“Precision fermentation” and the future of NZ food – Expert Reaction

As AgScience reported last week, New Zealand labs could soon start mass-producing “dairy-identical” proteins without using cows.

The Environmental Protection Authority has approved an application from Daisy Lab to scale up its work on “precision fermentation.” In this case, yeasts are genetically modified so that when they are fermented they produce a protein like whey or casein—with any GM organisms harvested out of the final product.

The Science Media Centre asked experts to comment.

  • Dr Rob Burton, Research Professor, Ruralis – Institute for Rural and Regional Research, Norway:

“Precision fermentation has been used for decades to produce products such as insulin and rennet. However, startups in the food sector are now developing technologies to produce animal proteins including myoglobin (as a flavouring for plant-based meat alternatives, e.g., Motif Foodworks), whey (used in a number of dairy products, e.g., Perfect Day), casein (predominantly for cheese, e.g., Change Foods), collagen (for food and cosmetics, e.g., Geltor) and animal fat (for texture and flavour in plant-based meat and cheese, e.g., Melt&Marble).

“While, at the moment, the scale of production is such that it does not represent a challenge to agriculture, efforts to increase production volume and decrease costs are ongoing. Life-cycle assessments of precision fermented proteins suggest significant environmental benefits to using the technology. For example, Perfect Day claims its whey protein is between 91% and 97% lower in greenhouse gas emissions than that of total protein in milk, while it requires between 28.9% and 59.7% less primary energy and 96% to 99% less water. Other analyses are less optimistic, but nevertheless still show some environmental and greenhouse gas benefits.

“However, bioreactors require significant amounts of energy and, if the climate benefits are to be realised, renewable energy must be used. With an abundant supply of renewable energy, New Zealand has the potential of becoming a supplier of precision fermented protein. A scaled-up precision fermentation industry may also offer a strong challenge to New Zealand’s current dairy sector – however, some believe it will simply address supply issues associated with a growing global population and climate change. A small number of countries have already approved precision fermented foods for consumption (e.g. US., Israel, Singapore) and, on a global level, the public appears relatively willing to accept the final product.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Professor Burton is a New Zealander working in Norway where he leads the Protein 2.0 research project, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, to study the potential development and impacts of artificial proteins. He was a collaborator in the New Zealand-based research project Protein Future Scenarios, funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.”

  • Dr Scott Knowles, Senior research scientist, AgResearch:

“The EPA decision allows substantial scale-up of precision fermentation methods that use genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The yeasts being cultivated are common, low-risk organisms with a long history in research, and all proposed work remains confined within certified laboratories. This is a welcome advance in capability that will grow our understanding of the opportunities with this technology in a New Zealand context. It adds to research that is already being carried out safely and securely with GMOs in facilities around the country.

“Interest and investment in precision fermentation is strong, but the industry is still in start-up phase. Local and international enterprises struggle with building manufacturing capacity and sourcing sustainable feedstocks for their microorganisms. In most cases the harvested ingredients are copies of familiar animal-derived proteins, with the aim of offering direct substitution in processed foods. Environmental impacts may be less without animals, but issues such as total energy consumption still need to be considered. Thus far, contribution to the world’s food supply from precision fermentation is tiny.

“There is exciting potential for these new generation methods to enrich and diversify food production in New Zealand. There is a risk to traditional agriculture if some of the products sidestep the farm and are eventually produced in large quantity from the equivalent of stainless-steel cows. The most likely scenario however is not competitive but complementary, integrating our primary and high-technology sectors. An early target for NZ participation in precision fermentation could be making and exporting premium high-value proteins that are scarce in fresh dairy milk and absent in recent market challengers like plant-based milks.

“Scientists have a responsibility and commitment to be rigorous in their research of what is possible when it comes to new food innovations. This includes how we continue to produce food that is safe, ethical, nutritious, desired by consumers and beneficial to New Zealand.”

Conflict of interest statement: “My colleagues and I at AgResearch work with a range of companies operating in the food production space on research, including conventional and new generation methods.”

  • Dr Alec Foster, Portfolio Lead Bioproducts and Packaging – Scion:

“I am encouraged by the Environmental Protection Authority’s decision to grant Daisy Lab approval for the precision fermentation of dairy proteins. This milestone seeds further innovation, investment, and adoption, and provides an example for other companies to follow across multiple sectors including food, pharmaceuticals, and biomaterials.

“Precision fermentation is analogous to brewing beer, but instead of producing alcohol, genetically engineered microorganisms like yeast generate specific proteins and other products through fermentation. Daisy Lab has already demonstrated the ability to produce dairy proteins using this method, complementing and adding value to our nation’s dairy industry.

“There are currently over a dozen companies in New Zealand exploring the vast potential of precision fermentation across diverse applications. With potential changes in legislation on the horizon, I believe we will see more and more of these companies not simply performing research, but taking that crucial next step of scaling up and commercialising these innovative processes and products.

“New Zealand is remarkably well-positioned to embrace and benefit from precision fermentation technology. Our country possesses unique advantages with readily available biomass feedstocks from our agricultural, dairy, and forestry industries. Furthermore, we have deep expertise across these primary sectors as well as a comprehensive understanding of end-product applications, markets, and customer needs. These established strengths serve as a solid foundation for fostering biotechnology innovation and successfully commercialising novel products and processes through precision fermentation technologies.”

Conflict of interest statement: BioTechNZ Executive Member. On MBIE Technical Advisory Group for Gene Technologies.

Source: Science Media Centre



Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog