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The Future of Cultivated Milk
How will it transform our relationship with dairy?
By Ingrid L. Taylor
The dairy industry is fraught with ethical, health, and environmental concerns. But what if milk could be produced without using animals?
In recent years, food tech start-ups have been asking just that question. Dairy, as it stands, is big business: Around six billion people globally consume dairy, either as milk or in other products such as infant formula. But this demand for dairy hurts our planet. Worldwide, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy have increased by 18 percent over the past decade, contributing to three percent of total global emissions.
In addition to its environmental costs, there are ethical issues with the dairy industry and its treatment of animals. The situation is particularly dire for industrially farmed cows, who provide half of the dairy produced in the US. These cows are held in crowded and stressful conditions, repeatedly impregnated, separated from their calves so their milk can be sold, and sent to slaughter at a fraction of their lifespan. All the while, they suffer from injuries and diseases arising from unnatural levels of milk production.
The stakes for transforming the dairy industry are high. And that’s where cultivated milk comes in. Produced in a laboratory using mammalian cells or microbial precision fermentation, cultivated milk’s value proposition is seductive: recreating the taste, nutrition, and feel of dairy, while offering a solution to both the ecological destructionand the ethical dilemmas associated with consuming dairy products.
In the male-dominated world of tech start-ups, women leaders have emerged at the forefront of innovation in cultivated milk. There are many women in scientific and leadership roles in cellular agriculture, but given cultivated milk’s connection to lactation and motherhood, it may have a particularly powerful draw. Mothers Against Dairy, an advocacy organization that tells the stories of vegan mothers, frames the way animal mothers are commodified and exploited in the dairy industry as “an assault on motherhood and female bodily sovereignty”. Cultivated milk is an opportunity for women scientists and entrepreneurs to uncouple milk from these gendered power structures.
Two woman-led companies, BIOMILQ and TurtleTree, are aiming to bring their cultivated milk products to market in the next few years. Michelle Egger, co-founder and CEO of BIOMILQ, isn’t surprised that women gravitate to cellular agriculture.
“Cultivated milk is very deep tech,” she says, “and women tend to see application-based sciences with a lot of promise, because we like to solve problems that have a positive impact on the world.”
BIOMILQ is developing cell-cultured human milk to replace dairy-based infant formula, which contains additives like palm oil, sugar, and soy solids. The idea for BIOMILQ was born when Egger and her co-founder Leila Strickland recognized that parents are often stigmatized for putting infants on formula, despite the lack of other options. Human-based choices for feeding infants might reduce some of this stigma. They also saw cultivated human milk as an environmentally friendly alternative to dairy-based formulas, which make up 15 percent of the global liquid dairy market.
How BIOMILQ creates cultivated human milk
Mammary cells are placed in nutrient-rich cell cultures.
The cells grow and multiply.
Cells are moved to bioreactors that mimic the breast.
Cells absorb nutrients that trigger lactation.
Cells continue to consume nutrients from one side of the bioreactor and secrete milk into the other side.
The milk is collected and tested for safety.
Fengru Lin, CEO and co-founder of Singapore-based startup TurtleTree, attributes her love of cheese to getting her into food tech. When she discovered the cruelties inherent in the dairy industry, she founded TurtleTree to offer kinder and more sustainable dairy products. TurtleTree was the first company to cultivate milk by inducing lactation in cells. Lin aims to launch her first product, a milk protein called lactoferrin that can replace farmed animal protein in other products, in 2022. She believes that with more women in the cultivated milk industry, there will be more choices available to serve the needs of women — like cultivated human milk, a product that TurtleTree also has in development. Lin wants everyone to be able to “enjoy the amazing nutritional benefits of mammalian milk” with options that are more efficient and ecological than animal agriculture.
Navigating capitalism and justice
But how can we ensure that everyone has access to these benefits? Food tech startups like TurtleTree and BIOMILQ are still working within entrenched capitalist systems, which present barriers to equitable distribution and access. Depending on price points and the availability of new products, some people may be unable to afford or access them. (Perfect Day, the only company so far to bring a cultivated milk product to market, debuted its ice cream for US$20 per pint, though it’s now available in the US for around $6-8 per pint.) Furthermore, patents held by food technology companies may result in people losing even more control over the production of the foods that they eat. These are deep, systemic issues, with no simple solutions.
