March 2020


The milk of human genius

By Lesley Hughes
Image of cow in photo studio

© Ingo Wagner / picture alliance via Getty Images

The end of the cow is near as animal-free milk is likely to decimate the traditional dairy industry within the decade, and plant-based meat is set to upend the beef market

Meet Daisy, a typical Australian dairy cow. Daisy is likely to be a Holstein Friesian, whose ancestors grazed the cool lush pastures of northern Germany and the Netherlands. When she was only a day or so old, Daisy would have been separated from her mother, and raised for her first few weeks on bottled milk before being put out to graze. Sometime in her first six months, Daisy would have been “disbudded”, her developing horn buds heat-cauterised without anaesthetic or sedation, to prevent subsequent horn growth.

At about two years old, Daisy will give birth to her first calf, having been artificially inseminated nine and a half months previously. Within a day, the calf, if female, will be separated to be raised like her mother as part of the dairy herd. If her calf is a male “bobby calf”, he will be surplus to requirements, with only two fates possible – either to be transported to an abattoir at about five days old, or to be fattened up for a few months then slaughtered for veal.

After her calf is taken away, Daisy will continue to produce milk for about 10 months. Then after a few weeks respite she will be ready to conceive again, and the lactation–pregnancy cycle will continue. For the rest of Daisy’s life, she will be a factory on legs, turning grass into something you can put on your cereal or in your coffee. 

Daisy’s natural lifespan is about 20 years, but she is unlikely to live past six or seven, by which time her milk production will have declined to a point where she is no longer profitable to feed. If things are going badly on the farm, she might not make it that long – becoming the literal cash cow needed to pay the mortgage or the school fees. Either way, Daisy will eventually make the same one-way trip as any of her male calves. Meat from dairy cattle is typically used for beef mince or pet food.

When actively lactating, Daisy can produce 35 to 50 litres of milk per day, about 10 times what a calf would need. Selective breeding to produce cows with such prodigious output has come at considerable physical cost, with huge udders putting strain on ligaments, and conditions such as laminitis (which causes lameness) and mastitis (an inflammation of the udder) being relatively routine. 

Assuming five years in the faithful if unwitting service of twice-daily milking, Daisy may produce about 30,000 litres of milk in total, a figure that has more than doubled over the past four decades due to selective breeding and advances in feed and pasture management. Over a seven-year lifetime, Daisy will have burped more than 800 kilograms of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And for every litre of milk Daisy has produced, an astonishing minimum of 500 litres of water (and perhaps as much as 1600) has been needed on the farm to keep her fed and clean.

Suddenly that two-litre bottle of white stuff I sling into my supermarket trolley a couple of times a week is filling me with a distinct sense of unease.

But what if there was another way? What if we could have milk without the methane, gruyere without the guilt? Camembert without the actual cow?

As any vegan will tell you, we can get by without dairy. Indeed, through most of human history, drinking milk as an adult was a most uncomfortable thing to do because the production of the enzyme that breaks down lactose (the sugar in milk) plummets after a child is weaned. But a few thousand years ago, mutations that conferred tolerance to drinking milk as an adult started to appear. These days, most people of northern and central European descent, plus certain African and Middle Eastern populations, can tolerate milk drinking. But this leaves about 65 per cent of the world’s adults, including most Asians, lactose-intolerant.

For those who can stomach it, milk is quite nutritious, especially in terms of protein and calcium. But we can get both these essentials from many other foods – calcium can be sourced from readily available soy products, leafy greens, citrus, nuts and seeds, and more. And for those who want something that looks and tastes somewhat like milk, there is now a bewildering array of alternative milk (or “mylk”) choices, from the traditional soy product to those based on almonds, coconut, oats, hemp, rice, peas, quinoa, hazelnuts, flax or cashews. 

These plant-based dairy alternatives are going gangbusters, at least in the Western world, with the projected market in 2019 worth about US$14 billion, and 8 per cent annual growth projected over the next decade. Market intelligence agency Mintel estimated that nearly a quarter of Britons used some sort of plant-based milk alternative in the three months to February 2019. In the United States, sales of plant-based milks increased more than 60 per cent in the five years to 2018, while dairy milk sales fell 15 per cent over six years. The largest dairy producer in the US, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2019, with competition from plant-based alternatives cited as one of the factors contributing to its downfall. In Australia, market analysts IBISWorld report that “per capita plant-based milk consumption is anticipated to increase at an annualised 16.9 per cent over the five years through 2019–20”.

