Startups are producing real milk without a cow in sight
meT LEADERS cheese It smells like cheese. It tastes like cheese (especially mature cheddar). And it is cheese – at least under the microscope. “Synthetic milk” is made with the same ingredients as the regular kind. But instead of getting the main ingredient from live reproduction, Better Dairy, a three-year-old British cheese maker, gets some of it from yeast. These microbes are fed sugar, which they then turn into milk proteins in a process similar to distillation.
A plethora of dairy options have hit cafe counters and supermarket shelves in recent years. Plant-based beverages made from things like soybeans, almonds and oats account for 15% of milk sales by value in America and 11% in Western Europe, according to the Good Food Institute.GFI), a think tank. But who need people who love real milk, products from plants can not completely imitate, cows, goats and sheep. “Precision fermentation” companies like Better Dairy hope to change that – and take a fat slice of the $900bn global dairy market.
Remilk, an Israeli startup, has recently received approval to sell the fare in America, Israel and Singapore. California-based Perfect Day already sells synthetic milk, ice cream and cream cheese. They recently signed deals to sell their proteins to food giant Nestlé and Starbucks. In their most recent funding round two years ago they raised $350m, valued at $1.6bn. All told, Precision Coopers has raised nearly $3bn from investors since the start of 2021.
Synthetic milk provides some undesirable aspects of milk and milk production. Lactose, to which some people are allergic, and hormones, which have been linked to some adult diseases, can be removed. Fermentation tanks don’t need to be pumped full of antibiotics and can be set up anywhere – useful at a time of heightened concerns about food security and climate change. The process uses less water and, because it requires less energy and less land, it emits less greenhouse gases than conventional milk production, which is responsible for more than 3% of annual global warming emissions, almost twice as much as airplanes (and a lot of it from belchy cows).
One challenge for the innovators is to earn the trust of consumers. Cattle are not familiar with steel tanks. A quarter of survey respondents in America don’t want to try “precision-fermented” fare (which may explain why producers prefer to call it “animal-free”). Regulators also create barriers. Although the pioneers are sure they will get the green light – the procedure is already used for flavors and insulin – they worry about the time this will take and about labeling disputes. according to GFI, even in America, the land of free enterprise, it takes about nine months. Europe takes twice as long; the first products will not reach European supermarkets until 2024.
The technology is also a work in progress. For now Better Dairy cheddar still uses cow’s cheese, one of the proteins in milk; the company is working on a synthetic version that would make its cheese properly vegan. And the process is still expensive. A fermenter that holds around 30 liters of milk costs £150,000 ($190,000). If you buy a cow, which produces that much in a day, that will set you back £1,600. ■
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