Would you drink milk that came from a laboratory instead of a cow? Synthetic milk is set to hit supermarket shelves near you.
Would you drink milk that came from a laboratory instead of a cow? Synthetic milk is set to shake up the dairy industry, boasting a similar look, taste and nutrition profile to cow’s milk, but with a smaller carbon footprint.
In this episode, Sarah is joined by Professor Dora Marinova from the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute. They discuss how synthetic milk is made, why we need another dairy alternative and the possible benefits and impact of fake milk on the dairy industry and consumers.
Professor Dora Marinova
Dora Marinova is Professor of Sustainability at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute and was CUSP Director from 2015 to 2018 and Deputy Director from 2007 to 2014.
She has more that 320 refereed publications and has supervised 57 PhD students. Marinova’s research areas of interest include innovative global green systems, sustainometrics (the modelling and measuring of sustainability), flexitarianism, the role of China in decarbonising the global economy, and the role of the individual in living sustainably.
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Host: Sarah Taillier
Content creator: Zoe Taylor
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Sarah Taillier (00:00):
This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better. I'm Sarah Taillier. When it comes to dairy alternatives, we're spoiled for choice with soy, almond, oat, rice, coconut, even pea milk are just some of the options available.
Now, synthetic milk is set to become the latest substitute for cow's milk, boasting a similar look, taste and nutritional profile, but potentially a smaller carbon footprint.
In this episode, I caught up with Dora Marinova, Professor of Sustainability at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute. Dora and I discuss how fake milk is made and its potential impact on consumers, the environment, and the dairy industry. If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the show notes.
We have so many alternatives to dairy already. Why do we need synthetic milk?
Dora Marinova (01:04):
We need synthetic milk because people are used to the taste of cow's milk. They used to its texture, its frothiness. They have beautiful memories when they were young and their mom gave them a glass of milk. And to be honest, plant-based milks taste differently. They have not been developed to imitate the taste of cow's milk, while synthetic milk is aiming at achieving 100% similarity.
Sarah Taillier (01:36):
100% similarity, so in terms of taste and texture?
Dora Marinova (01:40):
Yes, and I'm saying 100% similarity the good stuff and less similarity the bad stuff. And the bad stuff that goes with cow’s milk is, for example, lactose, some people are lactose intolerant. Unfortunately, if people have allergies to cow's milk, that will still be the case with synthetic milk because it contains the same proteins as cow's milk, but it has less cholesterol or it has only the good cholesterol. So in many ways it's going to be an improvement nutritionally from cow's milk.
Sarah Taillier (02:29):
I can't wait to unpack that, but I just want to circle back for a second. So made of the same proteins as cow's milk – what is actually synthetic milk made from?
Dora Marinova (02:38):
I wish I had witnessed how they make it. There are a lot of patents and a lot of stuff that is not openly available to the public, but there is essentially that openness and transparency around the process, how it's made is essential to convince consumers to use it and to eat it. But from what we know from the literature is that scientists and researchers use yeast or any other micro flora such as bacteria or fungi, which is genetically modified with the milk proteins. And the two base proteins that give the taste to milk are casein and whey.
And once this is the DNA of the yeast is modified, it's grown on plant-based substance, plant-based sugars through precision fermentation and it grows. So it generates the proteins that we like in the usual, the dairy milk. At the end of the fermentation process, what happens is that these proteins get taken out as powder, and then this powder is enriched with water, minerals, sugar, vitamins. If we want, we can put fats.
And technically, although the original yeast has been genetically modified, the final product is not considered to be genetically modified as it has grown on plant-based substances. Sounds like a Frankenstein idea, but in reality it's something that we are using all the time. We're using similar processes to make alcohol, to make yoghurt.
The analogy that I always make in my mind, I'm originally from Bulgaria and yoghurt is very, very popular food in Bulgaria and has this unique culture that tastes differently. But rennet is a component, is an enzyme that is generated in the stomach of the young calves or lambs, depending what kind of milk you're drinking. In Bulgaria, sheep milk is also very popular.
