Syn­thetic milk could re­open GM crops de­bate


New Zealand may need to re­con­sider its ap­proach to ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops to re­spond to the eco­nomic threat pre­sented by syn­thetic milk and meat, the Prime Min­is­ter’s chief sci­ence ad­viser, Sir Peter Gluck­man, has sug­gested.

Gluck­man told the NZBio biotech­nol­ogy con­fer­ence in Welling­ton that great strides were be­ing made com­mer­cial­is­ing ar­ti­fi­cial milk and meat, which usu­ally rely on ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) in­gre­di­ents to en­hance their taste or tex­ture.

He thought most milk sold world­wide in 20 to 25 years could be syn­thetic, though it might be ‘‘some time’’ be­fore sci­en­tists could cre­ate a T-bone steak.

Gluck­man said syn­thetic milk was the big­gest threat to New Zealand, be­cause of our re­liance on ‘‘liq­uid gold’’ dairy ex­ports.

‘‘Eight years ago I was laughed at. Now I think the risk is real.’’

The Min­istry of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion and Em­ploy­ment had en­gaged a con­sul­tant to ex­plore the is­sues ‘‘in some con­sid­er­able depth’’. All the ma­jor food companies were in­vest­ing in the area.

‘‘They do be­lieve the in­evitabil­ity of this market is there. It is a not a risk we can any longer ig­nore. I don’t think I am giv­ing away any se­crets to say that companies as large as Fon­terra are talk­ing about it – they have to be,’’ Gluck­man said.

New Zealand’s chal­lenge was to sus­tain pas­toral agri­cul­ture while re­duc­ing green­house emis­sions and wa­ter use, he said.

‘‘There is no doubt that if we took some our land and changed it to farm­ing the crops that sup­port syn­thetic foods we could pro­duce high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and prob­a­bly the high-qual­ity ‘milk’ it­self.

‘‘But that would also prob­a­bly in­clude hav­ing to move to those GM in­gre­di­ents,’’ Gluck­man said.

‘‘I think we are in a po­si­tion where we are now ca­pa­ble of hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions with­out get­ting im­me­di­ately drowned in rhetoric as we were 20 years ago.’’

GM was at the heart of life­science in­no­va­tion in fields from agri­cul­ture to medicine and, if it re­mained ‘‘com­pletely blocked’’, it would sti­fle in­no­va­tion, he added.

Chief sci­ence ad­viser Sir Peter Gluck­man be­lieves most milk sold world­wide could be syn­thetic within a gen­er­a­tion.

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