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Milk From Microbes

An interview with Niels Kristian Sørensen on how precision fermentation could revolutionise the dairy industry.

Ask a vegan what animal-ba­sed product they miss the most, and they will probably describe the mouth-watering taste and texture of cheese: a harmonious blend of salt, fat, and creamy nuttiness. In fact, the milk protein making cheese taste the way it does, casein, contains fragments of opiate-inducing casomorphins, which have been found to bind to the same brain receptors that heroin and morphine attach to, albeit in much smaller quantities. Given the unique and cherished taste and qualities of dairy products, it might seem to most consumers that plant-based and vegan alternatives lag hopelessly behind.

Or at least, it may seem that way right now. To understand how this may change in the future, we sat down with Niels Kristian Sørensen, co-founder of the Danish-based network Cow Free Protein, for a conversation about how precision fermentation techno­logy could potentially revolutionise the production of milk proteins in to­morrow’s staple foods.

Raised on a farm in Western Jut­land among cows, Niels Kristian has over twenty-five years of experience working in dairy-related industries (seventeen years at the biotech giant Chr. Hansen and eight years at dairy conglomerate Arla Foods). Today, he is an entrepreneur and independent consultant working to connect key stakeholders within the rapidly acce­lerating field of plant-based and cel­lular food production.

What caused your shift from the corporate world to investi­gating the future of food – and specifically, precision fermen­tation within the dairy indu­stry?

After working at Chr. Hansen and Arla Foods for over 25 years, I had a brief stint working for the American multinational FMC where, based on my background within fermentati­on, I helped them spearhead a new initiative developing microbiological solutions to aid the health of plant spe­cimens. And it was after finishing my work there that I happened to come across a report from a think-tank cal­led RethinkX about using precision fermentation to re-create alternative animal proteins. The main takeaway from the report was this idea of ap­plying the technology to the future of staple foods – and specifically, the unique proteins found in cow’s milk.

Although the science behind it was also fascinating, the real eye-opener for me was the report’s description of the structural consequences of precisi­on fermentation for the dairy industry. It projected that by 2030, over half of the United States’ cattle population would be rendered obsolete due to precision fermented cow’s milk pro­teins. By 2035, it anticipated that only 10% of today’s cattle population in the US would be left. Now, I do think that the track towards cattle depopulation will be slower in Europe than in the US (if it does happen), but it’s not un­reasonable to discuss the significant implications, as well as opportunities involved in such a radical change in the dairy industry – both from a cor­porate and societal perspective.

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These insights eventually led me to establish a Danish network of indu­stry actors, researchers, and relevant stakeholders which today has become Cow Free Protein. The aim of the net­work is to enlighten members on their respective goals and opportunities within cellular food production, and since we began in 2021, developments within the sector have only speed up. We can barely keep track!

Is it correctly understood that in traditional fermentation, microbes convert foods into things like beer or yoghurt, whereas precision fermentati­on is well, more ‘precise’? By applying synthetic biology to a sample of host microbes, we can create ‘cell factories’ that are programmed to ferment into a specific ingredient – an enzyme or food additive, for example.

Exactly. Although there is a lot of new development happening in the field, it’s important to stress that precision fermentation is not a new technology. The Danish biotech company Novo­zymes uses the technique to produce the enzymes used in our laundry de­tergent powders. Chr. Hansen uses it to for their production of coagulants – a core ingredient for turning milk into cheese.

Is there a reason why the Cow Free Protein network is loca­ted in Denmark? You mentio­ned that the US would likely outpace Europe within the sector. In addition, there are several start-ups around the globe working on cellular food production using precision fermentation. How can a country of just over 5 million inhabitants have a diverse and large enough network to compete?

For international readers, I can see why it might be a bit confusing. But although Denmark is a small country, we do have an incredibly strong tradi­tion within the biotech and the dairy sectors. We are home to key global players like Novozymes, Chr. Han­sen, and Arla Foods. Even American multinationals like IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.) have strong roots in Denmark. And that’s just the ingredients side of the industry. If you also consider those dealing with equipment, then we have GEA and TetraPak (who are German and Swe­dish respectively) with large presences in Denmark. Lastly, we have a great network of research-led universities, which ends up creating a uniquely strong melting pot.

With such a diverse range of stakeholders in the network, how can a common objective or goal be established? I can imagine that within such a rapidly developing and financially lucrative sector such as cellular food production, there’s a level of hesitancy to be too open about what one’s own company is doing to use the technology.

There is absolutely no expectation that key industry players will share their inner-most trade secrets with others in the network. Instead, we take an explo­rative approach in our workshops and meetings, selecting key themes rele­vant for us all and exploring the conse­quences of, say, precision fermentation in different contexts. Having a diverse blend of stakeholders is really the key to making the network function.

Here’s an example: When we first started, there was a lot of scepticism surrounding the applicability of pre­cision fermentation within the dai­ry industry. People were saying that “this will never work, it’s not efficient enough, and it will never be cheap enough for consumers.” However, this shared scepticism, as well as an under­standable apprehension of sharing too much information among competitors, led to a realisation that the impartiali­ty of universities could play a key role in edging the science of precision fer­mentation forward for everyone. On that, everyone could agree.

