Dairy farmers can use modern genetics to select cows that produce a lot of healthy fats or minerals. This would let them market ‘baby milk’ or ‘sports milk’ from the farm, thinks animal breeding professor Henk Bovenhuis. Not everyone in the sector sees this as a promising idea.
text Albert Sikkema illustration Geert-Jan Bruins
At prices of 40 cents per litre and production levels of up to 10,000 litres per cow per year, milk is a cheap bulk product. Henk Bovenhuis, who gave his inaugural lecture on 14 September as a professor holding a personal chair in Animal Breeding and Genetics in Wageningen, wants to add value to this product. He points to Dutch tomatoes, which the Germans denounced as Wasserbomben in the 1990s. That led to the rise of specialist tomato varieties, which are now sold at a premium. Bovenhuis thinks this should be possible for milk too because he sees a lot of variation between cows in the composition of the milk. According to the professor, you could exploit that variation by selling milk with an unusual composition separately — for a higher price.
This idea is not new. In 1992, Bovenhuis received a doctorate for research on milk proteins. He discovered for example that cows that made less of the protein beta-lactoglobulin produced three percent more cheese per litre of milk. At the time, Bovenhuis and his professor Pim Brascamp launched the ‘cheese cow’. ‘We thought it could be an interesting option to keep the milk from these cows separate for making cheese.’
But nothing happened in practice. Bovenhuis does not know why exactly, but he suspects that the benefit from the separate milk flows — three percent more cheese — did not outweigh the higher transport costs. Dairy companies work with a single flow of milk from all farms, which they then separate out in the factory to obtain the raw materials for liquid milk, custard, butter, milk powder, cheese, soft drinks and yoghurt.
But Bovenhuis is now tracking down a new healthy ingredient in milk: zinc, a mineral that we need for producing key enzymes in our bodies. In many countries, young children do not get enough zinc through their diet, says Bovenhuis. Research into 1800 dairy cows has shown that the percentage of zinc in cows’ milk can vary by a factor of two and that 40 percent of that variation is genetically determined. Three genes in particular are responsible for this. So dairy farmers can now use a DNA test to select cows that produce milk particularly rich in zinc. Bovenhuis thinks you could have that milk collected separately by the dairy company and market it after processing as 'healthy baby milk powder from the farm’.
Using the same approach, you could have farmers producing cows’ milk with more magnesium and selling it as sports milk, because people who play sports need more magnesium. Or they could produce milk with more calcium for older people, or milk with a certain fat composition for better ice cream. Bovenhuis: ‘We have already been able to identify a great deal of genetic variation in the cow genome, which dairy farmers can use to select cows.’ In combination with tailored animal feed, this can produce different kinds of higher quality milk.
When asked why this would succeed whereas the special cheese milk did not take off, the professor answers that the market conditions have changed since then. ‘There is a market for baby food and sports food, and the dairy sector can key into this.’ What is more, now that supermarkets are in the driving seat there are more opportunities to market exclusive dairy products.
He points to the launch of A2 milk, the ‘healthy primary milk’ from cows that only produce the milk protein A2. The company in question claims that this milk is healthier than milk that also contains A1, as that protein is alleged to increase the risk of diabetes. Bovenhuis says this health claim has no scientific basis. ‘But aside from that, my point is that the company has organized a distribution channel with farmers who select A2 cows and with supermarkets that sell this specialist milk. So there appears to be a market for this now.’
Flaw in the argument
Innovation broker Carel de Vries has his doubts. As the programme director of Courage, an innovation organization for the dairy sector, he was involved in 2008 in the introduction of a special farmers’ milk by FrieslandCampina with a lot more omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids. The cows produced more of these healthy fatty acids thanks to special animal feed. ‘But that milk was not a success in the market,’ says De Vries. ‘It is not easy to make money from a separate milk flow. It has to offer significant benefits that you can't easily achieve in any other way.’
De Vries thinks that Bovenhuis’s milk with additional zinc is not strong enough. ‘You need to drink an awful lot of that milk before you absorb more zinc, and you could just take a zinc pill.’ Farmers’ milk with additional calcium or magnesium won't be a hit either, thinks the innovation broker. He thinks there is a flaw in Bovenhuis’s argument comparing milk to the ‘water-bomb’ tomatoes of the past. ‘The problem with the tomatoes was the flavour. New varieties of tomato were then developed with more flavour. But milk with more zinc or healthy fatty acids tastes the same as ordinary milk, so it isn't distinctive. Ordinary milk already contains lots of proteins and minerals, so it is already healthy.’
High-octane fuel in a Lada
Professor Bovenhuis is unconvinced by these objections. ‘There are already dairy products with special ingredients on the market, such as Yakult. And A2 milk has a market share of around 10 percent in Australia, so it is possible.’ In his opinion, the failure of launches of iodine-rich and omega-3 milk in recent years was partly because no use was made of the genetic variation. ‘In those ventures, the dairy sector focused exclusively on changes to animal feed without involving genetics. That's like putting high-octane fuel in a Lada. It is precisely the combination of genetics and feed that offers big opportunities.’
Dairy innovation so far
So far, most innovation in the dairy sector has involved production methods and farming systems. As a result we already have organic milk, pasture milk and (in Germany) GMO-free milk. An experiment is currently underway with ‘meadow-bird' milk in which the mark-up is spent on the protection of peewits and godwits. And there will soon be ‘Better Life’ stars for milk if the animal rights campaign group Wakker Dier has anything to do with it.