Dairy products of the future could be grass-based

Jørgen E. Olsen til Augustus


Climate change, the biodiversity crisis, more drought and scarcity of farmland are major challenges facing global food production. Perennial crops, growing more crops simultaneously in the same field, better exploitation of agricultural side streams and, not least, development of biorefining, are obvious focus areas for agriculture, according to Professor Jørgen E. Olesen.

At the CIP Foundation, we are committed to promoting solutions to transform food production to climate-friendly proteins. For this reason, we have interviewed Professor Jørgen E. Olesen.

We have to develop new perennial crops. We have to find plants that can co-thrive together in the same field, and, finally, we have to invest massively in biorefining research. Less pesticide use and transitioning to a more plant-based diet will characterise the farming of the future, says Jørgen E. Olesen, a professor and head of the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University.

He also cautions against thinking that organic farming can solve the climate and biodiversity crises. Southern Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years in the summer of 2022, affecting the Po Valley in Italy in particular, which is crucial for the Italian agricultural sector. Therefore, agriculture is facing a double threat. On the one hand, we must drastically reduce carbon emissions, while on the other hand climate change is putting large parts of southern Europe out of the game. As a result, we have to secure higher yields in the parts of northern Europe with the most attractive farmland in the future.

As in other sectors, organic production in the food sector does not automatically equate with sustainable production. The problem with organic food production is that it uses more land,” stresses Professor Jørgen E. Olesen.

The major challenge for global food production is that the planet only has so much farmland for food production. And organic food production is problematic because crop yields are significantly lower than in conventional farming. In Denmark, organic production takes up roughly twice as much land, he says.

Photo: Lise Balsby, AU Kommunikation

We have to rethink agriculture and look into new crops and new food products. Although he partially rejects ‘the organic dream’, Jørgen E. Olesen is not a strong defender of conventional farming either.

Instead of organic farming, he says we need to develop more vegan products and reduce our use of pesticides. In short, he believes that there is no panacea when it comes to the agriculture of tomorrow, and he has more than 40 years of agricultural research experience to back this up.

The climate crisis has been the cause of more droughts

Land use is one of the biggest problems at global level. The Earth’s population continues to grow, and we are getting to a point where we have used up almost all the cultivable land. Global warming and the climate crisis are exacerbating this.

The number of severe droughts affecting croplands has doubled over the past 30-40 years, and this is one of the reasons why we’re experiencing fluctuating and rising food prices, says Jørgen E. Olesen.

The summer 2022 gave us a taste of this when large parts of the Po Valley in northern Italy experienced drought. Looking into the future, climate researchers suggest that the Meseta Central plateau in Spain could partially turn into desert.

Conditions for agriculture in southern Europe are likely to worsen with global warming. And north of Denmark, in Norway and Sweden, the mountainous geography means that only a small percentage of the land is suitable for agricultural production.

According to Jørgen E. Olesen, Denmark actually ranks among the best places in the world for food production, with the most optimal conditions. 

From a global and European perspective, we need to get the most out of the land, and at the same time reduce the climate impact of our agriculture sector.

Plant-based dairy alternatives 

Jørgen E. Olesen stresses the importance of exploiting the opportunities offered by grass.

When it comes to producing the necessary protein foods, he is adamant that we are in no way facing a protein crisis. Our diet contains plenty of protein. However, having said that, it is important to look at how we can get protein products that do not have to pass through the digestive system of cows with the consequent climate-impacting methane burps and flatulence.

It’s not because we have to change much in the varieties of crops we’re already growing. We already use large areas of agricultural land to farm for grain crops and legumes. We may have to introduce more legumes and make more space for more lentils, beans, and perhaps even soybeans. Crops such as quinoa and rape could also be a possibility. But we also need to increase the area of grassland, which will mean lower nitrogen emissions and higher yields, says Jørgen E. Olesen.

He believes the most promising areas for investment are biorefining and new forms of fermentation, so that 15 or 20 years from now, we can replace current dairy products with products based on grass; a solution that would also mitigate another global challenge.

Consumption of milk has increased more than most other food products, and consumption is expected to increase by another 20% over the next decade, says Jørgen E. Olesen.

