Photo of a cow https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/9306429460
Milk does not need to come from cows (Image: Flickr)

Welcome to the future where this week we learned that milk does not need to come from cows.

Milk has been a staple of The Future, This Week – our first program discussed the existential question as to whether plant-based milk varietals (soy, almond etc.) could legitimately label themselves ‘milk’?

But today’s milk talk is heading off the land and into the laboratory and a future where milk could be produced by microbial fermentation.

Instead of a cow, the process starts with a genetically modified designer yeast: Just as beer makers use yeast to produce alcohol, food scientists have programmed the dairy genetic code into the yeast and that yeast pumps out the desired dairy proteins. Genetically what you get is ‘real’ milk.

Listen to Sandra and Kai discuss fake milk and clean meat on The Future, This Week

Food tech start up Perfect Day have already tested this process and are planning to sell dairy proteins as functional ingredients not just for milk, but for other dairy products such as yoghurt.

Cow-less milk is just one example of a gastronomic future where foods will be separate from their flesh and blood ancestors. Tomorrow’s food will taste like milk, yoghurt, sausage, bacon chicken – but it will be developed and grown inside a laboratory.

The process is called cellular agriculture.

It raises all sorts of questions – not the least of which is who has the authority to name things? Is something dairy that is made in a lab, and entitled to be sold as ‘milk’ when it has no connection to a cow? Mind you, a DNA test will show it is absolutely cows’ milk.

Clean meat’ is another laboratory generated food that is attracting investment from entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Jack Welch. Clean meat is produced without animal involvement except for the animal donating the initial couple of cells that are grown in a laboratory to make up ‘muscle’ meat.

In theory there’s enormous potential in these technologies. In the case of the meat – taking a single cell from an animal could produce enough meat to make 20 trillion chicken nuggets in just three months. That’s a lot of food!

Resource security has been identified by the University of Sydney’s Business School as one of this century’s megatrends: It’s estimated by 2050 we will need 35 percent more food than we are currently producing. Food production at that level will require huge quantities of land, water, fossil fuels and many other resources. Cellular agriculture could potentially address this shortfall  – and save on other scarce natural resources.

A study by the University of Oxford has found that clean meat production could result in 78 to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and use 7 to 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land and about 90 percent less water than traditional methods of meat production.

However this technology is still in its infancy and other studies, such as one from Arizona State University, suggest laboratory generated chickens could end up releasing more greenhouse gases due to the intense heat required to multiply the cells.

What we eat says a lot about who we are and consumer acceptance of laboratory grown food is crucial to the development of this industry. But even over the last four years we have seen a change in consumer preferences: In 2014 80% of people surveyed in the US said they would not eat meat grown in a lab. By 2017, at least in the US, consumer tastes had shifted –  with most people saying  they would give it a try and up to one third willing to eat it regularly.

Yet questions remain. Will vegetarians be willing to eat lab meat? Will it eventually be seen as more civilised to grow food in a laboratory – will raising animals in order to slaughter them be viewed as a cruel and unnecessary practice by our grandchildren? If clean meat can prove that it is healthier – uncontaminated, less carcinogenic (goodbye bacon), less fatty – will that be appealing enough to overcome the ‘it ain’t natural’ factor?

We know from past episodes of disruptive innovations that deep rooted changes in identity and in worldview are reasonably unpredictable. So it’s very hard to foresee whether lab food is going to become a thing or not.

In the meantime food start-up labs are planning to increase consumer acceptance by introducing lab foods into high end restaurants.

We wonder how the ‘additions to the menu’ will be described?

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