This is the year when plant-based alternatives to dairy and meat have suddenly started to pose a more serious threat to the traditional animal-based products on which New Zealand farmers, and our economy as a whole, depend, writes Allan Barber.
There is no danger these alternatives will suddenly take over the world, leaving dairy and sheep and beef farmers wondering what to do with their stranded assets. But, to prevent being taken unpleasantly by surprise, it will be necessary for the dairy and red meat sectors to keep a close watch on these competitors and track their progress with global consumers.
Perfect Day is a San Francisco based start-up company which has developed what it claims is a ‘cow-free milk’ that tastes like the real thing because it contains casein and whey produced by inserting a cow’s DNA into a particular strain of yeast and mixed with plant-based nutrients and fats. The result is a lactose free milk alternative which uses 65 percent less energy, generates 84 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 91 percent less land and 98 percent less water.
The two scientist inventors of Perfect Day had become increasingly frustrated with the taste and texture of dairy-free alternatives and decided to develop their own improved version. The company’s website states the product is a complement to normal milk and does not seek to replace dairy cows entirely, but wants to offer consumers another option. They believe the main opportunity for their product will be for cheese manufacture for use on pizzas and cream cheese on bagels, although this appears to stem from their own personal frustrations with trying to find acceptable vegetarian and vegan alternatives.
At the moment, start-ups like Perfect Day have very little capacity to produce enough alternative dairy products which could make an immediate dent in global consumption patterns, although this will scale up very quickly if consumer response is positive. There doesn’t yet appear to be much serious evidence why consumers may be prepared to change their habits from natural to alternative dairy products, but the serious capital being invested in companies like Perfect Day suggests there is plenty of confidence behind them.
Although there does not yet appear to be any conclusive proof of the health effects of changing diets to plant-based alternatives, they are unlikely to be much different from adopting a vegetarian or lactose-free eating regime. Consumers will adopt the alternatives for a variety of different reasons, including perceived or real health, environmental, animal treatment and economic concerns. The uptake rate of these new methods of food production will vary enormously in different parts of the world. But New Zealand agriculture needs to get on the front foot and tell a story which presents a compelling argument that counters all these ideological perspectives, otherwise we risk our traditional markets eventually coming under serious threat.
Another San Francisco start-up, Impossible Burger, has developed the ‘veggie burger that bleeds’ in an attempt to mimic the taste and texture of ground beef hamburgers. The product is targeted at high-end restaurants in New York and California and, while the ultimate goal is to sell the product wherever meat is sold, the main target is foodservice. Production capacity would have to expand to hundreds of factories to service the whole market, so again progress will be slow in the immediate future.
The relevance to the dairy industry of meat alternatives are less obvious than the threat from plant-based dairy products, but cull cows are an important source of profit to the meat industry. If the American market were to adopt plant-based burgers in a big way, the value of cull cows would fall which would affect dairy farmers as well as meat companies. It might eventually result in less processing capacity which would make it more difficult to get culls off the farm, as well as reducing income.
None of these changes will happen overnight which gives the agricultural sector time to come up with a strategy to justify New Zealand’s status as a global food provider of choice. This strategy should address questions of provenance, sustainability, the impact of farming on the environment and the role of research and development to develop a coherent New Zealand story to support the future of our primary sector. Leadership from the new government will be necessary.