Fonterra Cooperative Group is confident the complexity of cow milk will always trump plant-based alternatives, which the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Peter Gluckman sees as posing an "existential threat" to the country's economic fortunes.
Gluckman threw down the gauntlet in a keynote speech to the annual NZBIO conference in Wellington yesterday, saying there was a growing consumer appetite around the world for synthetic alternatives to meat and milk, including in the all-important Asian market, with plant-based foods now crossing the taste and texture threshold and offering a much smaller environmental impact than food derived from pastoral farming.
"Fundamentally there's an environmental concern for the population as a whole, not only in US, but in countries like China there's an environmental consciousness," he said. "The question is for New Zealand is it a fad? Or is it a real threat for our commodities?"
When Gluckman was appointed to the position eight years ago, he viewed synthetic foods as one of the "big existential risks to New Zealand" and "now I think the risk is real".
Dairy products account for about 27 per cent of New Zealand's annual $50.84 billion of exported goods and New Zealand households spend 10 per cent of their food budget on dairy products.
Fonterra is keeping tabs on what's going on with synthetic foods and is currently investigating consumer attitudes to alternative proteins and the role technology plays alongside dairy, a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
"Milk from cows provides a natural and complex mixture of proteins, fats, minerals and other nutrients, which will be almost impossible to manufacture, so there will always be a global, growing market for dairy," she said. "We believe there's a place for both categories, but it's clear that the natural, nutritional strength of dairy will be the premium nutrition of choice."
Fonterra noted the growth in consumer interest in "social and environmental factors when making purchase decisions" in its 2017 annual report, and predicted "shifts towards diets with lower environmental footprints".
Gluckman said the shift raised a number of "really hard questions" that will need a wide public debate because plant-based synthetic foods rely on genetically modified ingredients to enhance the taste and texture. He sees New Zealand as having three options: stick with ruminant-based farming but adopt new practices including the use of GM foragers; switch to GM-free plant-based ingredients; invest in the full supply chain and produce meat and milk alternative foods.
He said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment was already tackling those issues in "considerable depth", although the ministry downplayed how far down the track it was.
"MBIE is 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," Peter Crabtree, MBIE's science, innovation and international general manager said in an emailed statement. "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."
Gluckman said New Zealand was better-placed to re-open conversations about genetic modifications than it was 20 years ago and is capable of discussing the issue "without getting drowned immediately in rhetoric". That debate was one the public will need to be engaged in, and will canvas new questions about what constitutes 'natural', with food derived from GM crops already allowed to be sold in New Zealand if it's been approved by the Australia New Zealand Foods Standards Council.
New Zealand's current settings mean the use of GM techniques need regulatory approval, which Gluckman said was stifling innovation where the technology is regulated rather than the output, and pointed out that even nuclear applications weren't subject to such onerous oversight.
MBIE's Crabtree said the existing legislative and regulatory frameworks still allowed many "present opportunities in developing plant-based protein foods".