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Dairy farmers are pushing back and current regulations are a roadblock, but proponents say the future is already here

Illustration by Matthew Billington

The ice cream looked like the real thing. It wasn’t watery or thin, like some vegan frozen treats. And for the most part, it tasted like the real thing, too.

Last August, as Isha Datar and her colleagues at the Brooklyn-based New Harvest Institute took turns sampling from tubs of ice cream nestled into ice buckets – vanilla blackberry toffee, milky chocolate and vanilla salted fudge – they wrote their tasting notes on a giant sheet of paper at the front of the room.

“Reminds me of Dixie Cup,” one taste-tester wrote.

“Good mouthfeel,” wrote another. “They’re all very creamy!”

Ms. Datar, who was born in Saskatoon and raised in Edmonton, is the executive director of New Harvest. Its chief purpose is to fund research into cellular agriculture, the science of producing animal and plant foods in laboratories. The reason for the excitement that day was because the ice cream they were tasting, made by a Silicon Valley startup called Perfect Day that was co-founded by Ms. Datar, represented a major breakthrough in that science. It was the first-ever animal-free ice cream produced in a laboratory, without a single cow.

Isha Datar, the 32-year-old executive director of Brooklyn-based New Harvest Institute, seen here on Feb. 5, 2020. The institute's chief purpose is to fund research into cellular agriculture, the science of producing animal and plant foods in laboratories.Kellyann Petry/The Globe and Mail

Animal-free food has become a huge business over the past several years, driven by rising demand from consumers looking for more sustainable food options. Food production – and animal agriculture in particular – has an outsized impact on climate change. Livestock production around the world accounts for just under 15 per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with cattle alone accounting for roughly two-thirds of that.

Dairy is a major part of the calculation. Globally, the industry produces about 840 million tonnes of milk each year. In 2015, that translated to 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization – about three per cent of the world’s total emissions. (For comparison, Canada’s total for 2017 was 716 million tonnes.)

Just last month, Starbucks revealed that dairy represents more than one-fifth of its total carbon footprint and is the company’s leading source of GHG emissions. As such, the chain said it intends to move quickly toward dairy alternatives – a move that’s likely to touch off a chain reaction across the industry.

Yet, most of the energy devoted to fixing the food-production part of the climate change challenge has been focused on meat alternatives. Sales of plant-based options have grown by eight per cent each year over the past decade, thanks to companies such as Beyond Meat, which has a valuation of nearly US$7-billion on Nasdaq, and Impossible Foods, which has raised nearly US$700-million from investors. Here in Canada, Maple Leaf Foods has committed $310-million to building a plant-based protein factory in Indiana.

There’s also plenty of excitement around lab-grown meat. Food giants such as Cargill and Tyson have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in science-based meat startups, although the technology is likely still five to 10 years away from reaching grocery store shelves.

Lab-grown dairy, on the other hand – which is technically easier and cheaper to produce – is already here. And major food producers are rushing to sign deals with the handful of startups, including Perfect Day, now making the stuff.

Of course, Canada’s powerful dairy lobby – which speaks on behalf of the 18,000-plus farm workers whose livelihoods depend on milk, along with another 23,000 on the manufacturing side – has a lot to say on this subject, most of it negative. The industry, which generates $6.6-billion in annual farm receipts, is already on the defensive: Milk consumption fell by about 20 per cent between 1996 and 2015, and the downswing is expected to continue.

Meanwhile, the global market for plant-based alternatives has grown by 33 per cent for each of the past five years and is expected to hit US$34-billion by 2024.

It’s clear consumers are looking for options outside of traditional dairy. Ms. Datar believes it won’t be difficult for them to overcome any potential squeamishness around milk grown in a lab rather than on a farm, especially once they get a taste of products such as Perfect Day’s. Its ice cream didn’t taste of chemicals or in any way artificial, she says. It didn’t melt too quickly or leave behind a telltale aftertaste.

What struck her most was that it felt and tasted like regular ice cream. “It was almost unremarkable in how normal it seemed.”

