Andrew Swallow

Plant-based food trends are real but burgeoning global demand for better nutrition means plant and animal-based food industries will need to grow together, Fonterra’s chief science and technology officer, Jeremy Hill, told the ProteinTech conference.

“It’s an and, not an or,” he stressed, wrapping up his presentation to the sell-out event near Auckland Airport at the end of July.

Plant-based alternative protein foods would become more than niche markets but he couldn’t see them being totally disruptive to traditional sources of protein, including dairy.

Like many speakers at the conference, he referred to the January published landmark report in the medical journal The Lancet, generally referred to as the Eat-Lancet report.

‘At 0.80kg CO2/kg MS, New Zealand milk’s emissions are world leading and well under half the global developed world average of 2.5kg CO2/kg MS – if milk is to be produced anywhere, it should be here.’

While the report slashed daily recommended intake (RDI) of dairy from two to three ‘serves’ a day to one serving of 250ml/day, much of the world’s population was still well below even the new level, he noted.

“In 2016, with a world population of 7.4 billion, less than half of them had the milk intake recommended by the Eat-Lancet diet.”

And for all the hype around the environmental and nutritional values of plant-based alternative proteins, Hill highlighted some serious pitfalls: amino acid composition, digestibility, mineral and vitamin content, CO2 emissions per unit of nutrition.

Some plant-based “milk” products carry warnings that they’re not suitable for children under five and no longitudinal studies have been done on their health effects, he pointed out. In some, essential nutrients are present, but are not available.

“If it’s not bio-available, you might as well be eating soil,” he said. “The only protein that has evolved specifically with the purpose of being nutritional to mammals is milk protein.”

The greenhouse gas footprint of plant-based alternative products is also a problem rarely acknowledged.

Soy milk, the best of the “substitutes”, was found to have double the greenhouse gas footprint of New Zealand milk per unit of nutrition in a 2010 Swedish/US study* and rice milk 10 times. Had bio-availability been taken into account, the substitutes’ footprints would have been even greater.

Subsequent research on milk from 100 Waikato dairy farms** had also shown the median GHG footprint to be just 0.80kg CO2 per standard kg of milksolids (MS) to the farm-gate, or 0.87kg CO2 once processed, both lower than the 1.0kg CO2/kg MS figure used in the Swedish/US study, so if anything NZ milk’s advantage was understated.

Hill later told Dairy Exporter a more recent and much more extensive study submitted for publication in a leading scientific journal supports those NZ milk emission figures.

Fermentation-produced proteins also, to date, have substantially higher footprints per unit of nutrition. Perfect Day’s milk, for example, which when launched two years ago was claimed to have a 60% lower carbon footprint than conventional dairy, contains only a hundredth of the protein cow’s milk does, and actually had a 50-fold higher carbon footprint.

“And it’s higher for land use, water use, and everything else they claim is low. So just be careful,” Hill warned the largely pro-plant audience.

At 0.80kg CO2/kg MS, NZ milk’s emissions are world leading and well under half the global developed world average of 2.5kg CO2/kg MS, Hill pointed out, the implication being if milk is to be produced anywhere, it should be here.

He acknowledged NZ must work to reduce its emissions, including dairy’s given they account for about 25% of the national footprint, but globally NZ dairy accounts for just 0.04% of emissions, a figure that’s at the margins of what’s measurable, so things have to be kept in perspective. Also, for that footprint, NZ dairy provides a billion people with 10% of their dairy RDI based on the traditional 500-750ml/day.

“Ultimately, it’s about consumer choice. We’ve got to firmly believe in the right of the consumer to choose but that choice needs to be as informed as we can make it.”

*Smedman, A, Lindmark-Mansson, H, Drewnowski, A and Edman, A-K M (2010) Nutrient density of beverages in relation to climate change. Food & Nutrition Research, 54:5170.

**Chobtang, J., S. F. Ledgard, S. J. McLaren, and D. J. Donaghy. 2017. Life cycle environmental impacts of high and low intensification pasture-based milk production systems: A case study of the Waikato region, New Zealand. J. Clean. Prod. 140:664-674.

Landmark report

The ‘EAT-Lancet’ report, published in January in medical journal The Lancet, was the work of 37 expert authors (the commission) and took two years to compile. Titled Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, it calls for urgent global transformation of food systems because much of the world’s population is inadequately nourished and “many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production”.

Globally, production has kept pace with population, yet more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets, causing obesity, micronutrient deficiencies, and diet-related disease, says the report’s executive summary.

“Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined,” it adds.