A new milk could threaten New Zealand's $17 billion dairy export industry.
Made in the lab from yeast, and due to be on shelves in 2016, it will be a product virtually indistinguishable from cows' milk.
Because it will have the same proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals, it will also taste the same, according to Perumal Gandhi, co-founder of Californian research and development company Muufri.
But the milk will be able to be made without the typical cholesterol, allergen lactose and bacteria in cows' milk, meaning it will be healthier and won't need to be refrigerated, giving it a much longer shelf-life.
Soon after its introduction, it would become far cheaper than its cow-made rival, Gandhi said.
While the milk might first appear to have a lab-grown "ick factor", Muufri thinks people will get over it, especially as the process will essentially be the same as beer production. In beer, yeast creates alcohol and carbon dioxide from sugar.
"While initially sceptical, [people] turn into supporters when we tell them the positives and how we do it," Gandhi said.
The Muufri lab in Ireland is now cultivating yeast that is growing milk fats and proteins such as casein, after inserting the DNA instructions for these foods into the yeast's genetic code. They hope to have the first glass to taste in September.
Cheese, yoghurt, and cream will all be able to be made from the milk - and milk imitating goat and buffalo varieties will be next on Muufri's agenda.
The world developing a taste for the lab-made milk could have a major impact on New Zealand, with dairy our biggest export. Exports totalled $14.6b in 2012 and were forecast to steadily rise and be worth $17b by 2016.
But Fonterra saw the task of replicating cows' milk on a large scale as too complex, research and development director Jeremy Hill said. "There are hundreds of different components in cows' milk.
"To even try to duplicate this using yeast requires genetic modification and even then it is unlikely that artificial milk will be able to match the real thing," Hill said.
"Fonterra does not see this as a serious threat to the dairy industry."
Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy saw the development as an interesting innovation for those who were lactose intolerant, but he believed most consumers would still select the traditional variety.
"I prefer our natural real milk, produced from fantastic New Zealand pastures . . . I won't be rushing out to purchase a carton."
Victoria University researcher Jason Young, of the Contemporary China Research Centre, believed there would always be a market for milk from New Zealand dairy cows. "All through Asia, you can see there's a growing market for green food products - a move away from having a lot of additives and too much processing - and organic food."
THE WIDER IMPLICATIONS
The animal welfare advocate: Mandy Carter, Safe.
Animal welfare advocate Safe thought the new milk-making process was "absolutely brilliant. There are so many animal welfare issues with dairy".
Lab milk could let consumers enjoy the taste without the ethical concerns, including the slaughter of unwanted calves and the health impact on cows from constant milk-production, she said.
The environmentalist: Bryce Johnson, Fish & Game.
Muufri milk could also be good for water quality of rivers and lakes.
"Dairy farms have a significant impact on natural waterways in New Zealand. So if there was a replacement for milk, it would reduce the impact of the dairy industry."
However, he was sceptical the drink would ever be a true rival for cows' milk.
The allergen specialist: Penny Jorgensen, Allergy NZ.
If the Muufri innovations led to "design-your-own" milk, there could also be positives for those with allergies to specific milk proteins.
"Cows' milk allergy is a significant allergy in young children. It's particularly concerning because cows' milk has a lot of nutritional content." It could be difficult providing a balanced diet without dairy, she said.
"There are tests being developed that can identify the protein within the food that someone might be allergic to. If you could then produce a milk that didn't have those particular proteins, then that would be helpful."
- The Dominion Post
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