So in order to produce this enzyme which the baby animals use to process their mother's milk, we had to kill these young animals to take the enzyme to produce yoghurt. Back in the 70s, there was a lot of out outrages from animal right activists saying we should stop this cruelty. And we actually managed to develop a similar process with precision fermentation to grow this enzyme out of bacteria, so we no longer kill baby calves to produce yoghurt.
So we have used similar technologies for quite a long time, and I know that once we know what we want to obtain at the other end, we are very creative and we will come with good solutions.
Sarah Taillier (06:10):
Are there places in the world where synthetic milk products are already being used?
Dora Marinova (06:16):
From what I know, they're already being used in the US. I know that CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation in Australia has invested a lot of research and they have joint ventures with companies and they are already producing synthetic milk.
The other fact, and I work in the areas of sustainability and I often draw parallels with fossil fuels, we see the biggest fossil fuel companies investing in renewable energy. We see exactly the same. We see some of the biggest dairy companies or [inaudible 00:06:57] investing in synthetic milk because they know that this is a technology that is coming. They know that there is a lot of criticism against the current ways of producing dairy products, and they are securing their future by diversifying or by investing in this new technologies. And this is happening in Australia, this is happening in New Zealand, this is happening in the US, essentially all over the world.
Sarah Taillier (07:26):
So that is that real move to create a more conscious product. One of that big hopes of synthetic milk is that it really has a potential for a smaller carbon footprint than traditional milk. And as well, like you mentioned, it's moving away from involving any animals in the process. What evidence though, is there that this type of milk could have a lower environmental footprint? Is there that evidence at the moment?
Dora Marinova (07:53):
Well, there's ample evidence because if you think what is the difference between dairy and plant-based milks, we are talking huge difference in terms of land that is used to feed the animal, to grow the animal, to grow the feed and the land that is used to grow the crops. And with synthetic milk, obviously the only thing that we need is the sugars, the plant-based sugars.
So the estimates is that we'll need 95% less land, and land is a big concern. We often talk about climate change and forget about land use change. And that's a big concern for countries such as Australia, where we are losing our biodiversity probably fastest than anywhere else in the world because of clearing native vegetation, converting native land for agricultural purposes. So if we can cut land use and produce the same and more food, that will be a big benefit to our gorgeous wildlife.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the question is a little bit more complex because obviously this precision fermentation requires energy, but if we use renewable energy, then a lot of the big question marks will be answered because renewable energy has much lower environmental footprint. The other environmental impact, of course, is water use. And I have not seen the latest estimates, but generally the process of precision fermentation does not require water. But at the other end, once it's made into powder and you mix it with water, then that will be water use, use of fresh water. But compared to dairy, it'll be probably at least 10 times less than the water that cows need to produce milk.
Sarah Taillier (10:18):
Why is that?
Dora Marinova (10:21):
Because the animal has its own biological needs, so it has to survive and it has to produce milk at the same time. Another aspect that is really, really important for me, from a sustainability point of view is waste. Animals produce manure. They produce greenhouse gas emissions. While in this precision fermentation, we are actually not producing waste. We are able to recycle and we are able just to use the product of the precision fermentation.
This is big concern for countries such as, for example, New Zealand where more than 80% of the rivers are polluted because of their dairy industry and the affluence that are coming from the cows. And despite the milk being seen as one of the best and cleanest in the world, the price that they have paid is the health of the natural environment. We don't have this problem in Australia yet, and probably it's time that we shift in different ways of satisfying the demand for milk and avoiding further deterioration of the natural environment.
Sarah Taillier (11:55):
If we step outside of the production side of things with synthetic milk, who stands to win? Who potentially stands to lose?
Dora Marinova (12:05):
That's such a good question. Ultimately, the consumers need to win because if consumers don't drink it then it won't happen. But as with other industries, we'll see people changing their livelihoods and rather than having dairy farms, they may end up having fermentation farms. So rather than something that would require milking the cows, you will actually have to look after the tools and the machines where this precision fermentation is happening.