For Amy Huang, University Innovation Manager at the Good Food Institute, that’s why the food tech industry can’t just be about feeding people using new technologies. “We have this opportunity to rewrite how our food system is structured to account for gender and racial equity,” Huang says. “Food technologies must be economically, ecologically, and culturally nourishing to the communities the food is produced in and served to.” But it won't be a given, Huang admits, and there is a lot of work to do to ensure alternative proteins like cultivated milk are successful in building a more sustainable and just food system.
So how can pioneers in the cultivated milk industry come through on food justice?
“This question keeps me up at night,” Egger confesses. To increase the autonomy she has over the impact of her product, she’s careful about who she takes on as an investor. Food technology companies are often dependent on venture capital and buy-ins from investors to get their projects off the ground, but these buyers may not always share founders’ visions of who benefits from the product and how.
“You can’t do innovation without capital,” she points out. “But it doesn’t mean you have to take venture capital money from just anyone.” For instance, Egger won’t accept funding from any investor that doesn’t have at least one high-level female partner. She cautions that women should be selective about their investment partners, and not give up any of their capabilities for the wrong fit.
Developing cultivated human milk means there are particular considerations around equity. Long-standing racial disparities in breastfeeding — 85 percent of white mothers breastfeed their babies, versus 69 percent of Black mothers — demonstrate how systemic racism affects the breastfeeding practices of racialized women, who face discrimination in healthcare and may need to return to work more quickly after giving birth.
“Our challenge is to bring down the cost and increase the accessibility of our products, and we take that very seriously,” says Egger. She acknowledges that BIOMILQ is just one small part of a solution that requires innovation-driven companies working with multiple stakeholders to improve access to infant nutrition products. Her company is continuing to learn from experts from racialized communities about the bias and racism that permeates maternal healthcare, and the impacts of this on breastfeeding practices.
TurtleTree’s vision also centers on accessibility and inclusivity. Lin’s goal is to scale up the production of cultivated milk products to make them affordable. This strategy includes finding new collaborations, such as her recent partnership with a solar-powered bioprocessing plant to reduce costs and increase production capacities.
The future of cultivated milk
The widespread availability of cultivated milk products on the market is surrounded by many unknowns. One has to do with speed: Given the environmental devastation brought on by climate change and the need for sustainable food solutions, the cultivated milk industry may not move fast enough to make the kind of urgent, immediate changes that are called for. Another has to do with the scale of the transition: there’s the risk that cultivated milk may fail to capture a significant enough market share from animal dairy to make an impact on climate change and animal welfare. And there are also questions of how to handle the knock-on effects of the transition to cultivated milk fairly for people, like dairy farmers, whose livelihoods will inevitably change.
Egger doesn’t think cultivated milk will completely replace dairy production, particularly in areas of the world where subsistence and artisanal farming occur. But she does believe that BIOMILQ and other cultivated milk products can make a dent in the harmful practices of industrial animal agriculture and provide people with more sustainable dairy options. She thinks of it as identifying “places where dairy doesn't have to be the primary player and coming up with a better solution that fits people’s needs.”
Lin believes that reducing our dependence on animal milk will disrupt the traditional dairy industry, freeing up land for more sustainable production systems like agroecological farming. Cultivated milk is also a smart investment in the future; since production takes place in bioreactors, it is protected from the effects of climate change. Lin points out that cultivated milk can offer people more choice and flexibility in their diets while meeting their nutritional needs. Given these benefits, the potential for cultivated milk to play a role in transforming our food system is significant.
“We have the opportunity to harness markets and technologies for the betterment of society and to build a restorative economy,” says Huang. Because of this, any discussion on the scaling of cultivated milk “has to be very nuanced.” Cultivated milk is one tool we can use to “shift the needle and help society transition away from animal agriculture and toward alternative proteins.”
Most cultivated milk companies are likely still years away from replicating all the components of milk’s cellular structure and getting their products widely distributed onto store shelves. For now, cultivated milk’s impact on our food system, and our lives, remains to be seen. The potential for cultivated milk to support ecological sustainability and social equity relies, in part, on the innovative women driving its technology forward. But it also depends on our own willingness as consumers to embrace new paths in how our food is produced and distributed and to hold those with the power to shape our food system to account.
Ingrid L. Taylor is a writer, poet, and veterinarian whose work has appeared in the Southwest Review, Ocotillo Review, Sentient Media, and others. To learn more about her work, go to ingridltaylor.com.
Tuomisto & de Mattos (2011) found that cellular agriculture generates between 78 and 96 percent less GHG emissions, uses 82 to 96 percent less water, and 99 percent less land than industrial agriculture. The footprint of cultivated milk specifically will depend on the specific inputs and methods of production that are used at scale (see Bandri, Mason & Olander (2021)).