We are over half way through “Veganuary”, with many people having a trial month of veganism. I’ve enjoyed doing this in previous years, as a way of educating myself, and although I now eat a mostly plant-based diet, I am not a full time vegan. I classify myself as a proponent of “animal welfare” rather than “animal rights”. For me, it is important that animals have good lives that are worth living, and that they don’t suffer fear, anxiety or pain at the end of their lives. But I don’t have a problem with animals being reared for human consumption as long as those boxes are ticked.
Dairy farming has become a common target for vegan activists: emotionally charged billboards referring to calves as “babies” being snatched from their cow “mothers” have sprung up across Ireland.
There’s no doubt that every aspect of livestock farming, including dairy, has certain issues that need to be addressed. But I’ve worked in many dairy farms, and I know many dairy farmers, and in most cases, I’ve seen animals who do have good lives that they enjoy. I do worry about the longer term future: the traditional Irish dairy farm, with 50 – 100 cows who are often known by name, is going to struggle to find farmers prepared to make the self sacrifice needed to make such enterprises work. It seems more likely that these smaller farms will be seen less often, and that instead, we may start to see “mega-dairies”, with over a thousand cows on one farm, and an industrial scale of milk production. The cows may never go outside, with all of their needs presented to them in an indoor, climatically controlled environment. They may well be cared for in a technically optimal way; diseases like mastitis and lameness may be better controlled than in today’s farms. But that question will still need to be asked: do their lives include enough joy to be worth living?
There will also be ongoing questions about the impact of large scale dairy farming on climate change. Agriculture accounts for approximately 30% of Irish greenhouse gas production. Irish grass-fed dairy cattle are relatively benign (an EU study rated Irish dairy production as the most carbon efficient in the EU) but since quotas on dairy production were stopped in 2015, the national herd has been rapidly expanding, and the dairy industry faces a challenge to reduce its carbon footprint. Internationally, mega-dairies are proliferating, and there are concerns about rain forest destruction to produce food for all these milk-producing cows.
This is the background which has prompted innovators to come up with a new idea: artificial milk. I don’t mean the plant-based milks that are already available in our supermarkets (oat, soya, rice, and more). The latest idea involves literally gathering the individual ingredients that make up milk, and putting them together in cartons: man-made cow milk.
A company based in Barcelona, Real Deal Milk, uses a technique called “precision fermentation technology” to make a nutritionally, chemically, and gastronomically equivalent version of milk. It’s real milk, but cows aren’t involved.
How do they do this? First, the DNA that codes for milk proteins (casein and whey) is inserted into yeast cells, reconfiguring them to produce milk proteins as part of their normal life cycle. These yeast cells are then cultivated in fermentation tanks, and the newly created milk proteins are separated off from the yeast cells and purified.
Next, the other ingredients of milk (fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals) are gathered from plant sources. The combination of nutrients is then suspended in water, and the final product is ready: milk, but not from cows. It’s milk without the environmental and potential animal welfare issues of mega-dairies.
Real Deal Milk is not yet available, but it will be here soon. A recent report predicted that by 2030 more than half of proteins will be manufactured using precision fermentation. As well as milk, we will be buying beef, bacon and salmon protein for ourselves (and our pets) created in huge fermentation vats. No animals needed.
Meanwhile, the Real Deal Milk company is busy finalising its production processes and starting to tell the world about their products. They have recognised that if their milk is wildly successful, there may be a proliferation of retired dairy cows, so they have come up with a novel solution: they have launched the world’s first animal gardening service, where ex dairy cows can be hired as ‘Lawn-mooers’.
The PR people tell me that cows are natural grazers and will eat grass all day, making them the perfect maintenance solution for fast growing lawns. ‘Lawn-mooers’ will be delivered to customers’ gardens and left to carry out the grass-eating service, free of charge. There are many benefits to keeping a ‘Lawn-mooer’: not only do they keep your lawn trim but their manure is also great compost. Customers will be expected to feed and water their new recruit, as well as to provide accommodation. They must commit to employing their service for at least two years.
I’m not convinced that this idea will take off: dairy cows are charming, but I don’t see them creating carefully manicured fields of grass like croquet lawns.