Bioengineering the World’s Tiniest Cows

Let’s start today’s show with a trivia question. What Lou Reed song is most likely to increase milk production in cows? Anyone?

If you guessed “Walk on the Wild Side”, I’m sorry, but that is incorrect. But thank you for playing on today’s episode of Dairy Island Discs. If instead you voted for “Perfect Day”, then congratulations! The song (and, to be fair, other slow-moving songs like it) increased milk production by something like 3%. If it makes you feel any better, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would also have been accepted by the judges.

I came across this tidbit while reading about Perfect Day Foods. Even though the Lou Reed anecdote inspired the name for their company, their actual goal is not to make dairy cows more efficient. It’s to do away with them completely. Perfect Day uses a bioengineered fungus to produce milk protein (casein) in the same way that we currently make alcohol: fermentation. These milk proteins can then be used by other companies, like Betterland, to make high quality cow-free dairy products.

Side-stepping the cow is good if you’re a vegan: no animal is involved. It’s also good if you’re lactose intolerant, since Perfect Day makes milk proteins but not milk sugars. But more generally it’s good if you want to decrease the impact that food production has on the planet. Bioreactor tanks require much less acreage (and fart considerably less) than cows.

When we think about moving away from animal food products, it’s often in terms of plant substitutes. Can you make a soybean patty that looks and tastes like a burger? Can you process oats in such a way that you get something resembling milk? Sort of. But your options are pretty limited. Ultimately there’s only such much you can do. Vegetable matter just isn’t the same as animal matter.

In the last few years this story has changed. You can now “teach” microorganisms to produce the exact same proteins made by animal cells. These aren’t sad look-alikes that taste wrong. These are molecular facsimiles. What is meat? What is milk? The important part is not where it comes from. The important part is what it is. And that is, by and large, a collection of proteins. If you can get the right proteins in place, you have a no-compromise replacement food. If you can do it cheaply and efficiently, you’ll disrupt the global food system.

We’re just seeing the first glimmers of this now, but it will only accelerate. We’ll get better at protein engineering, and the environmental costs of animal food production will become more apparent. In short, animals are an inefficient way to make the proteins we care about. They use too much land, they take too long, and they generate too much waste. Up until now, there was no alternative pathway to create these proteins. You want casein? You need animal milk. But now a door has opened, a lower energy pathway to achieve the same end. The first examples won’t be perfect. Incumbent industries will protest and lobby to protect themselves. Picky or nostalgic eaters will initially be unimpressed. But the change is coming. It’s coming because it’s possible and because it’s necessary.

Can you hear that sound? It’s the sound of a tiny herd of fungal cows coming to a dairy aisle near you. No word yet on how they feel about Lou Reed.

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