Sometimes technological advances come about to answer the wrong question. But what happens when you ask the right question but technology is the wrong tool? You get Muufri. If you don’t feel comfortable drinking milk from a cow but do feel comfortable drinking milk that a few guys made in the lab on summer vacation, then Muufri is for you.
Here’s what Muufri and its makers, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, got right. We have a huge industrial agricultural problem and one of its worst aspects is CAFOs-Confined Feeding Animal Operations—those “factory farms” where animal are crowded together in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, standing in their own urine and feces, waste that eventually moves on to pollute our waterways and contribute to climate change. Animals in CAFOs are cared for by underpaid workers who put their own physical and mental health at risk every day. This system needs to be changed and we need alternatives fast.
Now here are a few of the flaws in the proposed “animal-free milk” solution put forth by Muufri.
A market niche cannot fix an industry
Muufri presents their milk as an alternative to the crowded CAFOs of industrial agriculture and claims the goal of decreasing or even eliminating this type of practice. If they believe it is an alternative that will truly change an industry, they must believe there are millions of dairy consumers eating their cheese pizza and saying, “I really hate how many animals and workers were exploited to make this. I sure hope someone develops a way to make this in a way that ends exploitation and I will switch immediately.” Or they believe thousands of dairy farmers are saying, “This farming stuff is hard work, if only we could produce milk in a lab and I could start sleeping in on Sundays.”
These are scientists, not social movement leaders or even marketers, so maybe they do believe that one of these scenarios is happening and if they create the product, the demand will be in place, and the plight of the US dairy cow will be forever changed.
But in reality what they are creating is a niche product that will appeal primarily to those people who already understand the horrors of industrial agriculture on animals, workers, and the environment and care enough to make a different choice. Many of those people have already opted out and are making different choices from among those available today such as buying milk from family-scale farms that value land, animals, and people, foregoing milk altogether, or choosing a plant-based milk substitute. For context, the cocoa industry is notorious for labor abuses including child workers and forced labor. The alternative of fair trade chocolate has gone a long way to show that cocoa can be produced and traded more fairly and improved conditions on some farms, but still represents only 1% of the total market and has not yet had sector-wide impact.
Perhaps some of these consumers primed to opt out of the conventional milk market will appreciate an option that tastes similar to cow’s milk without the animal, but the entry of this option into the marketplace will not end abuses on the farm. That will require changes in laws and regulations, things like labeling products that come from CAFOs, ending laws that exempt farmworkers from eligibility for overtime, sick leave, workers’ comp and other basic labor rights, and globally returning land to small-scale farmers who commit to caring for the land and all living beings on it. Currently, we are trapped in a policy entanglement that favors larger and more ruthless farm owners with subsidies, restricts transparency about conditions on farms with laws like “ag gag” rules that prevent documenting conditions in CAFOs, and a global epidemic of land-grabbing which takes land away from the most sustainable farmers for the benefit of corporate and government investors. Lab vat milk alone cannot change all that.
A solution that creates more problems is not a good solution
Muufri milk is made using synthetic technology, sometimes referred to as GMO 2.0. With synthetic biology (also known as synbio), the DNA of yeast or algae are altered so that they create whatever is desired of them, then the altered organisms are put in a vat with sugar or sugar substitute to do their work. These are emerging technologies that have not been adequately tested for unintended consequences (i.e. we do not actually know what happens if altered microbes escape into the wild) and still requires intensive resource inputs (you can change the DNA of algae or yeast, but you still have to grow the sugar somewhere).
There is also reason to question Muufri’s health claims. And not just the typical questions about health problems that may be linked to all genetically altered food. With synbio there is also the question of what is missing. One of the claims Muufri makes is that they can make “milk” with the six key proteins of cow’s milk without the lactose, bacteria, or other elements found in cow’s milk. Anecdotally, some people who have trouble digesting lactose can actually digest milk in its unaltered (not pasteurized or homogenized) form, likely because keeping all elements of milk together is healthier than eliminating some and keeping others. The truth is we don’t always know which components of food have an inherent hidden health value or work together with other components to magnify effects. And again, this is true of all synbio food ingredients. Scientists may be able to identify the most flavorful compounds from the vanilla bean to create a tasty vanillin, but they likely do not have full information on the hundreds of other compounds and their potential health or synergistic effects.
Perhaps the biggest problem in the entire direction of synbio, including the creation of synthetic milk substitutes, is that it ignores the importance of livelihoods. In industrial CAFOs, cows are prevented dignified lives free of abuse, but workers are also. CAFOs are smelly, dirty, and dangerous and workers are underpaid and often mistreated themselves. But people take these jobs because they are sometimes still the best or only option. What farmworkers need are better jobs, not fewer jobs. Moving the production of basic food ingredients to the lab implies that livelihoods do not matter. Farmers and workers who take care and pride in the foods they grow and produce should be rewarded, not displaced. And though one niche market of alternative milk may not have a significant effect on the availability of meaningful jobs, it represents a mindset that rewards corporate control of our food system over food sovereignty and technological fixes over meaningful livelihoods.
If you believe that a different form of agriculture would be healthier and more sustainable for people, other animals, and the environment, then let’s fight for that through significant changes to our policies and infrastructure. But if you are content to kick back with your lab-created milk and pretend you are not part of either the problem or the solution, look for Muufri on your grocer’s shelves as early as later this year.