Last week a biotech start-up company announced that they will soon be producing animal-free cow’s milk. Bioengineer Ryan Pandya, founder and CEO of Muufri, says that modern dairy farming comes at huge environmental and ethical price and that it is his mission to create authentic animal-free milk. But this is not soya, oat, rice milk or nut milk. Pandya is going to use GM yeast to produce the proteins found in cow’s milk. These will be mixed with water, sugar and oils to make animal-free cow’s milk. They plan to use a non-lactose sugar; around 75 per cent of people in the world are lactose intolerant and can’t digest the lactose sugar in milk. Also, it won’t be contaminated with bacteria so won’t need to be pasteurised. Sponsored by a venture capital investment company, they are making their product in Ireland and hope to have it on the shelves within the next three years.
Meanwhile, San Francisco-based iGem group, Counter Culture Labs and their sister lab BioCurious who describe themselves as biohackers, have gone a step further and are developing artificial cheese based on human milk proteins. It kind of makes sense as human milk is more suited to our biochemistry. Their project is called “Real Vegan Cheese!” and they hope to produce animal-free cheese that tastes just like regular (dairy) cheese. Using similar techniques, they will be inserting the genes for human milk proteins into yeast cells then letting them do all the work to produce the proteins. Then they will add water, non-lactose sugar and oil and to make milk which can be converted into cheese using the traditional cheese-making methods. The company reached their $15K goal to develop the project in just a week by crowd-funding, but say it may be some time before the finished product hits the shelves. They point out that everyone on their team is a volunteer; their goal is to create vegan cheese, not make money.
The motivation to produce animal-free cheese is admirable. Modern intensive farming methods inevitably mean using cows as large-scale milk production machines, this results in stress, misery and disease. Also, dairy farming contributes hugely to greenhouse gas emissions However, I do wonder if our attachment to the idea of cow’s (or human) milk as a natural, wholesome food is clouding our judgement. We are the only species on the planet to consume milk beyond weaning. We are also the only ones to drink milk from another species, which is where the Real Vegan Cheese Company come in I guess. But do we really need the white stuff? Most people, over 75 per cent of the world’s population, get by without it just fine.
I agree some vegan cheeses do leave something to be desired – some brands taste a little like tile grout. However, things are improving fast. Gourmet restaurateur and vegan food expert Miyoko Schinner spent a year in her kitchen developing non-dairy cheeses using nuts and plant-based milks. Schinner uses similar processes used in traditional cheese-making of culturing and aging the ingredients to produce vegan cheeses with a range of consistencies from soft and creamy to firm. She says her plant-based cheeses have all the complexity and sharpness of their dairy counterparts. It seems that the options for going dairy-free are increasing rapidly. Good news for our health, the environment and of course, the animals.