Cow-free milk

And now we're going to make cow's milk, cow-free...

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The milk crisis is mobilising farmers against the giants of the dairy industry. The sector is in trouble all over the world. The Americans have even come, in the midst of liberalism, to have the state buy millions of litres of milk to process it into cheese to be distributed to the most disadvantaged. It is in this tense context that a Berkeley company announces that it will be able to manufacture milk without milk. A product with strictly the same qualities as cow's milk, but produced from yeast.
 
Ahe new dairy alternative, presented by the startup Perfect Day based in Berkeley in the United States, claims to produce milk protein but does not need the cows. According to the researchers behind the discovery, their product looks and tastes exactly like real dairy products, but without the involvement of animals in its manufacture.
 
Dairy products without milk, with different types of ingredients such as soybeans, almonds or rice, have been known for a long time. Vegetarians and vegetarians are happy about this, but the products have nothing to do with real milk.
Perfect Day's invention is real milk, made from milk protein. But instead of being produced by cows, these proteins are produced by yeast.
 
Perfect Day milk is scheduled for commercial launch by the end of 2017.
 
The company producing this new milk claims that its milk has the same nutritional qualities and taste as real milk. Its managers stress that their milk is environmentally friendly since its carbon footprint is 84 % less than that of conventional milk. The company's founders also announce that their milk will enable them to produce a whole line of cheeses and yoghurts as of next year.
 
So how can you make milk without milk? What is the secret behind this innovation?

The magic of cell farming

Perfect Day is part of this new generation of "cell farming" companies. The startup's scientists start with a food yeast to which they add a few DNA sequences. These sequences, which can be printed in 3D using synthetic biology techniques, instruct the yeast to produce casein, the main protein found in milk. In fact, the laboratory produces four different caseins aggregated in a micelle. The modified yeast also produces two other proteins found in abundance in the whey of cow's milk: lactoglobulin and lactalbumin.
 
The yeasts are introduced into fermentation tanks in which corn sugar and other nutrients are added. The microbes are then put to work in this bio-refinery, exactly the same process as in the production of beer, for example.
Once this fermentation phase is complete, scientists harvest the proteins by a mechanical process and add water, minerals, and fats and sugars from the plants. The result is cow's milk, without cows.
 
Officials specify that the added sugar is galactose from plants and not lactose, which allows their product to address issues of lactose tolerance that are quite common in the population.

Is all this natural?

The milk produced by Perfect Day, even though it resembles real milk in many ways, is an unnatural, not to say perfectly synthetic, product. The company's founders defend themselves by moving the issue to another level to explain that their milk is, on the contrary, a solution to environmental problems. One of the company's founders, Ryan Pandya, points out that the manufacturing process of his product is totally transparent in terms of both environmental and ethical registers. He points out that milk produced in this way is much more environmentally friendly. Its carbon footprint is incomparable to cow's milk, as is its water requirement.
 
Ryan Pandya also feels quite comfortable on the issue of GMOs. The yeast used to produce his milk is certainly genetically modified. But it is not found in the protein produced. For him, his product is perfectly non-GMO. As such, he is not subject, in the USA, to the obligation to label GMO products that President Obama has just signed. However, he wishes to assert an ethical position with regard to its production. For him, there is no question of hiding anything about the product from the consumer. It is a different milk, which has the same characteristics as cow's milk, but there is no reason to hide it. On the contrary, Ryan Pandya wants affirm its originality: " We want to create a new dairy product. We do not want people to discover this product because it has been introduced in a hidden way in a chocolate bar. We want to be frank about that. We want people to buy our products deliberately because they are made in a different way and not notwithstanding because they're made in a different way ".
 
Co-founders of Perfect Day, Perumal Gandhi (left) and Ryan Pandya
 
The communication of Perfect Day founders about their product is not easy. Indeed, they cannot and do not want to say that their product is "synthetic"; they fear the label of FrankenMIlk that you could associate with their milk. On the other hand, they also know that their innovation will appeal to all those who want to move away from the consumption of animal products. They believe they can also appeal to sustainable development advocates who are interested in the environmental performance of their product. According to information entrusted by the startup to FastCompanyEarly data suggests that the animal-free milk production process could use 98 % less water and 91% less land, and could emit 84 percent less carbon than traditional dairy production.
 
Nevertheless, the question remains: why? What is the point of reproducing cow's milk without cows? It is currently impossible to predict whether Perfect Day milk will have the same effects on the metabolism as natural milk. The proteins generated by cell farming are certainly faithful reproductions, technological feats, but they will always lack their "natural" dimension. They are only ersatz. We can already glimpse some synthetic biology productions, almost perfect copies of the natural originals, but which leave out one tiny detail: the relationship between the cell and its environment, which is what makes it so special. This small detail, impossible to reproduce in synthetic biology, makes all the difference and changes the way the organism reacts to the product.
 
However, such technological prowess is widely encouraged because it can radically shake up markets. The Perfect Day company has not escaped this business logic, generously financed by several investment funds such as Horizon Ventures or the vegan billionaire Li Ka-Shing. It must be said that the dairy products market represents billions and gives rise to covetousness and sometimes adventurous growth strategies.
 
The small company that invented cow-free milk promises that, in the industrial phase, its milk will be cheaper than natural milk. It is therefore only natural that it is already of interest to the world's three largest companies in the dairy industry. Do they see it as a way to get rid of the cumbersome and often unmanageable factor in their business model, the human factor? Doesn't the tug-of-war that we are seeing in France between milk producers and a giant like Lactalis find one of its inspirations in these new models on the horizon ? Industrialists see only advantages, whereas for producers, it could be the sign of the end.
 
Header image: AFP/JEAN-PIERRE MULLER
 
 
 

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