Sustainable agricultural practises, more specifically genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), are an imminent talking point these days. With a world population projected to be anywhere between 9.5 and 10 billion people by the year 2050, the question of how the world’s farmers are going feed them is (pardon the pun), what seems to be eating up most of theink shed onscientific research.
Just last year, in the summer of 2013, a scientist from Maastricht University synthesizeda hamburger in a petri dish; the cost of such a burgerwould be a hefty fee (to put into relative terms, you could have about 60,000 Big Macs at $5 a pop for the price of one synthesized hamburger). Trending now for ‘test-tube-foodies’ isthe race to synthesize the ‘udder’ part of the cow: milk. This faux ‘milk’ may sound improbable and even dangerous, but lead scientists at the start-up Muufri think that petri dish milk will not only be the way of the future, but also be safer than the stuff you can pick up at your local supermarket today.
In a recent article by National Geographic, Muufri’s co-founder, Perumal Gandhi, described how the company has created a strain of yeast culture that is synthetically identical to the kind cows produce. The strain makes milk proteins taste and structurally behave in a way that not only agrees with dairy consumers, but fools them to believe they are eating the real thing.
The brains behind this udder-free milkhave developed their product to be identical in taste to the kind produced by the methane producing heifer, yet without the negative impact on both the environment—and the body drinking it. The faux-milk is said to be composed ofsame main six proteins for structure and function, with the remaining eight other fatty acids in there to please your epicurean delights.
In different combinations and permutations of these micronutrients, Muufri’s hope is to be able to produce a diverse line of cheeses, desserts, and many other milk based products that are healthier to the alternative: real dairy. So far, they have successfully eliminated lactose, an allergen that almost 65% of adults are sensitive to, and lowered the cholesterol in their products.For most Canadians, thiscould help increase life expectancy as heart diseaseis currently thelargest cause of death in Canada.
GMO’s (which how Muufri’s product would technically be classified) have a long and misunderstood history, commonly being cited as the cause for cancer and autoimmune disorders. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the information being disseminated to the general public is oversimplified or generalized, grouping all types of genetic modification into one big bad group instead of taking the time to distinguish between what’s what.
The complexities of these issues have a great range: on one side, you have controversy surrounding the ethical practises of multinational corporations like Monsanto, an organizationthat has historically used patents on its GM seeds to slowly edge small farmers out of business.
On the flip side,there are instances of GMO’s being introduced into ecosystemsthatresulted,not only in increasing a plant’s threshold but, in some cases, actually saving an entire population from starvation.In South East Asia, people’s main form of subsistence is rice. Each year, however, there are flash floods that wipe out anywhere between 10% to the entire crop of rice. Recently, scientists were able to map a trait from one strain of rice that can survive under water for several days onto the non-resistant rice used in places like India, where they receive close to two thirds of their daily caloric intake from rice.
Technically speaking, this kind of genetic modification would fall under the same umbrella that critics of GMO’s like to group Monsanto with, yet the consequences of GM rice on the global community resulted in a breed of rice that can now tolerate longer periods of submergence and aid in feeding the close to one billion people who live in South East Asia, most of whom are living in desperate poverty.
Facing the Facts
Recent data on the global cattle herdsuggests there to be about 60 billioncows supplying food for thecurrent 7 billion people on Earth. Even if we were to maintain this rate of consumption, we would not have enough food for the coming generations.
As it stands, livestock currently take up 70% of available land and produce the same amount of waste as 20-40 people, not to mention that they also produce methane gas 20 times more potent than CO2 emissions. And with the world’s population set to expand to 9.5 billion by the year 2050, the projected number of cattle will proportionally jump to 100 billion.
For this reason, maintaining present agricultural practises is an ecological cost that both consumers and farmers cannot afford to make. Small farmers will not be able to keep up with the growing demands for milk and so will be forced to sell their land to farm factories. This is where companies like Muufri become so imperative for the longevity of dairy production.
While many have come to understand the terms “GMO” and the multinational corporation to be synonymous with one another, Muufri, amongst other start-ups, is looking to destabilize this assumption.They educate the public on the benefits of using genetic modification with the application of sustainable farming to feed incoming generations.
What separates this company from big players like the aforementioned Monsanto is that they aren’t looking to monopolize the market so as to disenfranchise small farmers from making a living. In fact, Muufri is saving the little guys from being overwhelmed by multinationals. Small farmers alone cannot meet the impending demands for dairy products; a recent study suggests that in Asia alone milk consumption will increase by 125% in the year 2030.
Muufri is entering the market with the hope of providing a more sustainable optionthat can help meet the needs of the global market and be able to compete with larger companies. This will lessen the load for small farmers and prevent them from selling their land and cattle to factory farms down the road.
Farm factories will have more success at meeting the increasing demands, but they will sacrifice safe product for consumers and quality of life for their cows. By creating petri dish milk, Muufri has found a solution that prevents bigger farm factories from breaking the age old tradition that exists betweenanimal and farmer whilst supplying a product that ultimately replaces the animal.