Silicon Valley startup Perfect Day created the first-ever animal-free ice cream produced in a laboratory, without a single cow.Courtesy of manufacturer

Ms. Datar was raised in Canada’s breadbasket and later studied at the University of Alberta, in the heart of cattle country. But she has devoted her career to using biotechnology to replace much, if not all, of the industrial animal agriculture she grew up around.

Back in October, 2009, as a fresh graduate in cell biology, Ms. Datar was invited to speak at a U of A conference devoted to innovative new ideas. The 21-year-old researcher’s talk was titled, “In vitro meat possibilities.”

She had devoted much of the previous year to studying cellular technology, an idea she’d first heard about in an undergrad meat science class. “To me, it was this serious, future thing,” she says. She spent weeks preparing, memorizing her presentation line by line, careful to avoid scientific jargon. But from the moment she was introduced on stage, none of it seemed to matter. “The audience just started laughing,” she says.

Times have changed.

The idea of lab-grown meat isn’t new. “Fifty years hence,” Winston Churchill wrote back in 1931, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” But for a long time, it seemed like freak science. Headlines about companies such as Monsanto and films such as The Corporation sowed fears around the role of Big Science in food production. But as the science became more plausible – and fears around climate change seeped into the public consciousness – attitudes started to shift.

Currently, there are start-ups – most of them concentrated in and around Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area – to produce cell-based fish (bluefish tuna from Finless Foods and salmon from Wild Type); seafood (shrimp from Shiok Meats); pork (a sausage from New Age Meats); chicken (Future Meats); and duck (Memphis Meats). The Impossible Burger, which can be found at major chains such as Burger King in the United States, uses cellular technology in one of its key ingredients: lab-grown “heme,” a protein normally found in cows that makes these otherwise plant-based patties “bleed.”

Ms. Datar’s life has changed dramatically in that time, too. After completing her master’s in biotechnology at the University of Toronto, she moved to New York to work for New Harvest. Now, at 32, she’s one of the world’s leading proponents of lab-grown meat. (She isn’t shy about highlighting her relative youth: “It shows how invested I am in the future.”)

But she started out in milk. In 2014, Ms. Datar received an instant message from Ryan Pandya, a young chemical and biological engineer she knew in Boston. Mr. Pandya had recently become vegan, and in his frustration with the existing cream cheese alternatives on the market (the vegan stuff, he says, “had a drippy, sad texture”), he had begun toying with the idea of animal-free dairy. He knew Ms. Datar was heavily invested in the field and wanted to pick her brain.

Much to his surprise, she messaged him back immediately to say she’d been talking to another 20-something bioengineer, Perumal Gandhi, about the same thing. The three of them went on to start Muufri, which later became Perfect Day.

Dairy, to the three of them, seemed like a perfect gateway product, more palatable to consumers than meat. “That Carl Sagan quote where he says 'If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe’ – it’s kind of like that,” says Ms. Datar. “If you want to create cultured meat from scratch, you have to create this universe to make that happen.”

A few months after their initial conversation, the three met in Cork, Ireland, to take part in a three-month incubator program. Word quickly began to spread about the work they were doing.

The first to call was Solina Chau, director of the Li Ka Shing Foundation, the second-largest private charitable organization in the world, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ms. Chau also co-founded Horizons Ventures (which manages the Hong Kong billionaire’s private holdings, mostly in tech) and has been responsible for $470-million in venture capital investments in recent years. Within days, the Perfect Day trio were on a flight to Hong Kong, carrying in a plastic water bottle a crude prototype of their dairy-free milk.

“I remember her tasting the milk – giving a 'This is really gross’ look – and then saying, ‘You can make this better, right?’” Mr. Pandya, Perfect Day’s CEO, recalled on a podcast this past July. After assuring Ms. Chau this was only a very early version, the young scientists asked for an initial investment of US$500,000. Ms. Chau told them to take US$2-million.

