Precision fermentation — The path to sustainable and animal-free milk products?
Not too long ago, I came across an interesting article using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) from 2018. In addition to calculating how much food is being consumed per capita per day in kilograms, it also took a deeper look at what types of food are consumed the most; both on a global scale and by continent.
In Asia, vegetables and rice are the most consumed foods, in Africa cassava and wheat are battling for the top spot. To my great surprise, however, in Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America, the most consumed food isn’t wheat. Or potatoes. Or other grains. The most consumed food is milk — including milk-based products. Dairy products make up 12% of all food consumed in the world.¹
From an environmental sustainability perspective, this is difficult for a myriad of reasons. First, research has shown that the production of 1 liter of milk uses more than 625 liters of water. For plant-based alternatives, the figures are much lower: 28 and 48 liters for 1 liter of soy and milk respectively — or 22 times and 13 times less than cow’s milk.²
Second, when digesting food, cows produce non-trivial amounts of methane. In Germany, dairy cow-related methane emissions make up about 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in German agriculture.³ In addition, there obviously are questions regarding ethical considerations of livestock farming in general — how should we/are we ethically obligated to treat animals?
Obviously, plant-based non-dairy alternatives are gaining popularity — especially in the milk segment. In the UK, for example, plant-based milks have reached a double-digit market share already.⁴ Globally, plant-based milk sales went up by more than 85% from 2019 to 2020 — and annual growth is projected to continue at a whopping pace.⁵
For other non-dairy products, such as cheese, the numbers look quite different though. Vegan cheese still is a rarity and its projected growth rate is much lower. Why is that? Well, when it comes to the functional aspects and applications, such as melting or texture, vegan alternatives rarely reach traditional dairy’s level.
So what makes dairy products superior to vegan alternatives from an application perspective? Especially, given that milk consists of 87% water? Mainly, it’s the protein. Milk contains, among others, two main proteins: casein and whey. They are what differentiates traditional dairy from non-dairy products. They are why we feed cows enormous amounts of food and water, why we seemingly accept the methane emissions that come along with traditional dairy.
Up until now, it had been impossible to create milk proteins without cows at scale. Recently, however, a new technology to do just that has emerged: Precision fermentation. Generally, precision fermentation is quite similar to traditional fermentation processes. The main difference lies in what the actual product is. In traditional fermentation, the whole fermented mass is the product — think of beer or a yogurt, for example. In precision fermentation, on the other hand, the product is only a very specific part of the fermented mass that is separated from the rest. Usually, those specific parts are proteins.
Startups have started to crack the code to produce whey, casein, and other milk proteins using precision fermentation techniques. And venture capital investors see great potential in the new technology. Consequently, humongous amounts of venture capital are currently flowing into the sector.
Well-funded startups include California-based Perfect Day, which has recently raised another $350m to bring its total funding to more than $700m, or Berlin-based Formo, whose recent Series A round was more than €40m and pushed the firm’s total funding to more than $100m. These novel players have already developed the capabilities to create animal-free milk products — for example ice cream using Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein. And, they are working on creating production plants and processes to create animal-free milk products at scale.
While animal-free milk products might still sound like science fiction, customers in Singapore and the US, among others, can already purchase them. In other jurisdictions, including the European Union, old regulations are still keeping these novel products from entering the market.
For how long? That’s what we want to find out at Hungry Ventures — stay tuned!