In photos: biotech start-ups challenge the dairy industry


The days when the milk section of supermarkets only offered skimmed or semi-skimmed milk are long gone. Today there are many more choices – hemp milk, pea milk, even potato milk. They’re all part of the quest to find a dairy-free alternative to milk that tastes the same, but has a lower environmental impact.

And, now, a whole new cohort of gamers are entering the race. Instead of using plant-based ingredients, these companies try to replicate cow’s milk itself, but in the lab and without using cows.

Silicon Valley start-ups in Singapore are working on lab-grown or “animal-free” milk. This is a process known as “precision fermentation”. Companies take yeast or other microorganisms and insert genetic code into it that replicates part of a cow’s DNA. The micro-organisms are then fed with sugars and brewed so that they multiply.

It is a similar process to brewing beer but, due to the inserted genetic code, the result is milk protein. The pharmaceutical industry has used precision fermentation for decades to manufacture products such as enzymes and insulin, and in recent years the food industry has also taken an interest in this technology.

Dish of the day: A Better Dairy scientist holds samples of the filamentous fungi, which the company hopes to manipulate to produce dairy protein © Anna Gordon for the FT

The largest company in this emerging sector is US-based Perfect Day. He was the first to market the protein and currently sells animal-free ice cream, protein powder and cheese spread to partner companies in the United States, as well as his own brand of ice cream, Brave Robot. The Starbucks coffee chain tested Perfect Day milk in some of its outlets last year.

So far, only the United States, Singapore and Hong Kong have given regulatory approval. The EU and UK have yet to approve lab-grown dairy products for human consumption, so some European start-ups are focusing on selling to the US or Asian market first, while others expect local regulators to have given the green light by then. they come to the market. The EU approval process for “novel foods” typically takes 18 months once a company submits a product, although no EU company has yet done so.

One of the European cohorts is London-based Better Dairy. Once its research and development phase is complete, the company plans to produce cheese from its east London laboratory, an unassuming office building with fermentation tanks.

“Sustainability and animal welfare are the two main drivers of animal-free dairy,” says Jevan Nagarajah, Managing Director of Better Dairy. “The milk is produced in an unsustainable way. Cows live and breathe, they’re not just there to produce milk, which means they’re not the most efficient converter of energy.

Jevan Nagarajah, CEO of Better Dairy, at the East London Lab.
Jevan Nagarajah, CEO of Better Dairy, at the East London Lab. “Sustainability and animal welfare are the two main drivers of animal-free dairy,” he says © Anna Gordon for the Financial Times

Others in the industry make the same point. “We completely remove cows from the supply chain, which means we remove methane entirely, while saving on land and water resources needed by cows,” says Berlin-based Formo’s Kara ten Hoevel. , who is working on lab-made ricotta and mozzarella.

A Perfect Day study suggests that lab-produced dairy products produce 91-97% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional dairy products.

So what does the dairy industry think? John Torrance, who owns a 1,200 acre farm and a dairy herd of 700 cows in the south east of England, believes there is no need to use labs to solve the sustainability issues of l ‘industry.

The way of the udder: workers attach milking clusters to cows at John Torrance's farm in Essex, south east England
The way to the udder: workers attach milking harnesses to cows at John Torrance’s farm in Essex, south-east England © Anna Gordon for FT

“Over the past two years, we have reduced our carbon footprint by 3,000 tonnes,” he says, “by improving efficiency and buying by-products from the brewing and juice industries to feed our livestock.

Torrance also supplements its cows’ diets with algae, which reduces the amount of methane they produce, and uses DNA samples to select female calves that will produce the most milk, which means less milk. emissions per litre. The UK dairy industry aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2040, says Torrance.

Some arguments in favor of lab-grown dairy focus on the possibility of freeing up land used by cows for low-emission crops or plants that better support biodiversity. However, Torrance says cows can also help increase biodiversity. “Dairy products, mud and by-products from cows allow insects to breed, and the biodiversity of birds and songbirds on our farm is huge,” he says.

Dairy farmer John Torrance is skeptical of the health and sustainability claims made for lab-grown milk.
Dairy farmer John Torrance is skeptical of the health and sustainability claims made for lab-grown milk. “The biodiversity of birds and songbirds on our farm is huge,” he says © Anna Gordon for FT

He is frustrated with the argument that lab-grown dairy products are healthier because they don’t contain growth hormones – an argument often made by the industry. “We’ve never been able to use hormones in milk production,” he says. Hormone use is banned in the EU, UK and other major markets, although it is permitted in the US.

Overall, Torrance says he’s not too concerned about the threat from lab-grown dairy. “Are people going to be able to afford it?” he asks. “I think one thing we’ve noticed this year, with prices going up, is people are coming back to dairy and meat as a good affordable source for a balanced diet.”

Where to go now?  : While Torrance sees conventional dairy products as a “good affordable source for a balanced diet”, Nagarajah says lab-grown milk will end up “just being more effective”
Where to go now? : While Torrance sees conventional dairy farming as a ‘good affordable source for a balanced diet’, Nagarajah says lab-grown milk will ‘just end up being more efficient’ © Anna Gordon for FT

Price remains a sensitive issue for the lab-grown produce industry. Perfect Day says a 414ml tub of its Brave Robot ice cream costs $4.49, which is comparable to high-end conventional products. However, some Perfect Day partners charge at least double that.

“The main issues right now are around scalability and price,” says María Mascaraque, food market analyst at research firm Euromonitor. Companies do not yet have manufacturing processes capable of large-scale production, so the price remains high.

“But a lot of investment is going into improving the technology, partnering with fermentation companies, and scaling up gene-editing tools,” Mascaraque says. Big food companies are also interested in the space, she says, which could help bring prices down. Nestlé and Danone have invested in lab-created dairy start-ups.

Cheese, please: Better Dairy uses precision fermentation to produce casein powder

Cheese, Please: Better Dairy uses precision fermentation to produce casein powder. . .

technologist Michelle O'Rourke adds rennet to make curds

. . . to which technologist Michelle O’Rourke adds rennet to make curds © Anna Gordon for the FT

The other hurdle, Mascaraque says, is consumer acceptance, because it’s hard to get people to understand that the product isn’t from animals, but is nearly identical to conventional dairy. The industry is pushing to call its products “animal-free” rather than “lab-grown” to help consumer messaging.

If work can be done on branding, Mascaraque believes the industry can deliver critical sustainability gains. “I see a lot of potential in this technology – we won’t be able to feed people with the current resources we have,” she says.

“At some point it will just be more effective,” says Better Dairy’s Nagarajah. “And then why not use it if it’s more effective?” If you look 20 years from now, I think it will be everywhere.

From lab to slab: Better Dairy claims its products are
From the lab to the slab: Better Dairy claims its products are “molecularly identical to traditional dairy products.” Once R&D is complete, the company plans to scale up production of its cheese © Anna Gordon for the FT
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