Not surprisingly, the dairy industry is fighting back. Since December 2013, the European Union has only allowed the words milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt to be used for marketing animal-derived products. In the US, the Dairy Pride act (full title: Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act) was introduced to Congress in March 2019, after a previous version failed to pass in 2017. As in the EU, the bill would prohibit the labelling of non-dairy products as milk, cheese or yoghurt. In turn, the Plant Based Foods Association is leading a coalition in opposition to the act, pointing out the improbability of a customer mistaking almond milk for something from a cow that has eaten a lot of almonds. At the time of writing, the bill is still before Congress. Presumably the members of that august institution have more weighty matters to consider at present than confusing labels on yoghurt. 

Plant-based dairy alternatives are far from the only threat to the livestock industry. We are now entering the brave new world of animal-free animal products.

Thus far, most public attention has been on plant-based meats, which are complex, highly processed products based on soy, pea, mung bean or rice proteins with plant oils and other additives, designed to mimic animal meat’s taste and texture. These products have attracted some heavy-hitter investors – Bill Gates and Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, were early backers of Beyond Meat, producer of the Beyond Burger, which uses beetroot juice to simulate bleeding. Gates has also backed Impossible Foods, producer of the Impossible Burger, which uses haem from soybeans for the same effect. Impossible Foods recently scored a high-profile partnership with Burger King, which introduced the Impossible Whopper burger last August in the US and in Australia’s Hungry Jack’s stores in October. Impossible Pork in various guises has also just landed on the market. The superlatives continue, with the recent commercial release of Nestlé’s plant-based Awesome Burger. Chinese start-up Zhenmeat is now looking to compete with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods for the huge Chinese market – worth US$884 million in 2018, compared to the US market worth US$684 million in the same year. Seeing the writing on the wall, some of the world’s largest meat producers and processors, such as Tyson Foods and Cargill, are also investing substantial sums in these companies. 

Australia is not far behind. Last year, the CSIRO partnered with Hungry Jack’s owner Jack Cowin to launch the company v2food. Hamburger patties made from legumes, coconut and sunflower oils will be on the market “extraordinarily soon”, according to chief executive Nick Hazell.

As well as plant-based products, researchers are now developing cell-based meat, derived from real animal cells cultured in a nutrient medium to produce strings of muscle cells. These are combined until they resemble minced meat, a feat thus far achieved by just a handful of companies, of which Mosa Meat and Memphis Meats are the best known. The technology doesn’t come cheap. The research team behind Mosa Meat, based in the Netherlands, presented their product as a burger in 2013 with a live event online. The project was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The burger in question contained 20,000 strips of muscle fibre that took three lab technicians three months to grow, at a cost of €250,000 (then around $480,000). Thankfully, for those keen to try it without getting a second mortgage, Mosa Meat claims that in a few years it anticipates introducing a hamburger costing around US$11. While small-scale cell-based meat products will likely be introduced first in restaurants, some industry watchers predict products will be available in supermarkets by 2021. 

Plant-based meats appear poised to upend the burger and bolognese market, but mimicking the taste, appearance and texture of a steak still seems a way off. 

Compared to meat, producing animal-free milk is a lot more straightforward. For a start, milk from a cow is 87.7 per cent water. 

Enter bioengineers Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi. They had independently become vegan due to concerns about the ethics and environmental impact of the dairy industry, but as cheese lovers were continually disappointed with the vegan alternatives. Starting with just US$30,000 in 2014, they launched a Californian-based start-up with the aim of replicating the chemical composition of milk synthetically.

The pair reasoned that producing milk proteins – which comprise 3.3 per cent of whole milk – was the key. Fortunately, milk proteins are some of the simplest known. Of the protein component, 82 per cent is casein, consisting of four different proteins, and whey is 18 per cent, a further two types of proteins. Each of these six key proteins has a known sequence of amino acids that can then be converted into a DNA sequence, essentially making a synthetic gene. In Pandya and Gandhi’s process, milk protein genes and a population of “microflora”, which could contain yeast, fungi or bacteria, are combined in a fermentation tank with sugars to feed on (they are coy about the precise composition of the microflora they’re employing, but yeast is the key component). The DNA instructs the microflora to manufacture the proteins, in a process loosely similar to that of brewing beer. As it’s based on the same recombinant DNA, the lab-made protein is exactly the same as that from a cow. 

