Wine from water. Milk from yeast. Both may sound miraculous, but the second one is actually happening. San Francisco startup Muufri is taking the moo out of milk by rethinking the way it's industrially produced.
Muufri is the brainchild of vegan bioengineers Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi. It's not that they're against milk -- they just believe it can be produced more humanely, cheaply and sustainably, and in order to do that, they're swapping the dairy farm for the lab.
Of course there are already plenty of milk alternatives on the market, including soy, almond and coconut. But Team Muufri says its project isn't about creating a substitute, it's about "reimagining what milk production looks like."
Muufri is not alone in its quest to create an artificial food product. San Francisco-based Hampton Creek is already selling egg-free mayonnaise and is now working on an egg-free (vegan) egg, based on a top secret plant protein mix. Not surprisingly, these bioengineered alternatives have had some industry groups up in arms. Investors, on the other hand, see huge potential for disrupting the agricultural sector. Muufri received $2 million in seed funding last autumn.
To find out more about Muufri's vision for animal-free dairy, the customers they're targeting, and the positive environmental impact they aspire to create, I put some probing questions to CEO and co-founder, Ryan Pandya.
Tell us about the science behind Muufri -- how do you go about synthesizing it?
It's brewed the same way you'd make beer. Once we perfect our method, it'll be possible for hobbyists, enthusiasts, craft brewers, or larger dairy producers all to make milk our way. Because it's essentially the same as making beer or wine -- you're feeding sugar, controlling the operating conditions for a few days, and then harvesting the product -- it's easy for anyone to understand and pick up, and it should actually be possible to use existing beer equipment to make milk (with a few retrofits). It's much, much cleaner and more efficient than working with cows, too.
You guys are vegans, with a deep concern for sustainability. What problems did you identify that you are trying to solve with Muufri? Could it even help California's drought problem?
The company doesn't take a stance on the vegan issue, and most of our employees aren't vegan. I should point out that vegans are definitely not our target market - we're making milk to appeal to regular people who love dairy products as much as we do, but who are deeply concerned with sustainability and food safety.
As you may know, 47% of the water in California is used for animal agriculture, so I always find it sort of amusing to go to a restaurant with a really meat and dairy-heavy menu and a little thing on the table that says they won't serve water unless you ask -- you know, because of the drought. It's totally backwards. I think if all of the milk in America was made in breweries instead of animal farms, we'd see a massive decrease in water consumption. I really think it could help the drought. Meanwhile, animal agriculture has been found to contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation sector. Per year, a single cow has a greater carbon impact than driving 10,000 km.
From a food safety perspective, there is a serious amount of saturated fat and cholesterol found in dairy, along with a whole bunch of junk that ends up in our milk through factory farming: antibiotics, hormones, pus. Who wants that in their Cheerios?
I think if everyone gave up dairy products, the environment and our collective public health would both improve. But it'd be a loss - we've been using dairy products for 10,000 years all over the world. It'd be a shame to give it up if we don't have to.
We asked ourselves what it would have to look like for the dairy industry to make a real, tangible dent in these global problems. And I think the only way is to find a better way to make milk - a way that eliminates the inefficiencies and the contaminants. I'm happy to say that we're making progress.
What is the timeline for and scalability of the project?
We're developing a prototype right now, which should be ready by the end of the year. It'll be a sample of milk, with that classic creamy milk flavor, but for the first time in history we'll be able to say that no animals were involved in its production. From there, it'll take a few years to develop market-ready products and start distributing. And in the background we'll be developing the scalable, plug-and-play microbrewery that we can share with the whole world to really kick things into high gear. I hesitate to give exact dates - it's tough to say.
Have you conducted taste tests and if so, what have been the results?
It's still a month or two until our animal-free milk proteins become available for us to play with. In the meantime, we've made samples of milk with under ten components - super minimal milk. We've verified that it tastes like milk and has the same protein content, which are our two highest priorities.
Some people believe humans shouldn't drink cow's milk at all, and others would be worried about a product that's been genetically engineered in the first place -- what would you say to those naysayers?
It doesn't really matter to me whether or not we "should" be drinking cow's milk. The reality is that we are doing it, hundreds of kilograms per person per year, and it's beginning to break our planet's back. As long as people are going to be consuming tons of dairy, we may as well do it in a way that can be sustained for the thousands of generations who live after us on Earth.
I will say, though, that if you think we shouldn't be drinking milk because it's optimized by Nature for baby cows to drink, then you may take solace in the fact that we are now optimizing milk for adult humans to consume, so hopefully all of the allergies, side effects and health concerns will disappear in the next few years.
Regarding your second point, in my perspective our method is a much safer alternative to what people are doing now, which is to put engineered feed and hormones and antibiotics into animals and just sort of hope that the milk we get is still healthy.
I won't take a black-or-white stance on genetic engineering, because it can be good or bad depending on the motives and the competence of the people involved. It's sort of like asking if wood carving is good or bad. That depends - are you carving a knife or a pretty little pony? Are you a good carver, or is your pony going to have some sharp edges that could give someone a splinter?
I like this metaphor because you can ask yourself what it would have to look like for it not to be scary. You'd want it to be something relatively simple, with good-hearted intentions, and have the smartest and most talented people working on it. We've got all three, so there's nothing to worry about.
Can Muufri be turned into artificial cow milk ice cream, yoghurt, butter etc.?
Yes! Definitely. If we can't turn into ice cream, yogurt, butter, and everything else, there will still be hundreds of millions of dairy cows on farms and our planet will be doomed. We will do it all, don't worry. Muufri's on it.