Improved taste and food habits

The opportunities related to grass not only apply to foods for human consumption. Grass could also be a more climate-friendly alternative to field beans and soybeans for livestock feed.

Improvements within biorefining should focus on improving taste. Because ensuring good taste remains a major barrier, according to Jørgen E. Olesen.

We won’t transition to more plant-based food products if consumers aren’t on-board, he says.

Although consumers have been able to buy vegan mince at supermarkets for many years, sales are still primarily driven by urban consumers.

Sales of these products have actually stagnated and even started falling in recent years. This is basically because they don’t taste that good. We need to fundamentally change our food culture. For example, most people don’t know about many vegan dishes and recipes. This needs to change if we truly want to change our consumer patterns, says Jørgen E. Olesen.

He believes that food subscription boxes and growing focus on vegetarian and vegan food in staff canteens, for example, can be a way to introduce more plant-based food to Danish households. 

We need more perennial crops

Major changes are needed in kitchens and out in the fields, he says.

For example, he identifies potential environmental benefits from developing the traditional annual grain crops into perennial grains. There are huge benefits in developing grain crops and legumes that can remain in the field over winter, while we still harvest annually.

With the existing annual crops, plants grow in the fields for just six months, but if we develop perennial crops, the plants will grow in the field for up to two years, and this will benefit the climate as the roots will bind carbon and nitrogen for a much longer period of time, says Jørgen E. Olesen.

More research and innovation are needed in this area, so he does not know exactly how we will get there. However, he is convinced that focus should be on existing crop species and plants that are already perennial. And we will very probably have to apply ‘genetic scissors’ using the so-called CRISPR technology, a tool for highly accurate and efficient genome editing. It is cheaper for researchers to cut and edit genes than to design proteins from scratch (CRISPR is an abbreviation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).

We must utilise intercropping in the same fields

Changing annual crops into perennial crops that remain in the ground over winter is not enough, though. Such crops must also have company.

We need to look at possibilities to combine several types of plant in the same field, says Jørgen E. Olesen.

Combining several plant types in the same field can reduce the need for pesticides. In other words, planting a variety of different species can serve as nature’s own sanitizer and face mask and, thus, prevent the spread of plant diseases.

Plant diseases thrive in environments where they can propagate. When all the neighbouring plants are of the same species, a disease has only one set of genes to overcome. But plants with a different genetic background can stop the disease from spreading, explains Jørgen E. Olsen.

However, there is no quick fix here either. To reach a solution, we need to work innovatively throughout the value chain, with both biological and mechanical aspects.

Modern agricultural machinery has increased dramatically in size over recent decades. This makes agriculture more efficient. But the machinery is tailored to single-crop fields. It is important to develop agricultural machinery with modern robot technology so that it can manage and discern different types of crop in a field.

Valuable side streams

Agricultural side streams are another important focus area, says Jørgen E. Olesen

Whey from cheese production was previously used in feed for calves. But today whey is far more valuable because it’s processed into a protein product and sold to the food industry. Similarly, what used to be an ill-smelling side product from potato starch production can now be purified into a far more valuable protein product. There’s still some way to go in other areas, but the potential is huge, he says.

Jørgen E. Olesen is sceptical about a carbon tax on agriculture; primarily because he believes the premise is wrong.

I think a tax will only give us more of the same type of agriculture as we already have, but with even greater focus on efficiency. What we really need is to start an actual transformation of the agricultural sector, he says.

The transformation goes beyond what takes place on fields and in stables. He argues that we will not succeed in transforming agriculture if farmers are turned away by banks when they seek help to convert their farms, or if there is no market and consumer demand for the new products.

Denmark is in a good position to contribute innovation and knowledge in this respect, because of our extensive agriculture research and a strong university-business research environment for microbiology and enzymes, according to Jørgen E. Olesen.

We need to apply a broad spectrum of expertise and look at both agriculture and the food industry. Researchers must collaborate across disciplines and research fields and we have to break down barriers to ensure even faster transfer of new knowledge and technology from laboratories to practice. There’ll always be new barriers when you test new ideas at a large scale. And we have to remember that research and innovation take time. So we need to step things up and invest in research and innovation capacity now, he stresses.