By December, 2019, Perfect Day had raised more than $140-million from investors, led by Singapore’s Temasek. It also announced a partnership with food giant Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), whose products – everything from soybeans and canola to corn syrup and wheat flour – extend into every aisle of the grocery store. (Citing a potential conflict with her work with New Harvest, Ms. Datar stepped away from an official role with Perfect Day in its early days.)

The technology behind Perfect Day’s animal-free ice cream rests on the same premise as all cellular agriculture: producing cell cultures identical to those found in an animal, without the animal. In the case of Perfect Day, this is done using technologies both new and old. It uses a cow’s milk DNA to genetically alter micro-organisms such as yeast. Then, the startup’s scientists use the ancient technology of fermentation to convert those micro-organisms into milk proteins, which can be combined with water or other plant-based substances to create dairy products.

The ice cream Perfect Day produced last summer was merely a promotional tool. Its larger aim is to make its milk protein as widely available as possible. And through its partnership with ADM, it hopes to fully commercialize its proteins and have its own dedicated manufacturing plants around the world.

Meanwhile, the company is working on an animal-free version of the other crucial ingredient in dairy: milk fat, which is in high demand on the global market. “Everything you think of as dairy, like yogurt, cheese and ice cream, is fair game,” Mr. Pandya says.

One of the biggest challenges to the burgeoning lab-grown dairy industry, at least in Canada, can be found buried deep on the website of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

There, posted under the tab for “food label requirements,” is an exhaustive document that outlines, with exacting specificity, the government’s rules around the definition of “milk.” According to the list, foods in Canada can only be sold as milk if they meet the following description: “the normal lacteal secretion, free from colostrum, obtained from the mammary gland of an animal.”

The CFIA guidelines also set out similarly detailed rules for what can and cannot be labelled as a “dairy” product. The term “soft cheese,” for example, can only be used to describe cheese with a moisture content of “more than 67 per cent, lower than 80 per cent.”

The rules were last updated in 2016, and according to the CFIA, there are no plans underway to revisit these definitions.

This is despite the growing popularity in recent years of dairy alternatives – milks and cheeses made of cashew, oats and almonds – not to mention the rapid growth of lab-grown technologies. Already, this has caused problems. Just last year, critics slammed the rules as outdated after a number of small “vegan cheese” makers across Canada found themselves the subjects of anonymous complaints over their use of the word “cheese.”

A number of small 'vegan cheese' makers across Canada found themselves the subjects of anonymous complaints over their use of the word 'cheese.'Courtesy of manufacturer

“My guess is they won’t be able to call it ice cream,” says Al Mussell, the research lead with Agri-Food Economic Systems, a think tank based in Guelph, Ont., when asked about products such as Perfect Day’s. In the U.S., he says, there are legal challenges underway, launched by dairy groups, to stop purveyors of soy and almond beverages from calling their products “milk.”

“I’m going to guess that in Canada, legal challenges won’t even come up because our regulations around naming will stop it before it even gets there,” Dr. Mussell says.

Part of the strictness, regulators say, is due to consumer concerns around food safety and authenticity in food labelling. But critics also point to the outsized influence the dairy industry and its powerful lobbying arm wield over the Canadian government.

Dairy farming is one of Canada’s largest agricultural industries, with roughly 11,000 dairy farmers contributing an estimated $19.9-billion to the country’s GDP. (Compare that with the cattle industry, which comprises 60,000 farmers who contribute $18-billion annually.)

They’re a small but well-resourced group, owing in large part to Canada’s strict supply-management system. Dairy farmers are required to purchase quota in order to produce and sell milk. But this quota allows them to sell their products at guaranteed minimum prices. As of January, 2020, the cost of one quota – equal to the yield from one cow – was $24,000 in Ontario and Quebec, the vote-rich provinces where the vast majority of dairy farms are concentrated. That means the average Quebec dairy farm, which has about 60 cows, is worth roughly $1.4-million in quota.

The industry’s voice is channelled largely through the Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), a frequent presence on Parliament Hill. The group was active recently in trying to prevent Ottawa from downplaying dairy in the revamped food guide and in protecting the domestic industry under the renegotiated NAFTA, two fights it largely lost.