Once the proteins are harvested, it’s a matter of adding the right fats, minerals and carbohydrates (all from plants, of course) in the appropriate ratios, until the final product has the mouthfeel of milk. Importantly, a lot of undesirables in cow milk, such as lactose, cholesterol, hormones and allergens, can simply be left out. Bacteria can also be excluded, reducing the need for refrigeration during transport and storage. And for those wary about eating genetically modified organisms, the proponents of “precision fermentation” technology emphasise that while the products of the modified microbes are eaten, they are harvested from the fermentation broth without the microbes themselves. 

In 2015, Pandya and Gandhi’s company, Perfect Day (then known as Muufri), won the €200,000 runner-up prize in the Netherlands-based Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge, one of the world’s largest competitions supporting sustainability entrepreneurship. Perfect Day has gone on to attract more than US$200 million in investment from companies such as the Singaporean state fund Temasek, Li Ka-shing’s Hong Kong venture capital firm Horizons Ventures, and the Chicago-based food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). 

In July 2019, in a savvy piece of marketing, Perfect Day’s first limited commercial offering of three flavours of ice-cream (milky chocolate, vanilla salted fudge and vanilla blackberry toffee – they are millennials, after all) reportedly sold out online in a few hours. The company says it has since had discussions with the Chinese government about manufacturing its cow-free proteins in China, and plans to not only manufacture products under its own brand but also partner with other manufacturers to supply ingredients. Working with ADM will be key to this ambition, providing the industrial scaling to supply ingredients globally.

Perfect Day is now focusing on synthesising fats using similar fermentation techniques, experimenting with the optimal composition of microbes. This project is likely to be more complex than the protein manufacture because milk contains hundreds of fatty acids and triglycerides (a type of fat found in blood). But the company hypothesises that not all of these elements are critical to the mouthfeel of milk – it’s a matter of finding the essential ones. The aim is to create an ingredient indistinguishable from dairy fat, which can then be used to make animal-free cream and butter. “New fats” may eventually also displace the palm and coconut oils used in many of the plant- and cell-based meats, further reducing the environmental impacts of these products. 

Other animal-free dairy start-ups are following closely. Coming in two or three years to a pizza store near you could be mozzarella made by synthesising casein proteins, from the company New Culture, founded in New Zealand but now based in Silicon Valley. Other companies are exploring fabrication of collagen to grow leather (Modern Meadow), cultivation of marine-animal cells to create seafood (Finless Foods), chickenless egg whites (Clara Foods), eggless mayonnaise (Hampton Creek, NotCo), and edible collagen for animal-free gelatine (Geltor). 

Finnish company Solar Foods – with the tagline “food out of thin air” – is using ideas first developed by NASA to produce food for a mission to Mars. They don’t just want to skip the animal, they want to skip most of the plant as well. Their process has genetically modified microbes feeding on carbon dioxide in a fermentation tank, using hydrogen as the energy source, obtained by splitting water into its component molecules using solar-generated electricity. The resulting product contains 65 to 75 per cent protein and, when dried to a powder they’ve called Solein, reportedly has the taste of wheat flour. The company claims Solein produces five times less greenhouse-gas emissions than food production from plants, and 100 times less than beef production, as well as using far less water and land. 

Solein is undergoing assessment by the EU as a “novel food”. If all goes well, commercial manufacture will begin in late 2021, with the capability of producing sufficient protein for 2 million meals annually, the company claims, increasing to enough sustenance for 9 billion people by 2050. You can’t fault the ambition. 

So how worried should the agricultural industry be about food 2.0, this revolution in food production? If the modelling projections of US think tank RethinkX are to be believed, it should be very worried indeed.

RethinkX uses a systems approach to analyse how individuals, businesses, investors and policymakers interact to drive technological disruption of traditional markets. Last year, the company’s report “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020–2030” claimed: “We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago.”

The RethinkX report forecasts that this disruption will be brought about by a “second domestication”, that of microorganisms. Whereas the first domestication – of animals and plants – developed over millennia, the second might take only years to decades. In similarly portentous terms, a World Economic Forum white paper on alternative proteins and the future of meat, released last year, describes the technology as being part of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, an era of biotechnological innovation with the promise of huge reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and advances in sustainability and human health.

