Wednesday, December 7

Cow’s milk without a cow: the scientific race for a cheese free of animal exploitation

One day in the spring of 2016, in the kitchen of the environmental resistance of the ancient forest of Hambach, in Germany, I saw a sticker with a drawing of a cow that read the motto Ich bin keine maschine. “What does it mean?” I asked for. “I’m not a machine,” said the boy who led me into the woods. I continued chatting with that young biomedical doctor, hooded and smiling, about the Cartesian-anthropocentric conception of cows as mere milk-producing machines – I can be very heavy – and, given his training, I thought it appropriate to ask him if it would be possible to create laboratory milk, a real machine that produced real milk without exploited cows or goats. “Someday, yes,” he replied. “Something similar has to be possible.”

Well, that day has come. Six years later I have asked the same question to several workers of Perfect Daythe American company that has managed, in part, to emulate what happens in the udders of a cow in one of the machines I was referring to:

“The first thing we do is feed specific microorganisms with exact copies of the DNA of the cow’s milk protein. Then, in beer-like fermentation tanks, we nurture the plant-based glucose flora until it generates milk proteins like the entrails of a cow. In the final step, the flora is filtered and we obtain pure whey protein, identical to what is in cow’s milk but without making a single animal suffer.”

Unlike laboratory meat, which has a long way to go to be efficient, sustainable and economically viable, according to a scientific study the production of milk from laboratory cows compared to its animal counterpart saves between 91% and 97% of greenhouse gas emissions, up to 60% of electricity consumed and about 99% of drinking water consumption.

And we are not talking about abstract estimates of projects and ideas that end up in a drawer. For a few weeks, in several supermarkets in the United States there have already been ice creams, spreads, shakes and other dairy products whose milk protein has been synthesized. At the moment they only ship to the United States, so I bought on their website a bar of laboratory milk chocolate and sent it to a good friend and journalist in Washington DC. “Cocoa could be better” she replied sarcastically, “but yes, it tastes exactly the same as the traditional milk chocolate”.

“It’s not that it looks like milk; is that they are milk proteins” justifies Anne Gerow, press officer of the company. “In fact, we cannot label it as non-dairy because the protein in cow’s milk is the same and, therefore, it is not suitable for intolerant people.”

The other organizations that compete in this scientific race look askance at ‘Perfect Day’. “They are the most advanced and the first to bring their products to the supermarket, so we are very interested in seeing what happens in terms of legislation and consumer acceptance.” This is how Zoltan Toth-Czifra, founder of ‘Real Deal Milk‘, the Catalan company located in the Barcelona Science Park that aspires to synthesize casein and whey to market its dairy products free of animal suffering. They aspire to fill the shelves with yogurts, ice creams and cheeses with which not a single cow has suffered: “As these alternatives make their way into the market, it will be possible to reduce the mistreatment of animals and the enormous climate impact of milk production. ” explains Thoth-Czifra.

But, should we bet on laboratory milk?

Let’s make a parenthesis of context on the protean revolution, its stages and its allies. In the race – no doubt against the clock – to ‘deanimalise’ the Western diet, it is an absolute priority to bet on a greater consumption of plant-based proteins. Legumes and nuts, on the one hand, and cereals, vegetables and seasonal fruits, on the other, must regain the central role in our breakfasts, lunches and dinners. So far the obvious, the first stage of the protein revolution – do without meat and dairy. However, this diet is now within everyone’s reach and, although it is on the rise, it is still a minority despite being healthier, cheaper and fairer than any other. And that is so, we put ourselves as we put ourselves, because the average Westerner is not willing to give up his species privilege and has no plans to disengage from the texture and flavor of meat and cheese. Where is a steak to the point, etc.

It is possible and must continue breaking stone in this fight without denying all the technical, ethical and environmental advances of a part of the food industry. It is here, in the second stage of the protein revolution – imitating meat and dairy products – where the traveling companions offered by the economic system in which we have had to live come in. Without defending multinationals with 18,000 stores where they sell beef burgers and some vegetarian options, we can find native ‘plant-based’ companies that have known how to read the market and whose commitment is, even with everything, much more credible.

In this sense, for example, the Catalan firm Heura and the Galician firm Calabizo produce what in microeconomics are called perfect substitute goods. Without pedantry, this means that for every kilo of ‘vegan meat’ sold –soy or pumpkin, oil and spices, for example– there is a kilo of chicken meat that is not produced because the final consumer prefers vegan meat to chicken from the supermarket but , unfortunately, I would opt for cheap meat if the alternative –without demagoguery– was a portion of canned vegetables.

In short, adding supporters to the ‘deanimalization’ of the Western diet is so ethically and climatically urgent that we can find some good allies in those companies that process products rich in vegetable protein, especially if they are victims of the fury –and the legal departments– of a livestock sector that sees its infamous business based on exploitation and animal suffering in danger.

The third stage of the protein revolution –synthesizing meat and dairy products–, which we are talking about today, takes us to the stage of what seems like science fiction, but is already plain science. My generation was promised – or threatened – that there would be flying cars in cities, but the reality is that we have outbreaks of scabies every two to three and mobile phones are getting bigger and bigger. That yes, nobody anticipated, to my knowledge, that there would be a legion of researchers manufacturing milk proteins free of animal exploitation and that in 2021 they would collect 1,692 million dollars to make laboratory milk1,376 million for synthetic meat and 1,933 million for vegetable proteins.

A nuance: one of the best placed European companies in this race is the Berlin company form. Javier Romero is its Director of Food Design and he attends us in a fantastic Catalan with the German accent of those who emigrated too many years ago: “More than synthesizing milk, I think we are improving the original formula of the cow, a very inefficient animal. when it comes to protein production. In addition, we can remove part of the fat and even improve the protein intake. The opportunities are endless.”

The race has only just begun. For Toth-Czifra there is still a long way to go, but the funding is coming: “The cheese will have to wait. For now, research has successfully focused on making whey protein from cow’s milk, but we are all having trouble synthesizing casein. Without this protein we cannot make cheese, which will be the great milestone”.

We will leave for another day the plate on the subjugation of science to the most savage capitalism – I recommend taking a look at the critical disclosure made by the ConCiencias collective– and we will focus on the subtext of what companies like Perfect Day, Real Deal Milk or Formo are trying to do: an ethical and sustainable alternative for those who will not give up cheese under any circumstances –and would more or less consciously perpetuate the suffering that their cheese entails. production-.

And it is that there is no crack where ethics fits in with regard to the production of dairy products for human consumption. Forced pregnancy, mother-child separation, premature death… none of this can be separated from the miserable life of an exploited animal, no matter how much they play Lou Reed ballads to the cow while they steal her milk or let her graze some hours a day.

At this point in the protein revolution, it seems that the acceptance of plant-based and synthetic proteins will be key in the coming years. Let us therefore conjure ourselves for a future where we do without, imitate and synthesize proteins of animal origin. For a future where we put an end once and for all to the violent, inefficient and unfair production system with which we fill the fridge and destroy the planet. For a future where cows are not treated like milk vending machines. Ich bin keine maschine.