We already know that conventionally-produced animal products are problematic—animal agriculture is land, water, and energy intensive, and potentially harmful to human health and animal welfare. For most people though, meat and dairy are also delicious. What if there was a cleaner, greener way of producing our favorite animal-derived foods? Turns out, the science already exists.
Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford had a vision. What he’s best known for is a vision of the modern automobile: a future where humans on four-wheeled machines hurtle through space at 60 miles per hour. But while that particular vision revolutionized the world as we know it today, Ford also dreamed of another future—one that minimized the role of animals in agriculture.
In 1921, Ford told the New York Tribune, “The cow is the crudest machine in the world. Our laboratories have already demonstrated that cow’s milk can be done away with and the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines far cleaner than cows and not subject to tuberculosis,” (a pathogen transmitted through raw milk, and a major public health concern at the time).
What Ford envisioned was probably similar to the soy and nut milks we’re familiar with today. He also happened to be a big proponent of the soybean as a meat substitute: in 1939, he caused a kerfuffle among American butchers when he predicted that soy-based foods would entirely replace our need to raise cows at all. His predictions were likely in the service of his goal to decentralize car manufacturing and put farmers to work in factories instead of in barns. In that sense, his prediction was right. The mechanical revolution of the 1920’s fueled migration from fields into cities, where factory work was more promising than life on the farm that was increasingly reliant on mechanical efficiency.
Fast-forward ninety-seven years, and advances in food technology are inching us ever closer to realizing Henry Ford’s wildest cow-less dreams. Enter Tufts University alum, Ryan Pandya. Three years ago, I wrote about Muufri, the company Ryan cofounded with Perumal Gandhi. Together, they’re using what’s called “cellular agriculture” to commercialize the first animal-free dairy milk. Cellular ag is the production of animal products like meat, milk, eggs, and leather from cell cultures, rather than a farm. In other words, their product is not one of the many plant-based milks that are already on the market today, but real dairy proteins—namely, casein and whey—that are grown using yeast cells specially engineered to produce them using fermentation. Essentially, Ryan and Perumal are building milk protein by protein, without all the expenses, energy, water, land, or emissions associated with growing, feeding and housing cattle.
Much has changed for the company in the last three years. For starters, Muufri has undergone rebranding as Perfect Day. Ryan says that the new name more accurately reflects their forward-looking philosophy. Muufri (“moo-free”) felt limiting; they wanted to focus on what they are bringing to food, not what they’re leaving out of it. They came across a 2001 study by two psychologists which demonstrated that certain songs, when played for Holstein herds, increase milk yields. Lou Reed’s 1972 track “Perfect Day” was one such milk-maximizing song. “As a company on a mission to make cows, people, and the planet happier,” reads Perfect Day’s FAQ page, “it seemed like a perfect fit.”
Over the last few years Perfect Day has expanded their target market, graduating from products confined to the refrigerated dairy section to… well, the whole supermarket. “Fundamentally, milk proteins add functionality or nutrition to products in every part of the grocery store,” Ryan told me. Dairy is found in products you may not expect, from soups and tomato sauces, to dressings, condiments and baked goods. “If you can name a part of the grocery store, I can find you a product where dairy is involved.” Although they still plan to produce some fresh dairy products, from a business perspective, Ryan sees a much larger market for Perfect Day’s milk proteins that would extend their reach beyond the fresh dairy case. Since their process omits lactose, even those who suffer from lactose intolerance would be able to enjoy dairy-containing products without compromising digestive comfort.
Food manufacturers that use dairy in their products are watching Perfect Day with interest. They’re used to using milk proteins with a specific ratio of components, but it’s cost-prohibitive to separate and isolate the proteins they need for specific functions in their foods. Since Perfect Day has the advantage of making these proteins individually, saving food manufacturers the added cost and effort of breaking down whole, unprocessed milk into its component parts, the company is able to tap into a much broader functionality.
The food industry, investors, even the government—according to Ryan, they “get” it. Perfect Day is well on its way toward establishing GRAS (“Generally Recognized As Safe”) designation through the FDA. In fact, the regulatory process for the product is relatively straightforward—Perfect Day’s milk proteins are created in much the same way as many other products we use every day. All kinds of flavor and fragrance additives are made using fermentation processes. Look at the label of almost any cheese made in the US and you’re likely to find a reference to “non-animal rennet” or “microbial enzymes.” Rennet, a key ingredient in cheese, used to be obtained from slaughtered calves, but is now more commonly made using fermentation. Perfect Day’s process is similar, and the tech it uses is by no means new—it’s the application that’s novel. “Although we’ve had the technology for about 40 years, Perfect Day is first company to really care about it and talk about it,” says Ryan.