The report focuses on the economic, social and political implications of using precision fermentation methods to produce proteins that have traditionally come from animals. It notes that commercial use of precision fermentation has been occurring since the 1980s, when genetically modified microbes were first used to produce human insulin and growth hormone, and enzymes such as rennet. Rapid advances in these techniques will soon allow the programming of microorganisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule. The report goes further than simply touting the new technology, predicting it will essentially become democratised – being shared on publicly available databases, providing “molecular cookbooks that food engineers anywhere in the world can use to design products in the same way that software developers design apps”. 

RethinkX also makes a series of provocative (dare I say bullish?) predictions about the future of food, with a focus on the US beef and dairy industries. It claims that, based on the speed at which the technology is being taken up, the cost of synthetically produced, human-designed proteins will be five times cheaper than existing animal proteins by 2035, and the result will be more nutritious, healthier, better tasting and more convenient. Production of the synthetic proteins will also use far less land, water and feedstocks, and produce far less waste and emissions. Resistance will be futile: “the conventional industrial food production system has as much chance of competing with modern foods as cuneiform clay tablets have of competing with modern computer tablets or smartphones”.

According to RethinkX, cows only convert 4 per cent of their feed into useable protein, making them the most economically vulnerable part of the industrial agriculture system, and thus likely to be the first victims of the food revolution. RethinkX’s reasoning for its projection of the collapse of the US dairy industry in the not-too-distant future works like this: In the US, around 65 per cent of milk proteins are consumed directly, as drinking milk, cheese, yoghurt and ice-cream. The remainder are consumed as ingredients in products such as baked goods, baby formula and sports supplements. It is the ingredient section of the market – targeted by the likes of Solar Foods and Perfect Day – that will be the first domino to fall as manufacturers rapidly switch to the new cheaper proteins. RethinkX predicts that cost parity of synthetic whey and casein proteins with their animal equivalents could be reached within five years. But widespread adoption of these products could occur even sooner, for example, if baby formula processors start to market a product with human breast milk proteins, rather than cow milk.

As more and more cow-derived products are replaced, a “death spiral” of higher prices and lower demand is projected to accelerate. After the ingredient market, cheese, yoghurt and ice-cream would switch to being made from the synthetic alternatives, leaving the drinking milk market as the last segment standing, before it too would collapse. Knock-on effects to associated industries along the supply chain, such as feed and transport, would rapidly follow.

RethinkX predicts that the 2020s (which may be seen as the decade of peak cow) will inevitably see widespread bankruptcies in the traditional dairy industry, and near total collapse by 2030. Other livestock industries, most likely led by the beef industry, will suffer the same fate, with cost parity for plant-based meats in the minced meat market potentially occurring in the next three years. The number of cows in the US is projected to fall 50 per cent by 2030, and 75 per cent by 2035, regardless of how long it will take to produce the perfect cultured steak. 

Traditional farming and processing jobs will follow – RethinkX imagines half of the 1.2 million jobs in the US beef and dairy industries and their associated industries will be lost by 2030, and 90 per cent by 2035. As farmers exit the industry, land values will also collapse – by a predicted 40 to 80 per cent over the next decade. 

Balancing agricultural job losses will likely be new jobs created in the emerging industries; RethinkX predicts there could be at least 700,000 jobs created in the precision fermentation sector by 2030 in the US, and up to a million by 2035. But just as it is difficult to imagine that retrenched coalminers will all become installers of solar panels during the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, it seems unlikely that many ex-dairy and beef farmers will retrain as bioengineers. 

In this scenario, the feedstock industry will also be revolutionised. Yeast has to eat too, but not as much as cows. While fermentation foodstuffs have traditionally been sugars, the carbohydrates could eventually come from many other sources, including crop waste and algae. 

Many of the other reverberations could be either a plus or minus, depending on where you sit in the economic, social and geopolitical fabric. Given the World Economic Forum reports that rearing, distributing and selling of animal-sourced food supports the livelihoods of some 1 billion people globally, overwhelmingly concentrated in low income countries, the word “disruption” seems inadequate. Global trade in agricultural commodities would be transformed, with the loss of markets of the largest food exporters, such as the US, Brazil and the EU, as countries with few natural resources become empowered to produce their own food.

New fermentation industries will also likely be located close to markets in urban areas. As the tyranny of geography, climate and seasonality disappears, food production would become more stable, but rural and regional communities currently dependent on traditional agriculture would be changed beyond recognition, with all the pain and dislocation that this transformation implies. 

