Synthetic foods to have 'major impact' within 10 to 15 years - Sir Peter Gluckman
New Zealand may need to reconsider its approach to genetically modified crops to respond to the economic threat presented by synthetic milk and meat, the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, has suggested.
Gluckman told the NZBio biotechnology conference in Wellington that great strides were being made commercialising artificial milk and meat, which usually rely on genetically modified (GM) ingredients to enhance their taste or texture.
He thought most milk sold worldwide in 20 to 25 years could be synthetic, though it might be "some time" before scientists could create a T-bone steak.
When it came to milk and plant-based artificial mince, concerns around taste, the scalability of manufacture, regulatory issues and consumer acceptance had either already been addressed, soon would be, or were minor, he believed.
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Gluckman said synthetic milk was the biggest threat to New Zealand, because of the country's reliance on its "liquid gold" dairy exports.
"Eight years ago I was laughed at. Now I think the risk is real."
Synthetic foods would have a major impact "if not in the next five years then in the next 10 to 15 years particularly if the world becomes more conscious of the need to tackle climate change".
Gluckman said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) had a team of people and had also engaged a consultant to explore the issues "in some considerable depth".
MBIE science and innovation manager Peter Crabtree said it had not undertaken any work specifically on synthetic foods or on legislation or regulations surrounding them.
But it was in the early stages of exploring the potential for New Zealand to be an international leader in "plant-based protein and the next generation of food innovation and commercialisation", he said.
"There is an increasing international market demand for plant-based proteins for health, environmental and commercialisiation."
Gluckman said all the major food companies were investing in the area of synthetic food.
"They do believe the inevitability of this market is there. It is a not a risk we can any longer ignore.
"While it may not be in the public domain, there are a lot of conversations going on at the highest levels in the industry. I don't think I am giving away any secrets to say that companies as large as Fonterra are talking about it – they have to be."
Synthetic foods had huge environmental benefits and consumers' perception of what was "natural" changed over time, he said.
"What is 'natural' is what you grow up with as a teenager."
New Zealand's challenge was to sustain pastoral agriculture while reducing greenhouse emissions and water use, he said.
"There is no doubt that if we took some our land and changed it to farming the crops that support synthetic foods we could produce high-quality ingredients and probably the high-quality 'milk' itself.
"But that would also probably include having to move to those GM ingredients," Gluckman said.
Synthetic milk – according to one producer – could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 84 per cent and water use by 98 per cent, while also requiring 90 per cent less land than dairy.
Gluckman said New Zealand could stay focused on what it currently produced, remain "GM free" and grow high-end natural ingredients for synthetic foods made overseas, or "invest in a full product chain and make the products here".
Part of that debate might include considering "whether the position we took 20 years ago that projecting 'naturalness' meant you didn't have any GM products grown here", was sustainable into the future, he said.
"I think we are in a position where we are now capable of having those conversations without getting immediately drowned in rhetoric as we were 20 years ago."
GM was at the heart of life-science innovation in fields from agriculture to medicine and, if it remained "completely blocked", it would stifle innovation, he added.
Speaking after his address, Gluckman clarified he was not sure if the bulk ingredients for synthetic food would always need to be GM.
But "if you want to mimic taste at the moment that seems to be one of the key things" for some ingredients.
GM crops might also be needed from a simple economic perspective, if farmers were to replace the income they lost from the likes of dairying, he said.