Milk from the laboratory - sustainability is decisive

Milk from the laboratory - sustainability is decisive

Milk from the lab is on the rise. Nestlé sells artificial milk in the USA, and a Swiss entrepreneur produces cheese in the laboratory. This is reported by the SonntagsZeitung. According to a survey by the medium, most consumers are willing to try milk alternatives produced using genetic engineering. The differences in taste compared to conventional milk are said to be minimal. However, the sustainability of the products is crucial, which includes resource efficiency and price.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

We generally assume that natural is also sustainable. This assumption could be shaken when it comes to milk. With the global food system responsible for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, research is going full steam ahead on alternatives. It's about meat substitutes, but it's also about dairy products from the lab. This was also the topic of the Swiss-Food Talk on «Future Food» (see box below). The fact that the development is progressing rapidly is illustrated by an article in the Sonntagszeitung. «Cow's milk that does without cows is not a dream of the future, but already a reality,» the text says. Nestlé, for example, is selling milk produced with the aid of genetic engineering on a trial basis in the USA. It is based on proteins from the US company Perfect Day. For Nestlé, the article says, the products are initially a supplement to plant-based alternatives - in other words, a supplement to oat or soy milk.

Genetic engineering: from the muddy corner to a sustainable business model

Raffael Wohlgensinger, a young Swiss entrepreneur, is about to launch cheese whose raw materials have been produced using genetic engineering methods. The company's communication in this regard on the website formo.bio is bold and transparent. He tells SonntagsZeitung, «Microorganisms are more efficient in producing food than cows.» The founder of the start-up «Formo» says the cheese should first be launched in Germany. For now, it's about products equivalent to feta, white mold cheese, or cream cheese. Wohlgensinger's goal is to protect the environment thanks to sustainable production. For the agricultural industry, the question is whether such processes will soon replace dairy cows. Wohlgensinger says: «We don't want to compete with dairy farmers whose cows eat grass in the Alps. But I hope that in the future there will be less industrial factory farming with the use of concentrated feed.»

But what do farmers get out of meat and milk substitutes? Aren't they the ones who suffer? As the portal «GreenQueen» reports, the organization Respect Farms is working on a project that aims to enable decentralized production of cell-based meat on farms, for example. Several countries, NGOs, fenaco, and the Swiss Farmers' Association are involved in the project. New business models could emerge for innovative farmers. Milk processors such as Emmi are also watching the development with interest. However, many questions remain unanswered with regard to the approval of such products and their acceptance by customers. Overall, milk consumption has been declining for years, while plant-based alternatives are gaining ground.


Vegans see opportunities

In an interview with the SonntagsZeitung, the president of Swissveg assesses the acceptance of vegans for lab-produced milk, saying that it depends on their motives. If someone lives vegan for ethical or ecological reasons, acceptance is certainly high. However, anyone who avoids milk for health reasons is unlikely to switch because the products from the laboratory contain milk proteins.

The president of Swissveg also points out that there is no genetically modified material in the end product from the laboratory. What is modified are the microorganisms that produce the milk from the laboratory. According to the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, an application for approval is required before lab-produced milk can be sold in Switzerland because of the genetic engineering involved in its production. In addition to the improved eco-balance, the price is decisive for market success. According to Formo, the cheese alternatives are initially 30 to 40 percent more expensive than the originals when they are launched on the market. However, this is likely to change quickly as production volumes increase. The sustainability of dairy products from the lab also includes price. As various media have already reported, the chicken egg is also getting competition from the lab. As reported by «Vegconomist» among others, Finnish researchers have succeeded in producing chicken egg protein with the help of a fungus. The fungus produces the chicken egg protein, ovalbumin, on its own. According to the researchers, the properties of the end product are the same as those of egg white from hen's eggs. The protein, produced via precision fermentation, requires 90 percent less land area and produces up to 55 percent fewer greenhouse gases. Once scalable, it can offer an alternative to industrial chicken farming.


Survey shows openness of consumers

According to a representative survey by the Tages-Anzeiger, only 24 percent of respondents say, «I am skeptical about the use of genetic engineering.» A majority of 55 percent are willing to try the new products. This shows that skepticism about genetic engineering is also waning in the food sector. This is likely to be the case especially if the eco-balance is positive and the taste and consistency are convincing. Medicine and cosmetics have been using the advantages of genetic engineering for a long time - it is high time that it also becomes a matter of course in the food sector, thanks to a sober view through the lens of sustainability.

«Future Food»: From development to the shopping basket

Protein is one of the most important components of a healthy and balanced diet. However, most of the protein consumed by humans comes from animals, and its production is extremely resource intensive. What could alternatives look like? And what does it take for alternative protein products to end up in consumers' shopping baskets? Does the substitution of animal production really make sense in every case? Three speakers discussed these topics in a Swiss Food Talk.

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