Agriculture across the world – the majority of which feeds the global population of about 7.8 billion people – uses 43 per cent of the Earth’s desert- and ice-free land, and diverts about two thirds of its freshwater for irrigation. The challenge by mid century will be to feed a population of 10 billion, which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts will increase agricultural demand by 50 per cent compared to 2013 levels. If everyone were content with a largely plant-based diet, this would be achievable. But while vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise in many of the world’s wealthier countries (The Economist described 2019 as “the year of the vegan”), humans on the whole have an avid desire to consume animal products. 

Based on statistics from the FAO, animal advocacy think tank Faunalytics estimates that more than 70 billion animals per year are slaughtered for human consumption. The World Economic Forum points to global meat consumption rising, with no sign of easing off, as China, for example, rapidly converges on Western meat and dairy consumption levels. Put simply, as people get richer, they buy and eat more meat and dairy. Modelling by the World Economic Forum concludes that it is physically impossible for a population of 10 billion to consume the same amount of animal products typically eaten in most Western developed countries and meet both the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

To be blunt, livestock-based agriculture is not only an ecological disaster, it is a highly inefficient way to feed the world – the animals we eat currently consume about 1.5 billion tonnes of grains per year, of the world’s total production of 2.6 billion tonnes. A detailed study published in Science in 2018 by Oxford University’s Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, of the Swiss research group Agroscope, estimated that livestock agriculture (including aquaculture) takes up around 83 per cent of the world’s farmland and produces close to 60 per cent of all agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions, yet provides only 18 per cent of the calories and 37 per cent of the protein consumed globally. By comparing the emissions, land-use and water-use profiles of 40 food types that collectively make up 90 per cent of human diets, the authors conclude that even the lowest impact meat and dairy products cause far more environmental damage than the least sustainably grown vegetable substitutes. 

The study suggests that if we were to stop producing meat and dairy from animals, global land use for agriculture could be reduced by more than 75 per cent and still feed the world. Poore told The Guardian, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication [excess nutrients polluting water], land use and water use.”

The British environmental journalist and committed vegan, George Monbiot, would certainly not mourn the demise of the more than 1 billion cows on the planet. Monbiot’s documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet, describes livestock farming as “an assault on nature”. He has become a supporter of the new fermentation-based technologies, believing they herald an economic and environmental transformation greater than anything in the past 200 years. 

Livestock agriculture produces 14.5 per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, of which 65 per cent come from cows (beef and dairy combined), mostly from feed production and processing, and methane from enteric fermentation. Greenhouse gases equivalent to 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released for every kilogram of protein produced from beef. The need for arable land to grow feed is also the single most important driver of deforestation, which some studies estimate as being responsible for up to 80 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon.

Not everyone is a fan of the Monbiot view, and by implication, of the RethinkX-type analysis. Civil Eats, a daily news website founded to support sustainable agriculture in the US, recently claimed Monbiot’s embrace of lab-grown food as an environmental panacea “isn’t only simplistic, it’s dangerous”, partly because it “misses the potential for agriculture itself to be a carbon sink” and divorces food production from nature. Others have been even less kind. The US National Milk Producers Federation, for example, described the RethinkX team as living in a “vegan fantasyland”. But much of the criticism seems to miss the point. Neither Monbiot nor RethinkX condemns those individual farmers seeking to produce food more sustainably, rather, they focus on the irresistible nature of the economics (RethinkX) and the environmental desirability (Monbiot) of the new technology. 

Dairy is Australia’s third largest agricultural industry, after beef and wheat. It is worth more than $4 billion per year and employs around 43,000 people directly and another 100,000 people in associated services. So there’s a lot at stake. Is the industry ready for the changes that are coming? 

By virtually any measure, Australia’s dairy industry is already in deep cow manure. The number of dairy farms has declined from about 22,000 in the 1980s, to just over 5000 today, albeit including much consolidation. Milk production has similarly declined, falling from 11 billion litres in the early 2000s to 8.8 billion litres in 2018–19. Australia’s share of global dairy trade has fallen from 16 per cent in 2000 (when the industry was deregulated) to below 6 per cent in 2018, with a further fall forecast for 2019–20.

