In the last few years, synthetic, non-animal dairy products have entered the marketplace unregulated and unlabeled. GMO developers use new genetic engineering techniques such as synthetic biology ("synbio") to create dairy proteins in giant vats in warehouses. The proteins don't come from a cow, sheep, goat, or any of the plant-derived favorites such as oats or almonds. Instead, synbio non-animal dairy proteins are created by microorganisms such as yeast that are genetically modified to produce novel compounds.
It's getting more difficult for the average eater to tell whether the product they reach for in the dairy aisle is an experimental GMO. Synbio companies have rebranded their processes as "precision fermentation," framing it as a high-tech version of brewing beer (it is not). They market synbio dairy as a cleaner, greener, more humane alternative to traditional dairy, positioning it alongside natural and organic products even though synbio is not a natural process and does not create natural products.
Here's how synbio companies paint an overly-rosy but woefully incomplete picture of their products and their environmental impacts.
How green is synbio dairy?
Synbio dairy is marketed as a kinder alternative to livestock and the environment, but how does the reality measure up against the promises? Natural products industry experts say that synbio companies are ignoring the damage their products can do to maintain the illusion of environmentalism. However, a complete life-cycle accounting reveals the grim shadow of industrial agriculture.
"All of these synbio companies want you to believe that their supply chain begins at their receiving dock," says Alan Lewis, Vice President of Government Affairs for Natural Grocers. “Those products start with fracked natural gas converted to synthetic nitrogen, applied to fields along with toxic pesticides made from petrochemicals,” he shares. “Pollution of the land, pollution of the water, destruction of rural communities…. And then you harvest all that up, you highly process it – and that ends up on somebody's receiving dock to make 'regenerative' milk products in precision fermentation."
Regenerative is the real deal
This Dairy Month, we'll share stories from some of the world's most innovative and visionary natural dairy producers, exploring how natural dairy can be a climate asset rather than an environmental drain. Dairy's reformation is not only possible, it's imperative: Animals are an essential part of the nutrient cycling process. Integrated animal agriculture done right can help regenerate degraded soil, improve biodiversity and reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are too often applied to farmland.
Our Non-GMO Project Verified brands include industry leaders who are exploring natural dairy's regenerative potential. From the U.S.'s first Regenerative Organic Certified dairy operation to methane bio-digesters and red seaweed supplements in California to a New Zealand company's commitment to farming for future generations and today's, there is no shortage of ways to go regenerative. The path to regeneration and sustainability is highly individual — no two operations look alike!
The healthiest dairy
Have you heard the term "nutrient density"? It's a fast-growing area of research exploring how growing practices impact the nutritional content of our food. A movement is emerging across industries to restore nutrition to our farms and diets — and rebuild human and planetary health in the process. (You can read more about nutrient density here or watch a video of a panel discussion on the topic here).
In general, our food has become less nutritious over the past 60 years or so. The decline has various drivers, but one underlying theme: Modern farming practices prioritize high yields at the cost of nutrient density. We're growing more food but getting less nutrition from it, and the consequences are devastating. Our planet and its people are increasingly ill.
If we look at nutrient density in the dairy aisle, we find that nutrition from the cow depends mainly on the "how." A dairy cow's genetic makeup and diet have much to do with what ends up in your glass. For example, Origin Milk relies on heritage Guernsey cows to produce milk with particular proteins known as "A2." A2 milk boasts an impressive nutritional profile compared with conventionally produced milk: 33% more vitamin D, 15% more calcium, 300% more omega-3 fatty acids, and more. Milk with A2 proteins is more like human breast milk and, therefore, easier for people to digest — research indicates as many as 80% of people who experience symptoms of lactose intolerance could consume nutritious A2 milk without discomfort.
The nutritional profile of synbio, non-animal milk is comparatively weak. Genetically modified microbes are fed growth media usually made from GMO corn, soy or sugar beets to support the production of non-animal dairy protein isolates. The proteins are separated from the growth media slurry, processed, mixed with added flavorings, colorants, texturizers, other proteins and fortified with vitamins and minerals. In some cases, GMO microbes might remain in the final product. That is the opposite of a natural, whole food.
When it comes to building a nourishing and regenerative food system, shortcuts are shortsighted. The Non-GMO Project Verified brands joining us for Dairy Month prove that there are many solutions to the problems in our food system — and GMOs aren't one of them.