deciding it is not just into soft drinks, and how it got into other drink types, including water.”
He also saw opportunities for NZ farmers to provide the basic inputs the synthetic proteins still require.
Plant sourced products are requiring crops like peas and potatoes, and Landcorp has discussed crop options with Impossible Foods, the manufacturers of burgers made of plant source proteins.
The meat sector may be able to provide stem cells to the cultured meat sector in a “bet both ways” strategy.
A New Zealand company SunFed Meats is already claiming to be the country’s first non- animal protein company.
The company has kicked off producing non-chicken ‘chicken’ now available in stores in New Zealand.
Company founder Shama Lee has already raised $1.5 million in an earlier capital raising exercise to commercialise her product and is now seeking additional partners to increase the company’s size 100 fold.
Her efforts were being compared to a higher profile United States company Impossible Burgers that through a similar technique has the technology to align the protein fibres from peas into organised patterns that give a better, more textured eating experience.
However SunFed Meats has also faced an issue likely to become common as the traditional protein sector digs in to fight for its patch, with challenges through the Advertising Standards Authority on its use of “chicken” in its marketing.
However her company also offers the prospect of another income stream for the arable sector in regions like Canterbury. Lee has stated her intention is to build the supply chain backwards, now consumer demand has been proven, and utilise New Zealand grown yellow peas rather than imported peas.
Ex Beef + Lamb NZ Chairman Mike Petersen is now a NZ trade envoy and has seen plenty of evidence around the world on the strength of non-pastoral proteins.
“But when it comes to what we produce, we are high quality, high integrity food producers at the upper end of the animal protein market. That will carry us through, assuming we take up the challenge to present ourselves that way to the rest of the world.”
He too sees the alternative protein market as one presenting as many opportunities as threats.
The idea of a Canterbury dairy farmer also having some land dedicated to a pea protein crop is quite a realistic one, and one that could provide valuable income diversity.
“We should also remember, everyone talks about these disruptive products. But by far more disruptive are changes in routes to market, such as online ordering.”