In the pursuit of sustainable and efficient food production, precision fermentation emerges as a potential disruptor, challenging conventional norms in the dairy industry. Emma Schofield, associate director of global food science at Mintel, shared insights at Fi Europe 2023 on consumer uptake of new technologies and alternative food ingredients, unravelling the promises and challenges that precision fermentation brings to the dairy landscape.
Ancient roots to modern advancements
Precision fermentation, a contemporary technology, draws inspiration from age-old fermentation practices deeply rooted in ancient civilisations. The technology harnesses the power of microbial hosts, such as yeast, microalgae, or bacteria as "cell factories" to produce specific functional ingredients, including enzymes, flavouring agents, vitamins, natural pigments, and fats. This process involves genetic engineering to create proteins and compounds that mimic the taste and texture of animal products, without the need for traditional farming. By cultivating ingredients in brewery-style fermentation tanks, precision fermentation is regarded by advocates such as environmental campaigner George Monbiot as an alternative to agricultural practices. He says that it could replace all the protein and fat we need, but at a fraction of the land, water, energy and nutrient footprint.
This approach has particularly transformative implications in the dairy industry, where it enables the crafting of dairy products with identical characteristics to traditional counterparts. While the precision fermentation method aligns with the growing demand for sustainable and efficient food production, it is still finding its footing in the market. Schofield notes: "The only real launches using precision fermented dairy are those featuring Perfect Day's product."
Navigating genetically modified nature and consumer scepticism
A significant hurdle for precision fermented dairy lies in its genetically modified (GM) nature. Schofield says: "The use of GM for food production in America isn't new. Consumers in the Americas are accustomed to it. But in Europe, many food and drink brands and supermarket chains can be quite anti-GM."
Navigating organic certification schemes, addressing consumer scepticism, and implementing effective communication strategies become imperative in this landscape.
Consumer reluctance to shift from traditional dairy adds another layer of complexity. Schofield points out that consumers may not be ready for the shift from 'farm to factory,' particularly in regions where traditions and food heritage hold substantial cultural importance. The appreciation for traditional authenticity in dairy products remains deeply ingrained, contributing to consumer hesitancy. She said, “Many consumers value farmers very highly, 60% of Italian consumers say they'd be willing to pay more for milk to support farmers, and over half of Irish consumers prefer to buy milk from local farms.”
Balancing sustainability, taste, and price
While sustainability is a driving force for precision fermentation, Schofield underscores the importance of not taking it for granted. The delicate balance between sustainable practices and consumer-centric attributes like taste and price is crucial. She says: "For novel technologies to survive in the food industry, they need to deliver where taste and price are concerned."
Aligning the potential environmental benefits of precision fermentation with consumer preferences proves challenging. Schofield highlights: "Just because something is sustainable, if it's four times the price and doesn't taste as good, for the mass market, that might not be enough."
Main image: Fi Europe 2023