Is there a reason why the network focuses on cow free protein specifically, instead of other types of cellular food production? Why is precision fermentation uniquely disruptive to the dairy industry compared to other food sectors?

This is because cow’s milk is used for so many other things than dairy pro­ducts like cheese and yoghurt. For example, if you were to take 10 litres of milk and turn it into cheese, you would end up with roughly 1 kilog­ramme of cheese and 9 litres of whey. Thereafter, you can filter out and iso­late individual ingredients in the whey produced (various proteins and mole­cules), which could then eventually be sold to various food industries.

Like the fitness industry?

Yes, as well as the chocolate industry, for example. A large volume of all the milk in the world is actually produced for these milk-protein ingredients, rather than milk itself. With precision fermentation, one could theoretically skip the cattle stage entirely and create large quantities of whatever molecule you find relevant. Now milk, by itself, can never be made via precision fer­mentation. But the dairy industry is so much more than just milk as a consu­mable product.

I see the technology as being uniquely disruptive for the dairy industry for two reasons. The first is climate chan­ge. About 80% of the world’s cropland goes towards animal feed. The unique digestive systems of cows produce high amounts of methane gas and is a significant contributor to our global greenhouse gas emissions. I genuinely believe that we are moving towards an era where cheeses and milk be­come speciality products – and this is coming from someone who practically has milk running through their veins. I love milk. But I can also recogni­se that the dairy industry of today is unsustainable, both in terms of clima­te change, but also when considering the number of mouths we will have to feed in the near future as the global population rises.

What does this mean for people whose lives are de­pendent on producing cow’s milk today? Are we moving towards a future where we expect farmers to get industri­al PhDs and conduct precision fermentation in labs, or are we going to accept mass structural unemployment of dairy farmers?

This field is notoriously filled with dilemmas, but I don’t see it as being that black and white. The pasture and cropland used for cattle today won’t just vanish but will likely be redevel­oped to accommodate for produce wanted by future consumers. We’re already seeing this shift today. Of cou­rse, it is difficult to get the agricultural industry, who have invested in their livestock, equipment, and infrastruc­ture, to make the jump into what they see as uncharted territory.

That being said, we do really want the agricultural sector within our net­work – right now not all of them have a presence. Interestingly enough, the sector where there has been the most interest is equipment providers. This is also indicated by the new proces­ses built being driven by a number of start-up’s, SME’s and larger players. These new entrants have realised that there’s a great opportunity to be part of designing the future processes of pre­cision fermentation.

How will the precision fermen­tation of cow’s milk proteins change the way we consume food in the future? Everyone understands how a cow’s udders can produce what eventually becomes a glass of milk or a block of cheese. But what will a synthetically made protein look like in tomorrow’s food produce?

Personally, I believe that the most like­ly future will be one where plant-ba­sed and precision fermented proteins converge with one another. The mole­cular structure of milk proteins is qui­te unique and cannot be found in the plant-world. They have a good amino acid composition and an exceptional ability at providing structural integri­ty in foods. So, there’s both the nutri­tional aspect, as well as the structural functionality of milk proteins, both of which are impossible to recreate using plant-based foods.

There are already examples in the market demonstrating that a combi­nation of 20% precision-fermented milk protein in plant-based products marks a point at which plant-based foods attempting to re-create their animal-based counterparts (cheeses, for example) really begin be lifted in their texture and quality. It seems to just reach the sweet spot that pleases you, the consumer, enough to buy the alternative milk product or cheese product. It tastes good and is nutritio­nally well-balanced – in fact, it’s likely far more nutritious than the purely plant-based one. Furthermore, the 20% mark is a crucial figure because it will likely ensure that the price of the product isn’t too steep, either. If I were a young product developer within the food industry, I would see this as a field of incredible opportunity.

I guess one question that will inevi­tably arise is what this product actual­ly is. Is it an animal-based product or is it plant-based? Is it some kind of hy­brid, alien, lab-grown food we haven’t encountered before? I would perso­nally argue that such a product would be vegan. Regardless, a discussion ne­eds to happen around these questions if we want consumer acceptance to be as high as possible. Those are some of the themes we discuss in the Cow Free Protein network.

Earlier on, you mentioned some of the members of the network. They’re impressive names – Novozymes, Arla Foods, Chr. Hansen. Do you see any risks in a historically local industry (which can in principle be conducted by anyone) becoming controlled by a small selection of multi­national biotech companies? How we can we ensure that the future of precision fermented dairy products doesn’t be­come too centralised?

In my view, precision fermentation is an inherently democratic technology. It enables large parts of the world, particularly in Asia, to localise pro­duction, which is something many countries there are not traditionally well-suited to do. In fact, the produc­tion of these milk proteins should be local. Even if it might sound like it’s all conducted in a small lab, there are in fact an enormous amount of goods and supplies that go into the producti­on process. It just wouldn’t make sense to have a central hub in, say, southern Germany where all the precision-fer­mented milk proteins are produced. We could even relate this back to your previous question about why the Cow Free Protein network only includes Danish stakeholders currently. It’s an innately local value chain that is being created, so it’s not a coincidence that the network exists within a national context right now.

This is an article from our latest issue of FARSIGHT: Food Futures

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