When asked to comment on the potential impact of lab-grown dairy, the country’s two largest corporate players, both based in Quebec, didn’t have much to say. The spokesperson for Agropur Dairy Cooperative said in a statement that “these [lab-grown products] are still a fringe segment and we cannot ignore them.” Saputo Inc. declined to comment.

The DFC, however, was happy to speak up. In a statement, president Jacques Lefebvre alternated between dismissing questions about lab-grown dairy as “purely hypothetical,” while at the same time casting skepticism on the science.

With cellular technology, he said, “there are still a lot of questions to be answered on lab-made foods, such as the nutritious value, the technology being used, etc.” He also cited a Canadian Abacus Data study – commissioned by the DFC – that he said showed 92 per cent of respondents had “concerns” about lab-grown dairy. The DFC declined to make the study available to The Globe and Mail. He stressed that any lab-made products should be labelled as such.

On the question of how lab-grown milk might fit within Canada’s supply managed-dairy system, Mr. Lefebvre again had strong views. “The role of supply management is to ensure that milk produced in farms [emphasis his] meets consumer demand for milk and dairy products,” he said. In other words, lab-grown dairy should be kept out of the supply-managed – and mainstream – system.

Canadian regulators are in no hurry to get involved. The Canadian Dairy Commission, the industry’s administrator, says that while it is “aware” of lab-grown products, it has yet to evaluate how they might fit into Canada’s regulatory system. And Health Canada, which will have to assess the safety of any future lab-grown products, says it hasn’t yet begun this process, as it has yet to receive an application from any companies dealing in either lab-grown dairy or meat.

That wait-and-see approach makes sense, according to Mike von Massow, a professor in food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph. He doesn’t believe lab-grown products pose an immediate threat to the dairy industry. For one thing, there’s a global glut of milk protein, the dairy component Perfect Day is currently working on. (However, there’s high demand for milk fat, the main component of butter, which is Perfect Day’s next target.)

He also sees a dairy marketplace that’s increasingly fragmented, with plant-based options quickly gaining in popularity based on a range of health and ethical concerns. As such, he doesn’t see the big players disappearing entirely.

“These things will change the dairy industry, but they won’t destroy the current dairy industry,” he says. “It just means there will be more small players.”

Lenore Newman feels a greater sense of urgency. “Lab-grown meat is maybe five to 10 years away, but milk – we’re already here,” says Prof. Newman, director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. “And it’s going to hit the industry like a sledgehammer.”

She says she has tasted lab-grown ice cream (she won’t say which brand – aside from Perfect Day, there are two other companies, New Culture and Motif, working on similar products), and says she couldn’t tell the difference.

Prof. Newman and her co-researcher Lisa Powell recently spent several weeks interviewing farmers, processors and government officials involved in the dairy industry, compiling a research survey on lab-grown dairy. They also surveyed about 120 consumers across B.C. The results were mixed. Broadly, over 43 per cent said they’d be willing to at least try the products, and roughly 25 per cent said they’d be likely to incorporate lab-grown milk into their diets.

But there were sharp demographic divides. Non-vegans were more likely than vegans to say they’d be willing to try lab-grown dairy. And those under the age of 35 were much more open to the idea – 61 per cent of the younger group said they were likely to have “positive feelings” about lab-grown dairy, compared to just 32 per cent of the older cohorts.

Prof. Newman, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment, eats meat and grew up in a fishing family in a small coastal town in British Columbia. Still, she fully believes that, within her lifetime, the vast majority of the global population will move to animal-free diets. The way she sees it, that change won’t necessarily be driven by ethics, or even necessity. Rather, she sees the technology progressing so quickly that soon, cell-based substitutes will not only be more sustainable and healthier but also cheaper than their animal counterparts. Once companies such as Perfect Day scale up, she says, brewing milk in giant tanks will quickly become the more efficient option.

As such, she considers Canada’s supply management to be a catch-22 for dairy farmers. If lab-grown dairy is eventually allowed to compete for quota, “it’s going to push traditional dairy farmers out of business because it’ll be cheaper. But if it’s not supply-managed, it’s going to be way cheaper.”