There was a report produced in 2019 as to what this would mean in terms of jobs for the US and the estimates are that there will be much more jobs compared with the current jobs within the dairy industry because a lot of the process are mechanised. And so the estimates is at least 10 times if not more jobs in synthetic milk. There is always hesitance when we are transitioning to something new, but we've seen similar concerns raised in relation to fossil fuel industries and now we know that renewables provide much more employment opportunities and this employment opportunities are often more meaningful, often they avoid issues in relation to animal suffering, ethical concerns, and a lot of people feel more comfortable in the new jobs rather than in the jobs that we are losing in the process of transition.
Sarah Taillier (14:04):
When we're talking about hesitance within the industry. What about hesitance within the community? For example, I was at the shops this weekend and I was going down, I was looking at some of the milk alternatives and there was a new brand I hadn't recognised and I picked up and the first thing I do is look at the ingredients and I went, "Oh, too many ingredients." There was a good 10 or so. Do you think there might be a bit of an ick factor from some customers that just ... What's your thoughts in that space?
Dora Marinova (14:28):
Customers are very sensitive to the word processed and over processed, and they think that cow's milk is such a natural product. They think it's absolutely clean and it comes straight from the cow, but they don't take into consideration the fact that for the cow to produce milk, there's certain hormones that are being used by the body and that this is milk that's designed not for humans, it's designed for baby calves.
But going back to synthetic milk, as long as we are transparent as to what are these components, and a lot of these components that you would have seen on the box are good for you, such as potassium or vitamins. So we need them, particularly in a country like Australia where we not always have all the necessary minerals in our diet. As long as there is transparency and as long as we know that the reason ultimately, as with all innovations, ultimately we need to know that for an innovation to be successful, it has to tick all the boxes at the same time.
So it has to be healthy, it has to be nutritional, it has to allow people to run a business and make profits, and it has to preserve the natural environment. So it's important that these aspects are being communicated to the consumers. Consumers tend to be keen for novel foods. I don't know whether there is something in human nature to trying to find what is the latest fashion, but it's also important that we create confidence that this is a better choice. When you go next time shopping, my advice is always try different brands, try different options. Don't think that you need to find the one. And normally that's the best because this doesn't happen all the time. And even if this particular is the best for the time being, tomorrow there may be something else. And it's important that we do not develop something which in innovation study we describe as path dependency. And this is what has happened around cow’s milk. We depend only on cows.
I mentioned that in Bulgaria we also use sheep, but we don't do this in most the western countries, or buffalo or camels, there's so many different animal-based milks, but we've selected only one particular species. So when we go only for one species, that leads to over exploitation of that species, that leads to dependence and solutions that sometimes are very inhumane.
For example, from what I know, the ability of a cow to produce milk has been increased 60 times, which is putting a lot of pressure on the animal. And some of the practices are not practices that you would even want to know about. So by diversifying our choices, and I would definitely put the plant-based milk in this and the synthetic milk when it comes out, we'll have more options and we will probably avoid some of the mistakes that we have made in the past.
Sarah Taillier (18:27):
So it's not a matter of synthetic milk replacing milk, it's another option potentially?
Dora Marinova (18:33):
I wouldn't go in that. As I mentioned, there are people who would have allergies, so that will not solve their problem. I also think that we should be able to enjoy the taste of the different milks. Some of the plant-based milks have added benefits. For example, soy milk, soy is such a miracle plant because it allows us to ... it's a legume, so it enriches the soil with nitrogen, nitrogen fixation. So if we do crop rotations and use the soy directly as food for us rather than as food for the animals, we'll also be helping the soils and we're helping the environment.
Sarah Taillier (19:25):
I'd love to ask, with lab products really being on the rise, whether it's milk or meat, do we run the risk of creating a kind of hyper real synthetic food industry, one that is just as disconnected from the natural world as mass agriculture?
Dora Marinova (19:44):
It's a very interesting question because we want to be connected to our food and there are very good ways to stay connected with fruit and vegetables and nuts and tubers. And there's so many plant based options that we have. When it comes to processing and the way these new foods are coming on the market, to me, they are the added pleasure. They should not be the bulk of the stuff that we eat.
So I'm not saying we should all be eating now synthetic dairy or synthetic milk. We should not forget the benefits that we are getting directly from plant-based options because they're good for us, they're good for the environment. And as far as some of the problems related to lab grown meat, we don't know how that is going to go in terms of if we replace the current level of consumption of red meat with cultured meat, we will still be facing the same health problems associated with colorectal cancer, with obesity, diabetes type two, while if you move towards more plant-based diets with a lot of fibre, essentially you will improve human health as well.
Sarah Taillier (21:37):
How soon do you think we could actually see synthetic milk on supermarket shelves in Australia?
Dora Marinova (21:43):
Some of the promises were end of this year, but they were made a couple of years ago and we are almost in December. But I would say in the next couple of years we will see that happening just because we have used this processes. I mentioned rennet, but we've used this for insulin, so we've used this for a long time and it's not as difficult as it is to imitate the texture of meat. So probably we'll see synthetic milk coming faster.
Sarah Taillier (22:19):
I'm going to take a short break, but we'll be right back after this ad. Are you interested in a research degree? At Curtin University, we'll help you build knowledge in your profession and turn your discoveries into real world outcomes. You'll benefit from resources and support across areas like agriculture and environment, defence, and healthy communities. Our commitment to innovative research has seen 95% of our assessed research areas rank at or above world standard in the latest Excellence in Research Australia results. Learn how your research could make an impact at curtin.edu/research.
And we're back. Before the break, Dora, we were talking about how soon we could see synthetic milk on our shelves, but I'd love to know a little bit more about you. What actually inspired you to become a researcher in this area?
Dora Marinova (23:21):
Well, thanks for the question. I did my PhD almost 30 years ago, and I've always been interested in innovation. And at that time I was looking at how you convince people to commercialise your good ideas, because innovation, you come with something that is really smart, really has the potential to make money, how do you convince other people to buy it or to use it?
However, now I see innovation very differently because it's not just about making profits. It's more what are the impacts that you want to see? What are the changes? Why there is a need for innovation. And now with climate change and with sustainability challenges, it's really important for us to look at innovations that can help us preserve the quality of life, preserve the natural environment, give opportunities to other species on this planet. And that relates not only to energy transport buildings, that relates very much to the food we eat.
So this is how I came into looking at the changes and the innovations that are happening around our food systems. I often refer to John Elkington's description of the time where we are right now, and he's the person behind the triple bottom line accounting. And what he's saying now is we need miracles on demand because the challenges are so big in front of us and we have this narrow window of opportunity to deal with climate change and to stop biodiversity loss.
So we need these miracles right now, and these miracles are essentially driven by our creativity, by the innovative spirit, by the huge potential we have as a species. So this is why I enjoy working in this area.
Sarah Taillier (25:47):
That is an incredibly wholesome motivator. I'd love to know as well, if we could tap into those three-plus decades of knowledge, what's one thing we could do to be more sustainable consumers of food?
Dora Marinova (26:00):
Well, I can give you one simple answer, which is much more complex than you think. We just need to reduce the intake of animal based foods and that goes through the entire spectrum. So that applies to meat, that applies to dairy products and it's something that has so many benefits for our personal health, has benefits for the animals, has benefits for the natural environment.
And as consumers, we are very sensitive about what is safe for us? Is this going to trigger an allergy? Are there any contaminants? But if we don't do a shift towards less animal based product, we are going to compromise food security the long term and even the short term future of food on this planet. So it's really important that we reconsider our choices and start replacing things. I'm not saying we should all turn, abandon our consumption of meat or other animal based products, but we can reduce this consumption or replace with products that are better.
And synthetic milk hopeful is going to be one of these products that are coming, but there are other products that are already on the market. And then I don't want to be mentioning particular brands, but you can find replacements for butter, you can find replacement for sausages, meat based sausages. So there are choices that we can make and these choices are only beneficial.
Sarah Taillier (27:58):
Thank you, Dora, for coming in today and really sharing your insights of the future of not just synthetic milk, but how we can all be a little bit more conscious of the way that we consume. Thank you.
Dora Marinova (28:10):
Thanks for having me. My pleasure.
Sarah Taillier (28:13):
You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. As always, if you've enjoyed this episode, please share it and don't forget to subscribe to The Future Of on your favourite podcast app. Bye for now ...
You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. As always, if you've enjoyed this episode, please share it and don't forget to subscribe to The Future Of on your favourite podcast app. Bye for now.