Tucked away inconspicuously in an old “bio-hacker” space in Oakland, California, are the research facilities of Counter Culture Labs founded by biologist Ryan Bethencourt.
He may have the answer to the old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
One of his goals is to produce eggs without chickens. Another is to produce milk without cows.
It may sound crazy, but the future may be right around the corner.
Bethencourt is just one of a growing group of scientist-entrepreneurs determined to produce artificial animal-like food without the animals.
How? Turning microbes and yeasts into factories that produce the same substances mankind has relied until now on animals to produce.
Back in 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post produced the first lab-grown “hamburger.” Few got to taste is because of the price tag – $25,000. But others are working on economies of scale with a startup company called Memphis Meats, expecting to have product in stores by 2021.
Bethencourt’s team, meanwhile, is bust developing “Real Vegan Cheese.” Another company, called “Perfect Day,” is hoping to bring to market cow-free milk. Clara Foods is working on creating egg whites with chickens.
IndieBio, an investment group founded by Bethencourt in 2014, is right in the middle of all of it. It’s all about fermentation.
“We’ve been using that technology for thousands of years,” says Bethencourt. “Now we’re starting to get sophisticated with it.”
It’s a little like making beer. But first, scientists genetically modify yeast with a chunk of DNA that tells the microbe what protein to make. Then they “brew” the yeast with nutrients in a bioreactor and isolate the resulting proteins. Microbes do the rest.
Perfect Day is isolating the yeast-derived from cow’s milk protein. Then the company adds in nutrients, such as plant-based sugars and fats to achieve texture and flavor similar to those of real milk. The product they create in the lab doesn’t need starches, gums and stabilizers, says company Chief Executive Officer Ryan Pandya. It can also be made into cheese and yogurt.
Some see it as a way to cut down carbon-dioxide emissions, eliminate air and water pollution, conserve farming land and, of course, the lives of animals.
Bethencourt says it will all be a reality within a decade.
“It’s really hard to tell what’s going to be hard to make until you try,” says Kate Kruger, research director at New Harvest, a non-profit that supports the science of cellular agriculture.
But how does it taste?
Is it as good as the real thing?
Is it healthy?
What would God think about it?
And, after all, it’s not natural.
To that, says Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest: “Today, milk is made by artificially inseminating a cow at 13 months of age, having it bear a calf nine months later, having the calf removed (to be made into veal), and then maintaining the cow in a lactating state for about two years. By age 4, the dairy cow is culled for beef.”