Technology entrepreneur and foresight practitioner Melissa Clark-Reynolds was the keynote speaker at the DairyNZ Farmers Forum attended by 200 farmers and industry people in Ashburton.
In particular, the ingredients business was likely to be in for a hard time from dairy alternatives, she said.
The Future Centre owner revealed during a speech on headwinds and tailwinds in dairying that bio-identical breast milk made in a lab was commercially available and, “even odder”, breast milk from nursing mothers was being sold by an Indian company.
“There’s been a little controversy and back and forth about regulations, but in India there is this company, Neolacta, who is actually milking woman and putting milk into UHT boxes.
“When you think about what’s gone on with surrogacy and the idea of can you pay someone else to have your baby, you can sort of see how that could also extend out to can I pay someone to make milk and I milk them?
“I know it sounds weird to us, but if you think back 150 years ago there were wet nurses.”
Ms Clark-Reynolds said the company was unlikely to survive and was “on the edges”, but worth keeping an eye on.
She said “breast was best” and if she could afford it she would choose an infant formula closest to a human formula, so this was the type of headwinds that would be faced over time.
Bio-identical breast milk products were at a point where they were coming on the market.
“This is a big challenge long-term to the infant formula market.
“We see here companies starting to make breast milk … and putting a whole lot of additives including palm oil in.
“What we get is we can actually put those carbohydrates into the vat with the right microbes and enzymes and come out with bio-identical breast milk.
“Over time we are going to see the market for cow-based infant formula will drop off and for cow-based whey and casein.”
She said it would take some time before this happened.
Ms Clark-Reynolds showed a list of animal-free dairy brands including California-based company Perfect Day which creates dairy protein by fermentation from fungi in bioreactors.
“We are seeing a number of companies around the world basically bypassing the cow, so they take that carbohydrate and it might be sugarcane or it might be another forage and putting it into the vat.”
She said some of the vegan cheeses were tasty, but others weren’t great.
Other companies were making cow-less whey for protein powders and looking at other products such as lactoferrin as a high-value ingredient.
“There are companies all around the world that are actually doing it. And what’s happened over the last five years . . . is their cost of production is coming down very fast.”
She said Singapore had made itself a centre of excellence for precision fermentation after writing a food security plan that identified there was potential for its food supply to be cut off quickly.
In its supermarkets were lab-grown fish, eel, chicken and other products which were bio-identical, she said.
“What that means is it’s very, very hard to tell any difference between them and the product that was created inside a cow. I’m not trying to scare you with this, I’m trying to say we have to keep an eye on these headwinds so that we can figure out where our opportunities are.”
Ms Clark-Reynolds said the No1 opportunity was artisan milk at scale.
“So you can imagine in a world with all of these artificial products, even if they might be bio-identical to human ones, there’s going to be demand for the real thing.”
She said the “real thing” would command higher value as it was grass-fed or had other attributes such as free-range, family farms or even ag-regeneration attributes that customers wanted now.
“So I’m actually quite excited for the future of the dairy industry.”