Sep 18, 2021 - Technology

The environmental benefits of lab-made dairy products

Illustration of a lab coat with cow spots.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Key components in dairy products can be made in a lab with a much smaller environmental footprint than conventional dairy products, according to an analysis by lab-made dairy startup Perfect Day.

Why it matters: Cows — and the methane they produce — are a major contributor to the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the dairy sector.

  • Taking them out of the equation could be a net environmental positive.
  • Alternative methods that use fermentation to produce dairy proteins could significantly cut the environmental cost of milk, cheese and ice cream.

By the numbers: In a study released first to Axios, independent researchers tapped by Perfect Day found the company's process produced more than 90% less greenhouse gases, required 20% to 60% less energy, and used more than 96% less water per kilogram of protein produced compared to conventional bovine dairy protein.

  • "This shows that fermentation can unlock a more efficient way to make food that humans have a huge demand for," says Ryan Pandya, co-founder and CEO of Perfect Day.

How it works: Perfect Day adds cow genes to a strain of fungus called Trichoderma reesei, then fuels their growth in fermentation tanks with sugar.

  • The fungi churn out a mix of dairy proteins like casein and whey that are molecularly identical to what's found in cow milk.
  • The company then adds water and plant-based fats to produce dairy products — including a line of ice cream called Brave Robot — that it says has the same taste and nutritional profile of conventional ice cream.

Between the lines: Perfect Day's smaller environmental footprint largely stems from the fact that "the actual biology used in the fermentation process is a lot more efficient" than producing dairy products via cows, says Pandya.

  • "We're not using the inputs of this process to build the body parts of a cow."

Of note: The life cycle analysis was commissioned by Perfect Day, and it wasn't peer-reviewed, though Pandya notes it was reviewed by a panel of three independent outside experts.

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