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Moo-ve Over, Factory Farms: Muufri is Taking Dairy Milk Animal-Free

Milk stands out among other foods for its complete nutrition value. The current methods of milk production, however, aren’t agriculturally sustainable, leading to malnourishment in many regions of the developing and the underdeveloped nations. As the world population soars and less land is available for agriculture, the need for ultra-sustainable agriculture arises. We have to scale-down the size of a milk-production vessel from a dairy animal to a microbe — no small task considering the orders of magnitude change required. Yet, that is exactly what Muufri (@Muufri) is attempting.

Muufri is led by CEO Ryan Pandya, CTO Perumal Gandhi, and Chief Cultural Officer Isha Datar — all animal lovers that believe producing milk in microbes is better for us, the cows, and the planet. The company was one of only a handful of teams in this year’s class at Synbio axlr8r; receiving $60,000 in funding and given lab space at University College Cork, Ireland. How do they plan on making it work? Perhaps the more important question for consumers is, “why try it all”?

Why does cow milk need an alternative?

Mostly, for the same reasons it always has. Milk from cows reared in overly crowded dairies — and even organic dairy farms — can contain traces of hormones used to make the cows lactate excessively, animal feed contaminants, pesticide residues, antibiotics, feces, and even pathogens. Pasteurization helps in eliminating some of these, and no conclusive health risks have been demonstrated from their presence, but they aren’t the only downfall of dairy milk.

The archaic way in which these cows are treated doesn’t take advantage of our technological advancements. They are often artificially inseminated every year of their reproductive life to maximum milk production. Their calves are taken away very early and the males are slaughtered. Also, all the methane generated by dairy animals doesn’t exactly make the dairy industry very eco-friendly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 25% of all domestic methane emissions comes from farm animals, while another 9% is derived from managing their manure.

Over one-third of all methane emissions in the United States come from farm animals. Image: EPA.

Several plant-based alternatives have emerged in recent years and are widely used. In addition to vegans, people with allergies or lactose intolerance prefer plant-based milk products, such as soy milk, which has been very popular since its introduction in the U.S. market in the 1980s. Almond milk has outpaced it in the past few years, but these milk products simply don’t taste the same as dairy milk.

Cow milk without the cows

Muufri is replicating the cellular machinery involved in biological synthesis of each individual component of milk in yeast. The chemical composition of milk is composed of six key proteins and eight key fatty acids. While the former are responsible for the structure and function of milk (read physical properties), the latter impart flavor and richness. These components, when mixed in different ratios, yield milk that would normally be obtained by a cow, a goat, or even a buffalo.

The commensurate nature of milk composition proves that there is not much difference in dairy milk obtained from mammary glands of any of these and milk produced by yeast. The differences that exist are mostly on the positive. Pasteurization isn’t required, which boosts shelf life from weeks to months. In addition, since only the required components are made and combined, Muufri’s milk lacks two components from dairy milk: cholesterol and lactose.

The absence of cholesterol could translate into additional human health benefits, while the absence of lactose will allow those that are lactose intolerant to enjoy milk or baked goods containing it. In this case lactose is substituted by galactose, while sugars and minerals are added later to complete the package.

Unlike the hectares of land required for dairies, production of milk from yeast would require substantially less land. If you still have any doubts on the authenticity of the milk thus obtained, you can try their DIY kit to make your own animal-free dairy milk.

More animal-free food

Many startups are exploring plants and microbes as possible factories for the production of animal-derived food substances. Impossible Foods is trying to make it possible to raise engineered plants as sources of meat, eggs, and cheese. With $75 million in funding, they are involving chefs and farmers along with scientists and engineers in their efforts.

A similar attempt, albeit via crowdfunding, aims to develop vegan cheese by incorporating genes synthesized by studying genes responsible for milk proteins into yeast. This work is being led by collaboration of two open community labs: Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, California and BioCurious in Sunnyvale, California.

In general, attempts at creating vegan meat have been far less fruitful than milk products. This can be attributed to the fact that meat is a much more complex product. Greater developments in tissue engineering are needed before animal-free meat becomes commercially feasible, but we won’t have to wait nearly as long for animal-free milk.

Will you or will you not?

Cultured milk from Muufri or the companies to follow could very likely be in your retail store within a couple of years. Most likely, it will be priced significantly higher than traditional dairy milk, but when the prices fall to levels at par with conventional milk, will you make the switch?

Here’s why maybe you won’t. It might be difficult to believe that the yeast produce something comparable to actual dairy milk. Or you might be worried about the use of genetic engineering (although no yeast cells will be in the finished products, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually has guidelines for cloned cows). While consumer concerns are understood, especially initially, it’s important to remember that milk is really just a collection of proteins and fats. Shouldn’t we be sourcing them from the most sustainable source possible?

If you can drink a Budweiser in the evening, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be drinking a Muufri product in the morning. Both utilize yeast and industrial fermentation to produce biological chemicals that sum up into tasty drinks. If you have been thriving on plant-based milks, then you might like to switch for a better taste of the real thing.

At the end, it’s the product rather than the production facility that matters. And the product is milk — it’s just produced in a more responsible way.

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Sachin Rawat

PHD Researcher at National Centre for Biological Sciences

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