Home' Greymouth Star : October 14th 2017 Contents Greymouth Star
8 - Saturday, October 14, 2017
ew Zealand ’s chief scientist
says synthetic foods pose
a real threat to agricultural
exporters, but better
regulation of genetic
modification could create an equally large
Speaking to the NZ Bio Conference in
Wellington, the Prime Minister’s chief
science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, said the
main threat to New Zealand’s economy was
from synthetic milks, such as the yeast-based
milk created by San Francisco company,
“I think if there is an existential risk for
New Zealand, this is where it lies,” he said.
“My gut feel is that it is a real challenge. The
environmental numbers associated with these
technologies are such that it will have a major
impact, perhaps not in the next five years, but
in the next 10 to 15 years, particularly if the
impact of climate change continues to grow
and the world becomes more conscious of the
need for everybody to be responding to it.”
Perfect Day claims that, compared to cow ’s
milk, its milk can be produced with 65% less
energy consumption, 84% less greenhouse gas
emissions, 91% less land and 98% less water
“It has a longer shelf life, there’s no
cholesterol, no lactose, no antibiotics, no
hormones,” Sir Peter said.
It can also be used to make cheese, yoghurt,
cream, and replace milk powder.
“The health claims that have been
traditionally associated with ‘natural milk’
are not going to stand up, in my judgment,
against these kinds of claims,” he said.
“They rely on the insertion of GM algae
produced caseins and proteins to give the
taste that cow ’s milk has. So there is a GM
component in the most ‘cow ’s-milk-like’
Sir Peter said New Zealand had to make
decisions in the next few years about how to
react to the market disruption synthetic foods
would inevitably cause.
One option was to stay focused on current
traditional production, hoping to ride out the
shift in consumer attitudes around climate
change, not just in Europe, but also in Asia.
“Or should we stay GM-free and focus
on producing high-end ingredients for the
production of synthetic milks which are made
elsewhere, say in Singapore?
“Or should we invest in a full product
chain and make the products here, thinking
about the reality that if you did this well, the
potential for market differentiation is very
high,” he said.
Sir Peter was very clear that, to make the
third option work, New Zealand needed
to revisit its regulations banning the
development, importation or releasing of
genetically modified organisms without
the approval of the Environmental Risk
Our restrictions on GMOs are amongst
the most rigorous in the world.
“The position that we took 20 years ago
that projecting ‘natural’ into this meant that
you didn’t have any GM products in New
Zealand, or at least grown in NZ, is that a
position that is sustainable into the future?”
When questioned how the Government
was moving to allow the use of genetic
modification to keep up with the changes
around synthetic foods, he said: “ Well, it’s not
yet. That ’s the point. You
laugh, but that ’s at the
heart of this issue.
“New Zealand as a
society decided 20 years
ago not to move in this
direction and it came up
with a structure that is
relatively locked in time,
rightly or wrongly, and
we have now had 20
years more experience,
technology is changing
and the marketplace and
the environmental issues
“If it remained
completely blocked then
it would stifle innovation because it is at the
heart of life sciences development.”
After reminding them that the debate over
genetic modification arose from Monsanto’s
development of genetically modified crops
that were resistant to the company ’s own
herbicide, Sir Peter asked the audience to play
a “mind game”.
“If 25 years ago the first use of GM had
been to eradicate stoats or for the WHO
to produce some particularly healthy rice
and the first use of the internet had been by
terrorists to do something nasty, would we
have ended up regulating the internet the way
we have regulated GM?”
“ We have this very unusual situation with
GM,” Sir Peter said.
“Even with nuclear — we regulate the
technology because we use it in medicine and
food safety, we don’t ban the technology, we
regulate the technology.
“If it remained completely blocked then
it would stifle innovation because it is at
the heart of life sciences development — in
medicine, in agriculture, environmental
“ We happen to have a very broadly based
definition. Clearly that is stifling innovation.
Now society may want to stifle that
innovation, that is their right to stifle it, but
they need to understand the implications of
“ We need far better public conversations,
far more open discussion without getting
drowned immediately in political rhetoric,
than we had 20 years ago, and I think we are
capable of that.
“I think hopefully, hopefully, we are in a
position where we are able to have more
constructive conversations that actually
point out the dynamics — we’ve got an
environmental challenge, nobody would
deny we have an environmental challenge,
we have an economic challenge, we have a
societal challenge, we have technological
“It ’s going to take a lot of thinking through
but it needs to be done against a background
of asking what are the options that make
sense for New Zealand?”
Sir Peter’s view is supported by Professor
Peter Dearden, the director of Genomics
Aotearoa, which recently received $35 million
in Government funding to “grow genomic
research capabilities in New Zealand.”
Dearden said that, in a lot of different areas
from predator eradication to medicine, the
solutions that seemed to be the most effective
involved genetic modification.
“I think we need to have a serious
conversation and think again,” he said, adding
that a lot more is known now about the
risks and effects of genetic modification and
the “appalling ecological collapse” feared by
opponents had not happened.
Dr Peter Crabtree, general manager
of science, innovation and international
at Ministry of Buisness Innovation and
Employment, was more cautious about the
need for reform of the GM regulations —
saying “many of the present opportunities in
developing plant-based protein foods could
be undertaken within existing legislative and
Crabtree said MBIE had not undertaken
any work specifically on ‘synthetic foods’,
or any detailed analysis of how current
legislation and regulations interact with the
field of synthetic foods, but it was “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.
“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,” Crabtree said.
It is only four years since a scientist was
live-streamed eating a cell-cultured burger
which famously cost £250,000 to produce
(funded by Google co-founder Sergey
Brin, who says he did so because he was
uncomfortable with how cattle are treated on
modern beef farms).
Sir Peter said burgers like that can now be
bought at restaurants in the United States for
$US11, produced by Impossible Foods, which
Sir Peter said has received $US183m from
investors including Google Ventures and Bill
The burgers are made from wheat and
potato protein, coconut oil and ‘heem’ — a
genetically modified ingredient that means
it sizzles, bleeds and tastes similar to a ‘real’
“I know of at least two New Zealand
enterprises, and there may be more, that are
now dealing with Impossible Foods and are
moving to trying to develop this technology
and use it in New Zealand,” Sir Peter said.
“Serious investment has been made in New
Zealand in this direction.”
From somewhere in the audience, someone
muttered: “That ’s scary.
“ While it may not be in the public domain,
there is a lot of conversation going on at
highest levels thinking about these issues,”
Sir Peter said.
“I don’t think I am giving away any secrets
to say companies as large as Fonterra are
thinking about it, they have to be.
“All the food majors in Europe are all
heavily engaged in working out how much
they should invest in this because they do
believe in the inevitability of this market. The
only question is how big a market and where
in the value chain it will sit.
“By 2020 the US market alone will be in
the order of $US6 billion.”
While the idea of meat grown from cell
cultures may still have what Sir Peter called
“the yuck factor”, he said attitudes can
“ What is ‘natural’ (to you) is what you grow
up with as a teenager.
“By the time you become an adult you
accept what you see in your youth as being
effectively natural,” he said.
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