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Cowless Dairy is Here! Single-Celled Yeasts are Doing The Work of 1500-Pound Cows

BERKELEY, Calif. — The first course was a celery root soup lush with whole milk. The last was a spice cake topped with maple cream cheese frosting served with a side of ice cream. And then a latte with its fat cap of glossy foam. In all, a delicious lunch. Maybe a little heavy on the dairy.

Only this dairy was different. It was not the product of a cow or soybean or nut. The main ingredient of this milk was made by microbes in a lab, turned into tasty and recognizable food, and then served to a hungry reporter.

Lab-grown meat is on the way. But lab-grown dairy is already here.

Left, Becky Reith works in the food innovation lab at Perfect Day. Right, a child pours Cowabunga brand “animal-free dairy beverage” made with Perfect Day enzymes. (Carolyn Fong for The Washington Post)

Dozens of companies have developed in recent months to create milk proteins made by yeasts or fungi, including Perfect Day, the California-based dairy company that arranged this unusual spread. The companies’ products are currently on store shelves in the form of yogurt, cheese and ice cream, often labeled “animal-free.” The blossoming industry, which calls itself “precision fermentation,” has its own trade organization, and big-name food manufacturers such as Nestlé, Starbucks and General Mills have already signed on as customers.

The expedited progress in this area has renewed hope for a revolution in the dairy industry, and not just because it’s kinder to the cows. Precision dairy doesn’t have cholesterol, lactose, growth hormones or antibiotics (though those with dairy allergies should beware). And cattle, for beef or dairy, is said to be the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide. Consumers worried about climate change or animal welfare have been anxious for the U.S. debut of cultivated meat, which is grown in labs from animal cells, but cultivated dairy could have just as much of an impression on the environment — with fewer regulatory  hindrances to clear.

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Despite widespread acceptance of soy, oat and almond milk, U.S. consumers, even vegan ones, continue to be unimpressed by plant-based cheese options: Mostly made of starch and oil, they often do not have the flavor or texture (no gooey strings, not enough bounce) of real cheese. And cheese is particularly bothersome for the environment, more so than its liquid counterpart: Making one pound of cheese requires 10 pounds (or about five quarts) of cow’s milk. The World Economic Forum and many scientific reports proclaim  cheese creates the third-highest emissions in agriculture after beef and lamb.

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Ella Ford is a mother of two, a Christian conservative writer with degrees in American History, Social and Behavioral Science and Liberal Studies, based in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area.

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