She compares it to the transition in the late 19th century from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. “The reason these technologies win is because they get better,” she says. “And the cow just keeps being a cow.”

There will always be holdouts, of course, and Art Hill is one them. The chair of the University of Guelph’s food science program is so certain about the future of traditional dairy that he’s literally putting money on it, by investing in two new dairy science programs. “I think it’s going to be a long time before dairy and meat products completely disappear,” he says. “I’m betting on it.”

Art Hill, chair of the University of Guelph's food science program, in the school's Dairy Lab on Jan. 30, 2020.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

The 63-year-old grew up on a dairy farm on Manitoulin Island, and studied dairy sciences at Guelph; he’s been teaching there since he graduated in 1986. “I’m a dairy guy – everything dairy,” he says. He talks about milk, cheese and yogurt in the same way a vintner might describe wine. To him, milk fat is “the most wonderful, most complex natural fat ever.” Butter, he says, has a “unique rancidity.”

He sees enough new trends in dairy – the rise in popularity of artisanal or specialty cheesemaking, for example – to chart a path forward for the industry. Sustainability, he says, is just one of many values people consider when choosing their food. Consider a small cheese plant in the country that draws customers from nearby cities. “There’s all sorts of things that maybe don’t look really well from a carbon footprint perspective,” he says. “But they’re producing a product that’s got other buzzwords – it’s got ‘terroir,’ it’s ‘local,’ it’s ‘artisan.’ I think those kinds of values are going to hang around for a while.”

In his mind, cellular technology will never be able to faithfully replicate milk products – especially the specialty cheeses he loves most. Although he hasn’t seen Perfect Day’s operation, he’s doubtful its milk proteins are identical in structure to those native in cows, which he says is crucial to achieving certain textures. That might make producing high-quality old cheddar or swiss, for example, extremely difficult, if not impossible.

He’s even more skeptical they’ll be able to faithfully reproduce milk. “You think milk is just a liquid, but boy, it’s got texture, and it’s got flavour and mouthfeel,” he says.

Mr. Pandya, for his part, says he’s “confident” in Perfect Day’s technology and adds that the company isn’t out to replace the dairy industry entirely or to make animal products obsolete. He still sees a market for the higher-end, specialty products like the ones Prof. Hill is so fond of.

Instead, he hopes the technology might put pressure on large-scale, cheaper producers. “We’re on a mission to help the dairy industry innovate, creating a more sustainable food system overall,” says Mr. Pandya. “We can help by using existing science and technology to reduce commodity pressure, enabling farmers to command a premium price for milk produced in a humane, sustainable manner.”

That’s all well and good, but there’s something else about milk that Prof. Hill just can’t see Perfect Day replicating. It’s something he has a hard time articulating through the language of protein structures or even chemistry. “Milk is a little bit sacrosanct,” he says, pointing out that for most humans, and many other species, milk is essential for life.

“Maybe I’m just old," he says, "but we have this idea that milk is kind of this pristine, pure product. I think people that drink milk drink it because it’s milk.”

Ms. Datar understands that emotional attachment to food. She was back in the Prairies over the holidays, and many of her family and friends have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the work she does in New York. “It’s still received as a little bit like, not understanding what I do or what this is.”

She doesn’t see a world where meat or traditional dairy are obsolete, either – she eats meat herself, though selectively. Instead, she sees lab-grown foods as adding diversity to our diets – and our ability to cope with upcoming challenges like climate change. “Diversity is strength and resilience,” she says.

She still feels the same way now as she did when she first heard about cellular technology. It was the same thought she had when she tasted the ice cream for the first time last summer. “I was just like, Oh my gosh. This is so obvious,” she says. “This is the next step.”

Editor’s note: Feb. 15, 2020: An earlier version of this story included inaccurate information about how many survey respondents said they would incorporate lab-grown milk into their diets, based on incorrect information provided to the Globe. This version has been corrected.

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