Synthetic foods a threat, and an opportunity

It tastes like chicken: plant protein "chicken" and "beef" sold in New Zealand under the Alternative Meat Company label. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

New Zealand's chief scientist says synthetic foods pose a real threat to agricultural exporters, but better regulation of genetic modification could create an equally large opportunity, Lynn Grieveson reports.

Speaking to the NZBio Conference in Wellington, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, said the main threat to New Zealand's economy was from synthetic milks, such as the yeast-based milk created by San Francisco company, Perfect Day.

"I think if there is an existential risk for New Zealand, this is where it lies," he said.

"My gut feel is that it is a real challenge. The environmental numbers associated with these technologies are such that it will have a major impact, perhaps not in the next five years, but in the next 10 to 15 years, particularly if the impact of climate change continues to grow and the world becomes more conscious of the need for everybody to be responding to it."

Perfect Day claims that, compared to cow's milk, its milk can be produced with 65 percent less energy consumption, 84 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 91 precent less land and 98 percent less water consumption.

"It has a longer shelf life, there's no cholesterol, no lactose, no antibiotics, no hormones," Gluckman said. It can also be used to make cheese, yoghurt, cream, and replace milk powder.

"The health claims that have been traditionally associated with 'natural milk' are not going to stand up, in my judgment, against these kinds of claims," he said.

"They rely on the insertion of GM algae produced caseins and proteins to give the taste that cow's milk has. So there is a GM component in the most 'cow's-milk-like' artificial milk."

Gluckman said New Zealand had to make decisions in the next few years about how to react to the market disruption synthetic foods would inevitably cause.

One option was to stay focused on current traditional production, hoping to ride out the shift in consumer attitudes around climate change, not just in Europe, but also in Asia.

"Or should we stay GM-free and focus on producing high-end ingredients for the production of synthetic milks which are made elsewhere, say in Singapore?

"Or should we invest in a full product chain and make the products here, thinking about the reality that if you did this well, the potential for market differentiation is very high," he said.

GM legislation a roadblock to innovation

Gluckman was very clear that, to make the third option work, New Zealand needed to revisit its regulations banning the development, importation or releasing of genetically modified organisms without the approval of the Environmental Risk Management Authority. Our restrictions on GMOs are amongst the most rigorous in the world.

"The position that we took 20 years ago that projecting 'natural' into this meant that you didn't have any GM products in NZ, or at least grown in NZ, is that a position that is sustainable into the future?" Gluckman asked.

When questioned how the Government was moving to allow the use of genetic modification to keep up with the changes around synthetic foods, he said: "Well, it's not yet. That's the point.

"You laugh, but that's at the heart of this issue.

"New Zealand as a society decided 20 years ago not to move in this direction and it came up with a structure that is relatively locked in time, rightly or wrongly, and we have now had 20 years more experience, technology is changing and the marketplace and the environmental issues are changing."

After reminding them that the debate over genetic modification arose from Monsanto's development of genetically modified crops that were resistant to the company's own herbicide, Gluckman asked the audience to play a "mind game".

"If 25 years ago the first use of GM had been to eradicate stoats or for the WHO to produce some particularly healthy rice and the first use of the internet had been by terrorists to do something nasty, would we have ended up regulating the internet the way we have regulated GM?"

"We have this very unusual situation with GM," Gluckman said. "Even with nuclear – we regulate the technology because we use it in medicine and food safety, we don't ban the technology, we regulate the technology."

"If it remained completely blocked then it would stifle innovation because it is at the heart of life sciences development - in medicine, in agriculture, environmental management etc.

"We happen to have a very broadly based definition. Clearly that is stifling innovation. Now society may want to stifle that innovation, that is their right to stifle it, but they need to understand the implications of doing so."

"We need far better public conversations, far more open discussion without getting drowned immediately in political rhetoric, than we had 20 years ago, and I think we are capable of that.

"I think hopefully, hopefully, we are in a position where we are able to have more constructive conversations that actually point out the dynamics – we’ve got an environmental challenge, nobody would deny we have an environmental challenge, we have an economic challenge, we have a societal challenge, we have technological challenges. It's going to take a lot of thinking through but it needs to be done against a background of asking what are the options that make sense for New Zealand?"

Gluckman's view is supported by Professor Peter Dearden, the Director of Genomics Aotearoa, which recently received $35 million in Government funding to "grow genomic research capabilities in New Zealand."

Dearden said that, in a lot of different areas from predator eradication to medicine, the solutions that seemed to be the most effective involved genetic modification.

"I think we need to have a serious conversation and think again," he said, adding that a lot more is known now about the risks and effects of genetic modification and the "appalling ecological collapse" feared by opponents had not happened.

But Dr Peter Crabtree, general manager of science, innovation and international at MBIE, was more cautious about the need for reform of the GM regulations – saying "many of the present opportunities in developing plant-based protein foods could be undertaken within existing legislative and regulatory frameworks".

Crabtree said MBIE had not undertaken any work specifically on 'synthetic foods', or any detailed analysis of how current legislation and regulations interact with the field of synthetic foods, but it was "in the early stages of exploring with a wide range of stakeholders the potential for New Zealand to be an international leader in plant-based protein and the next generation of food innovation and commercialisation.

"There is an increasing international market demand for plant-based proteins for health, environmental and commercial reasons. A range of New Zealand companies are already involved in this space," Crabtree said.

"Scary" investments underway

It is only four years since a scientist was live-streamed eating a cell-cultured burger which famously cost €250,000 to produce (funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who says he did so because he was uncomfortable with how cattle are treated on modern beef farms).

Gluckman said burgers like that can now be bought at restaurants in the United States for US$11, produced by Impossible Foods, which Gluckman said has received US$183 million from investors including Google Ventures and Bill Gates.

The burgers are made from wheat and potato protein, coconut oil and 'heem' – a genetically modified ingredient that means it sizzles, bleeds and tastes similar to a 'real' burger.

"I know of at least two NZ enterprises, and there may be more, that are now dealing with Impossible Foods and are moving to trying to develop this technology and use it in New Zealand," Gluckman said.

"Serious investment has been made in NZ in this direction."

From somewhere in the audience, someone muttered: "That's scary."

"While it may not be in the public domain, there is a lot of conversation going on at highest levels thinking about these issues," Gluckman said.

"I don't think I am giving away any secrets to say companies as large as Fonterra are thinking about it, they have to be.

"All the food majors in Europe are all heavily engaged in working out how much they should invest in this because they do believe in the inevitability of this market. The only question is how big a market and where in the value chain it will sit."

"By 2020 the US market alone will be in the order of US$6 billion."

And while the idea of meat grown from cell cultures may still have what Gluckman called "the yuck factor", he said attitudes can quickly change.

"What is 'natural' [to you] is what you grow up with as a teenager. By the time you become an adult you accept what you see in your youth as being effectively natural," he said.