Sunday, July 21, 2024

Biotech companies are trying to make milk without cows

Computer scienceBiotech companies are trying to make milk without cows

At Alpine Bio, a biotech company in San Francisco (also known as Nobell Foods), researchers have engineered soybeans to produce casein. While not yet cleared for sale, the beans are already being grown on USDA-sanctioned test plots in the Midwest, says Alpine’s CEO, Magi Richani. 

Richani chose soybeans because they’re already a major commodity and the cheapest source of protein around. “We are working with farmers who are already growing soybeans for animal feed,” she says. “And we are saying, ‘Hey, you can grow this to feed humans.’ If you want to compete with a commodity system, you have to have a commodity crop.”

Alpine intends to crush the beans, extract the protein, and—much like Remilk—sell the ingredient to larger food companies.

Everyone agrees that cow’s milk will be difficult to displace. It holds a special place in the human psyche, and we owe civilization itself, in part, to domesticated animals. In fact, they’ve  left their mark in our genes, with many of us carrying DNA mutations that make cow’s milk easier to digest.  

But that’s why it might be time for the next technological step, says Richani. “We raise 60 billion animals for food every year, and that is insane. We took it too far, and we need options,” she says. “We need options that are better for the environment, that overcome the use of antibiotics, and that overcome the disease risk.”

It’s not clear yet whether the bird flu outbreak on dairy farms is a big danger to humans. But making milk without cows would definitely cut the risk that an animal virus will cause a new pandemic. As Richani says: “Soybeans don’t transmit diseases to humans.”

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Hungry for more from the frontiers of fromage? In the Build issue of our print magazine, Andrew Rosenblum tasted a yummy brie made only from plants. Harder to swallow was the claim by developer Climax Foods that its cheese was designed using artificial intelligence.

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