The woes of the industry have put paid to the notion of simple supply and demand driving profitability – demand for Australian dairy products continues to be high and growing, especially in Asian markets, but also in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, there have been multiple internal and external pressures contributing to the ongoing decline. At the farm level, the prices farmers receive for their product simply haven’t kept up with the major costs of water, labour, feed and energy, exacerbated by the ongoing drought. In 2018–19 the average income of Australian dairy farms was projected to decline by around 42 per cent to $93,000 per farm. 

Declining milk supply has also affected milk processors who have made substantial investments in infrastructure that is now underused. For example, the closure last year of Fonterra’s factory at Dennington in south-west Victoria, with the loss of 100 jobs, was directly blamed on reduced milk supply. These trends have been compounded by market volatility, with dairy being perceived as the most volatile of all globally traded agricultural commodities. Add to this the fact that dairy farmers elsewhere receive subsidies – which Australian lobby group Farmer Power claims can cover 50 per cent of production costs – and global competition becomes even more challenging.

To address the industry’s woes, a group chaired by former Victorian premier John Brumby released a draft Australian Dairy Plan last December, following consultation with more than 1500 farmers, service providers, processors, retailers and investors. The document is upbeat and aspirational, projecting confidence that adoption of its recommendations over the next five years will restore profitability, confidence and unity in the industry, resulting in a medium-range increase of $600 million in annual value and a 1 billion litre increase in total milk volume per year, with more than 1000 new jobs, mostly in rural and regional areas. A report from the plan’s joint transition team has suggested the establishment of a single national organisation to oversee dairy policy. The final plan is due for release in April this year.

While acknowledging that many factors have contributed to the industry’s decline, the plan is surprisingly silent on the gathering storm of external forces. For example, it notes that “increased climate volatility” has reduced profits via increased feed and water prices, but it contains nothing at all on the need for climate adaptation research or practice, despite the known impacts of heat stress on milk production and quality.

One can only assume that if the draft had been released after the most recent bushfire devastation of dairy lands on the south coast of New South Wales and in Victoria’s Gippsland region, better climate preparation might have rated a mention.

Like climate change, acknowledgement of current and future competition from plant-based and animal-free products is almost completely absent from the plan, with only a single sentence acknowledging sustainability challenges, including “technological disruption challenging the way food is made”. A formal RethinkX-type analysis has not been undertaken for the Australian industry, but given that profit margins here appear even more wafer-thin than in the subsidised US market, it would be reasonable to assume the industry is significantly vulnerable. 

The Australian industry might spare a thought for our friends across the ditch, who could be in even bigger trouble. Dairy is New Zealand’s most valuable export, worth $14 billion per year and supplying some 37 per cent of the world’s dairy trade. But at least they’ve been warned from the top. In an address to an annual biotechnology conference in 2017, New Zealand’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, made the fearless prediction that most milk sold worldwide in 20 to 25 years will be synthetic. A commentator from an agricultural technology company, reviewing the RethinkX report in the Otago Daily Times, put it best: “Even if the predictions come true at half the rate the authors suggest, the New Zealand economy is in for one hell of a belting.”

Environmentalists rarely receive good news. Advocacy campaigns are usually judged as successful if they result in an outcome that is not quite as bad as it otherwise might have been. Given this low bar of optimism, could we even allow ourselves to consider the heady prospect of a Monbiot-style cow-free agricultural nirvana that simultaneously lowers emissions, reduces competition for water, and frees up vast tracts of land for habitat restoration and carbon sequestration?

“Eating is an agricultural act,” wrote farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry in The Pleasures of Eating. This single sentence, encapsulating the need to connect farm to fork, inspired Michael Pollan to embark on his exploration of the health and environmental dangers of industrial agriculture, culminating in his bestselling treatise, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and his now famous seven-word exhortation: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” Pollan later reframed Berry’s statement more forcefully: “Eating is a political act.”

What political acts will we face in the supermarket of 2025? Even a prime minister with an enthusiasm for marketing might struggle to shift a product derided as unnatural “frankenmilch”. But what if that two-litre container of white stuff looked like milk, tasted like milk, was chemically identical to milk without the bad bits, was cheaper, made a great cappuccino, came without most of the land, water, climate issues, and nothing had to die to produce it? Would you buy it? 

I would. In a heartbeat. Sorry, Daisy.

Lesley Hughes

Lesley Hughes is an ecologist and professor of biology at Macquarie University who researches the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems. She is a councillor with the publicly funded Climate Council of Australia.

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Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality