Friday, 06 October 2017 14:55

Is this synthetic food thing for real?

Written by  Jacqueline Rowarth
Jacqueline Rowarth. Jacqueline Rowarth.

Synthetic food is being talked about rather more than it is being eaten.

The balance might change in future as the technologies develop, but at the moment there is more hype and interest than hunger and intake.

The Impossible Burger seems to be the focus at the moment. The burger is made in the laboratory from wheat (grown in a field) and involves a ‘haem’ from legumes. The haem is pink (it is responsible for the colour in healthy, nitrogen-fixing clover root nodules) and so confers the burger with ‘bleeding’ properties.

Perfect Day milk (once called Muufri – as in ‘without cows’) is also synthesised in the laboratory. The creators state that their ‘milk’ is made with a process similar to craft brewing, ‘using yeast and age-old fermentation techniques’. Having created milk proteins, they then add ‘a special mix of plant-based sugars, fats, and minerals to make a totally new kind of dairy milk without stabilizers, hormones, lactose, or other nonsense’.

Both Impossible Burger and Perfect Day involve the use of gene technologies. In the case of Perfect Day, genetic engineering was used to create a type of yeast that produces milk proteins. The creation of vegetarian rennet, ethical vanilla, and insulin use similar techniques. The final product is free of yeast, and so is ‘totally non-GMO’.

The Impossible Burger, however, is the subject of some debate as the genetically engineered haem has not previously been in the food supply. A report in August indicated that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had heard from the company that up to a quarter of its haem ingredient was composed of 46 “unexpected” additional proteins, some of which are unidentified and none of which were assessed for safety in the dossier.

“It’s only 73% pure, the other 27% is from proteins from the genetically engineered yeast that produces it, and these have an unknown function.”

This could be a case of inventor enthusiasm overtaking caution, hence the intervention by the FDA, but plenty of New Zealanders have embraced the experience of trying it and nobody appears to have yet suffered any consequences.

Nor have they suffered from trying cricket bars (which have nothing to do with the sport) or simply eating NZ protein from cows and sheep. The protein might have been produced under conventional or organic, or even biodynamic systems.

Claims might have been made about free-range, grass-fed or chemical-free (meaning free from synthetic chemicals). But whatever, the point is that consumers can select to suit their preferences: they pays their money and takes their choice.

They might follow perceived health benefits, taste buds, price, convictions or beliefs. But they can pick from a range of options, all of which are subject to regulatory controls in terms of chemical use so that the outcome is safe to eat.

What goes for NZers making choices of food source also goes for the world.

The Riddet Institute (hosted by Massey University) has calculated that NZ can supply the animal protein (meat and dairy) needs of approximately 45 million people from conventional production scenarios. There are approximately 7.57 billion people in the world, with a projection of variously 9.5 - 11 billion.

This means that we can feed only 0.6% of the world at the moment, decreasing to about 0.5% by 2050.

The key to a successful future lies in ensuring that NZ food is desired by the 0.5% of the global population who will pay premium prices for what NZ does better than most countries: pasture-fed, free-range animal protein. This means not only better marketing but also better packaging and transport systems so that fresh NZ food arrives in premium places in a state that is as good, or better, than when it left these shores.

Synthetic food may well be part of the future, and increased research and regulation will safeguard the consumer, but how could it beat nature in conjunction with Kiwi-made?

• Jacqueline Rowarth is chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority

 

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