Milk isn’t the only cellular ag product on the horizon. Although we’re a little further away from commercializing cultured meat, one Tufts University PhD student is advancing the research that may one day make it possible to buy a piece of steak that was never attached to a cow. Natalie Rubio got her start in cellular ag first as a volunteer with New Harvest—the institute that gave Perfect Day its initial seed money—and later as an intern during the early days of Perfect Day (when the nascent company was still known as Muufri, in 2014). Since then, New Harvest has launched a research fellowship, naming Natalie as the first New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow.
Natalie says that even as an intern at Perfect Day, she knew she wanted to work on meat. “The biotech industry has been using cells to produce proteins [for various products] for many years,” she tells me. “The idea of using whole cell cultures themselves as a product is more novel. We can use the tissue engineering techniques to create meat from cell cultures without involving livestock, besides donor animals for the initial biopsy.”
She explains that there are three main focus areas in the emerging field of cultured tissue research. The first area aims to develop new, animal-free sources of growth media used to feed the cells. When tissue cells are growing, they basically float in a liquid mixture of sugar water, some proteins, and a substance called fetal bovine serum. While the base formulation of sugar water, vitamins and minerals is animal free, the bovine serum supplement is a byproduct of the meat industry. It makes for a great environment for growing tissue cultures, but since the goal of this field of research is to avoid using animals, scientists are searching for substances to use in place of fetal bovine serum.
Another focus of this work, says Natalie, is obtaining and tinkering with new cell lines. The initial cells are biopsied from domestic species like turkey, bovine, fish, or any other species of interest. Stem cells, which are capable of prolific growth and differentiation, are isolated and extracted for use in tissue cultures. Scientists are then able to tell the stem cells how to behave and what to become; in the case of cultured meat, they become muscle, but scientists can also direct stem cells to become tissues with other properties, like fat.
The focus of Natalie’s research is scaffolding. “Think of the scaffold as everything besides the cells themselves,” she tells me. “In our bodies, we have muscle cells, but that’s not all that our muscle is. It’s also surrounded by this matrix of proteins, primarily collagen, that make up muscle. I’m trying to emulate these other substances by using animal free materials.” Her work overlaps with the engineering of human skeletal muscle tissues that are already used routinely in regenerative medicine. Someday in the not-too-distant future, we could grill animal-free steaks with the same fibrous, muscle-y appearance and texture that we expect from meat.
Lest the idea of lab-grown meat or milk stoke anyone’s fears of genetic modification, Natalie sets the record straight: these products do not contain GM ingredients. She explains that tissue culturing does not involve manipulating any genes. She describes the cells they use in her field as “proliferative,” meaning they are naturally inclined to grow and multiply according to the instructions encoded in their DNA—no gene tinkering required. And while Perfect Day’s process does involve genetically modifying yeast cells to make milk proteins, the GM yeast is carefully filtered out of the milk before being added to any food products. This process of altering yeast’s genetic code to make proteins is exactly the same way vegetarian rennet, vanilla, insulin, and many other everyday products are made. (New Harvest’s FAQ goes into further detail about the role of GMO in cellular agriculture, as well as other common questions that come up around this emerging industry.)
Cellular agriculture is not so much a new technology as it is a new application for the technology we’ve long used in medicine and pharmaceuticals. It seeks to avoid some of the ongoing problems we have with animal agriculture. For example, producing meat and milk in sterile environments reduces the risk of contamination from pathogens. (Remember Ford’s concern about tuberculosis?) The ability to scale up these processes could also have positive implications for agricultural land use in the U.S. Imagine converting some of the 170 million acres currently planted with corn and soy into specialty crops, expanding our ability to produce and harvest solar energy, or reaping the ecological benefits of putting more land into conservation—all while reducing the emissions associated with animal agriculture.
While Henry Ford may have envisioned a world devoid of cattle, Ryan Pandya, for his part, is quick to assure me that the goal of cellular agriculture is not to upend the dairy or meat industries. “Demand is increasing for animal products all over the world—such a demand that the world’s farmers can’t keep up. I hope we can create a complementary supply chain that will take some of that pressure off.” He sees a future where, instead of abolishing animal products entirely, consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that have the traditional touch of animal farming.
It’s a future that’s increasingly easy to imagine.
Kathleen Nay is a third-year dual degree student in the Agriculture, Food & Environment and Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning programs and a co-editor of The Friedman Sprout.