A row of silver-colored tanks shimmer under the spotlight. You could easily mistake this for a microbrewery, but these cylindrical steel bioreactors don’t contain a hoppy IPA beer. They contain the future of milk. The $40-million Californian-based startup TurtleTree is banking on a future where we are no longer reliant on pastures filled with dairy cows to enjoy our favorite latte—our next pint of milk could come from a lab, as another part of a growing industry in cell-based foods.
Following in the footsteps of the cell-based meat industry where meat is grown artificially in the lab, TurtleTree’s scientists are taking mammary cells from raw cow’s milk and boosting them in a lab’s bioreactor to produce whole milk. But while cell-based meat is consumed in its entirety, cell-based milk can continue to use the mammary cells to make more artificial milk.
It may sound unnatural, but food tech producers say it’s more sustainable than how we get our milk today. In November 2022, the Institute For Agriculture and Trade Policy reported that greenhouse gas emissions from cows (in the form of methane burps and flatulence), for five of the largest meat corporations and 10 of the largest dairy firms around the world equate to 734 million tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide each year. This is more than the annual emissions of the entirety of Germany. A study run by University of Michigan scientists on behalf of alternative meat company Beyond Meat found that cell-based food uses 90 percent less water and 99 percent less land than traditional dairy to produce.
“Cell-based milk could mean less global warming, less air pollution and use up to less land and less water compared to conventional milk production.”
— Benjamin Horton, Earth Observatory, Singapore
Climate specialist Benjamin Horton, who studies sea level change, earthquakes, and tsunamis at the Earth Observatory in Singapore, told The Daily Beast that cell-based milk could provide an answer for the future. “Cell-based milk could mean less global warming, less air pollution and use up to less land and less water compared to conventional milk production. It may solve multiple problems at once such as the food demands of the increasing population.”
Climate concerns are already fueling a growing market in plant-based milk, which is already on the shelves of nearly any grocery store you might walk into. However, Elizabeth Gunner, a dietitian at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast that plant-based milk can sometimes have nutrition gaps. “Most plant-based milk contains a lower amount of protein than cow’s milk, with the exception of soy and pea-protein-based milk.” This could be a problem if a person is relying on dairy products to meet their protein requirements. The aftertaste of some plant-based milk has encouraged other milk brands to look for a closer alternative.
TurtleTree is just one company of many that sees this predicament as an opportunity to make cell-based milk go mainstream. CEO Fengru Lin was working for Google as a territory account manager and living in Southeast Asia in 2018. She was spending much of her free time searching for the perfect ingredients to support her cheese-making hobby, and that included hunting for the optimal type of raw milk. She soon learned that not all raw milk was created equal.
Lin was looking to avoid dairy products resulting from antibiotic practices. The U.S., China, Singapore, and the European Union have banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters for livestock (a process that still befuddles scientists). But a study 2018 commissioned by the U.K. Parliament showed the practice still goes ahead in other countries, and cause humans to absorb antibiotics that they don’t need.
Later on in 2018, Lin heard a talk on cell-based meat by tech entrepreneur Max Rye at Google’s Singapore office. She started speaking with him about how cell-based meat companies were making produce that was kind to the environment and wondered if the same treatment could be given to milk. In January 2019, the pair founded TurtleTree.
Rye and Lin now employ over 42 full-time staff—including 21 scientists who have worked for pharmaceutical and biotech companies like Merck and Novozymes. TurtleTree has offices in Singapore, Boston, and California, along with a new factory coming in West Sacramento.
TurtleTree’s main goal is to create lab-based milk, but it is also working to create brand new dairy products along the way. “There are 2,000 different ingredients found in milk and to be able to characterize all of that it is going to take regulators a very long time,” said Lin. “So we want to find products we can go to market with earlier rather than later.”
So Lin and her colleagues looked at what they could produce straight away, and narrowed in on a specific protein called lactoferrin, an immune boosting protein found in breast milk. Armed with the know-how to artificially produce lactoferrin in massive quantities, they are now talking to baby food companies about how they can include their lab-made lactoferrin in baby milk powder.
The applications extend beyond just human diets. TurtleTree said the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C. has reached out to see if the company could produce bespoke milk for orphaned animals at the zoo unable to acquire milk from a mother.
TurtleTree isn’t even the only firm in North America showcasing the future of cell-based milk. Rival company Opalia launched in Montreal in September 2020. Whereas TurtleTree is focusing on producing lactoferrin first, Opalia has set itself the goal of launching with cell-based whole milk, and then introducing other dairy-based products such as ice cream and yogurt.
“Whole milk is where the biggest opportunity is and where we can make the biggest impact in terms of the environment so that is why we chose this,” Jennifer Côté, CEO of Opalia in Canada, told The Daily Beast. The company has given itself five years to put cell-based whole milk on the supermarket shelves. Côté and her team have received grants from the Canadian government to accelerate their research and raised $1 million from angel investors in March 2022.
Investments are pouring into the emerging industry from many different interested parties. The Temasek Foundation (the Singaporean government’s investment arm) awarded TurtleTree $1 million in June 2020. Central Bottling Company, also known as Coca-Cola Israel, invested $2 million in Israeli cell-based milk company Wilk, and will be using Wilk’s products in Coca-Cola Israel’s own Tara Dairy company. Wilk plans to have all of its products for sale by 2024.
“Twenty years down the line, these foods will become regular foods, while cow-based dairy will become the boutique buys.”
— Sunil Sukumaran, Perfect Day
Traditional dairy farmers have also recognized that this could be their future. In May 2021, Spanish dairy giant Calidad Pascual launched Mylkcubator, the world’s first incubator program to fund five cell-based dairy startups across the globe.
One food tech startup that is already showing the public what the new world of milk could look like is Berkeley, California-based Perfect Day. Launched in April 2014 and backed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, Perfect Day uses fungi and a refined form of fermentation to create animal-free whole milk. The company warns that the composition of its brand, called Very Dairy, is so close to cow’s milk that if you have an allergy to milk protein you will have an allergy to its animal-free version.
Sunil Sukumaran, chief technology officer at Perfect Day, told The Daily Beast he and his colleagues chose not to take the cell-based route in their alternative milk design because they wanted to make a more immediate impact on the market. “Cell-based milk is not a scalable technology right now,” he told The Daily Beast. “The maximum you would be able to produce now is a liter or two [in yield], when you need hundreds of thousands of liters of milk to sell [to the public].” A liter of Very Dairy’s product costs $4.95. “A liter of cell-based milk would cost nearly 50 times more,” Sukumaran claims.
Food scientist and consultant Bryan Le, based in Washington, D.C., countered that there is still room for cell-based milk in the market. “They [non-cell-based milk products] are very simple in their design and do not include the many other minor proteins that provide milk with its health benefits,” such as lactoferrin and other important sugars, he told The Daily Beast.
Whether consumers are ready for cell-based milk, however, is another question. Rye on a podcast described the milk as ‘creamy, and a little salty’—the saltiness being due to the cocktail of ingredients that help the mammary cells grow. “There may be some pushback regarding the perceived artificiality of cell-based milk,” said Le. “There will be concerns that may drive consumers away from cell-based milk, such as what is the source of the ingredients in the culture.”
But alternative milk backers believe they can assuage these concerns and become part of the mainstream. “A decade from now cow’s milk and alternative milk will be viewed in the same way,” said Sukumaran. “Twenty years down the line, these foods will become regular foods, while cow-based dairy will become the boutique buys.”
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