The global dairy industry is changing. Among the disruptions is competition from non-animal food alternatives, including the potential challenges posed by synthetic milk.
Synthetic milk does not require cows or other animals. It may have the same biochemical composition as animal milk, but it is cultured using an emerging biotechnological technique known as “precision fermentation” that produces cultured biomass from cells.
More than 80% of the world’s population regularly consume dairy products. There have been increasing calls to move beyond animal-based food systems towards more sustainable forms of food production.
Synthetic milks offer cow’s milk without concerns such as methane emissions or animal welfare. But it must overcome many challenges and pitfalls to become a fair, sustainable and viable alternative to animal milk.
It is not a science fiction fantasy.
My recent research examined megatrends in the global dairy sector. Plant-based milks and potentially synthetic milks emerged as a key disruption.
Unlike synthetic meat, which can struggle to match the complexity and texture of animal meat, synthetic milk is touted as having the same taste, look and feel as regular cow’s milk.
Synthetic milk is not a science fiction fantasy; already exists. In the US, for example, the company Perfect Day supplies non-animal protein made from microflora, which is then used to make ice cream, protein powder and milk.
In Australia, start-up company Eden Brew has been developing synthetic milk at Werribee in Victoria. The company is targeting consumers who are increasingly concerned about climate change and, in particular, the methane input from dairy cows.
CSIRO allegedly 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 says that these proteins give milk many of its key properties and contribute to its creamy texture and ability to foam. Minerals, sugars, fats, and flavors are added to the protein base to create the final product.
Read more: Which ‘milk’ is better for the environment? We compared dairy, nut, soy, hemp, and cereal milks.
Towards a new food system?
Also in Australia, the company All G Foods this month raised 25 million Australian dollars to accelerate the 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 move humanity away from traditional animal agriculture towards radically different food systems.
A 2019 report on 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, this could present significant challenges for companies that produce milk powder for the ingredient market.
Some traditional dairy companies are jumping on the bandwagon. For example, Australian dairy cooperative Norco is backing the Eden Brew project, and New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra last week announced a joint venture to develop and commercialize “fermentation-derived proteins with dairy-like properties.”
Synthetic milk: whey forward?
The synthetic milk industry must grow exponentially before it becomes a significant threat to animal milk. This will require a lot of capital and investment in research and development, as well as new manufacturing infrastructure such as fermentation tanks and bioreactors.
Conventional animal milk production in the Global South now exceeds that in the Global North, largely due to rapid growth in Asia. Certainly, the traditional dairy industry is not going away any time soon.
Read More: Milk, Whole Milk, and Nothing But Milk: The Story Behind Our Dairy Problems
And synthetic milk is not a cure-all. While the technology has enormous potential to improve environmental and animal welfare, it does present challenges and potential drawbacks.
For example, alternative proteins do not necessarily challenge the corporatization or homogenization of conventional industrial agriculture. This means that large synthetic milk producers could push for low-tech or small-scale dairy systems and alternative dairy systems.
Furthermore, synthetic milk could further displace many people from the global dairy sector. If traditional dairy cooperatives in Australia and New Zealand are moving towards synthetic milk, for example, where does this leave dairy farmers?
As synthetic milk gains ground in the coming years, we must avoid replicating existing inequalities in the current food system.
And the traditional dairy industry must recognize that it is on the cusp of fundamental change. In the face of multiple threats, you must maximize the social benefits of dairy products of animal origin and minimize their contribution to climate change.