When we pour a glass of milk, who thinks about the cow responsible for our liquid gold, or the conditions many cows endure?
On industrial farms, where most of this country’s milk originates, surrounding green pastures aren’t for grazing but for growing crops to feed the cows who seldom leave the barn. Mother cows — artificially inseminated, their calves often culled for veal — are kept in an unnatural state of lactation, often in desperately crowded quarters.
“Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, industrial farming of animals is arguably one of the worst crimes in history,” wrote acclaimed “Sapiens” author Yuval Noah Harari in his foreword to “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.”
A more humane day may be dawning. It’s all about bypassing the animal and instead replicating a cow’s milk-associated proteins in large fermentation tanks to produce the same liquid gold. It’s called “cow-free milk.” Or, as Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, co-founders of the company Perfect Day, have referred to it, “milk without the moo.”
Since it’s made with milk’s essential proteins, it’s just as nutritious as milk from cows, similar in taste and texture, and can yield cream, cheese, and every other dairy product, they maintain.
Cow-free dairy fits right into the emerging trend of new food choices — notably, plant-based milks and substitute meats — that reflect a deepening concern for the welfare of animals as well as for climate change and the planet.
“We’re members of what, I think, is a growing contingent of consumers all over the world who are looking for kinder and greener ways to enjoy our favorite food products,” said Pandya during a phone interview. Other companies are developing cow-free milk, although “none are as far along as Perfect Day,” said Kate Krueger, research director at New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to cellular agriculture that Pandya and Gandhi, bioengineers as well as vegans, met through.
Some researchers in this new space are using whole cells and scaling them up — muscle cells from cows for making hamburger, for instance. In the case of cow-free milk, only parts of a cell are used, specifically the whey and casein proteins, long known to be milk’s core nutrients.
“In fact, we did this within an hour of getting the idea back in 2014,” recounted Pandya. He and Gandhi went to Google, typed in the whey protein, and up popped the gene/protein sequences that could be synthesized in the lab without having to take proteins from the animal.
The actual crafting is similar to using yeast for brewing beer. The whey gene is inserted into fungi cells, which act like little factories for the making and expansion of proteins in large tanks. Plant-based sugars, fats, and nutrients are added to enhance taste and texture, and the cells divide and divide, resulting in staggering amounts of proteins.
The Berkeley-Calif., company is far enough along that, in league with partners, some products should reach the market this year, said Gandhi. Last July, a limited-edition Perfect Day ice cream sold out in a day and got high marks for flavor and creaminess.
Gandhi has noted that cows “are pretty bad” at converting plant food to body mass and milk. Much of a plant’s nutrition gets “wasted as manure or released in the form of methane.” Making milk without the animal, however, permits efficient use of nutrients, while conserving water, land, and energy. The vision is to produce vast amounts of milk protein and thereby create a supply chain that goes far beyond what cows can produce.
To achieve that, Perfect Day plans to join forces with established food producers who can help scale up and supply its protein to existing food companies. Since 2018, it’s been partnering with Archer Daniels Midland, which has some of the biggest fermentation tanks in this country, and is expected to announce other partners soon. To date, Perfect Day has raised over $200 million in funding.
“Our view was, there’s an elegant way to go about this,” noted Pandya. “Rather than try to compete against the world’s top food companies, why not work with them?”
While Perfect Day scientists are exploring taste and texture, since their proteins will go to many different companies that “have their own favorite recipes, their own way of making every product imaginable, it’s not super relevant what our food team has thrown together as a prototype,” said Pandya.
Dairy products made without the animal, along with being vegan, can be legitimately touted as lactose-free and gluten-free; and free of the hormones and antibiotics frequently administered to cows on industrial dairy farms.
In respect to farms where cows can be tightly confined indoors, where they may cry for their calves and suffer from a range of maladies to the point of collapse, where they are slaughtered once their yield is “spent,” Perfect Day’s cow’s-milk-without-the-cow will be joining a growing number of other milks, whether made from nuts or peas, that are known as guilt-free and consumed for a reason.