Year Ahead

More grocery stores will sell lab-grown dairy products 

By fermenting milk the way we brew beer, we can disrupt Canada’s dairy industry 
Lenore Newman

Lenore Newman is the Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley

I’ve been following the development of cellular agriculture for almost a decade. This field produces animal products from cells, meaning that consumers could one day buy meat from grocery stores that no animal died to make. It’s still a relatively new idea—right now, more people have climbed Mount Everest than eaten cultivated fish. My first experience was in 2022, at Wildtype Foods in San Francisco. I tried lab-grown salmon and, as someone who eats plant-based, it was a little too real for me. The texture wasn’t as firm as wild salmon, but I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if it was in sushi. I came home energized and excited. This is a brave new world for food.

Cellular meat and dairy can help address some key problems in our world. Demand for animal protein is skyrocketing and global dairy consumption is rising, but we face serious limitations and ethical concerns. Conventional animal protein and dairy production already use too much land, and farm animals often endure cruel conditions. But the main problems cellular agriculture can address are environmental. Meat and dairy production represent 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—largely thanks to the amount of methane cows release—and, on average, it can take 25 litres of water to produce one litre of milk in Canada. Cellular dairy production requires vastly less water, and experts estimate that it could reduce the dairy industry’s environmental impact by 70 per cent. We need more real-world data to verify that number, but it would be huge if we could even cut it in half.

It could still take at least five years to see cell-cultured burgers in the freezer aisle but, in 2024, we’ll likely find cellular dairy products in Canada. Building a liquid is easier than a three-dimensional object; with precision fermentation, a process similar to beer brewing, you can use yeast and bacteria to create the necessary fat and proteins for dairy products, minus the lactose. Technology goes slow until it goes fast, and the world of precision fermentation is starting to move quickly. Cream cheese, ice cream and sour cream will probably be the first products to hit Canada’s shelves, then yogurts, bulk cheeses—the cheddars and mozzarellas—and butter.

Eventually, we’ll see bigger facilities producing cellular dairy in bulk and at cost, making it more affordable than conventional dairy, which already has a massive and disruptable market. Your favourite pizzeria buys mozzarella in hundred-pound sacks. They can easily replace it with lab-grown cheese, and the public won’t notice the difference. I certainly didn’t when I first tried cellular dairy ice cream made by Perfect Day, an American startup company that uses precision fermentation. Their products can already be found in some U.S.-based grocery chains at a similar price point to Häagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s.

Over the next 10 years, I see cellular agriculture as a “yes, and” technology. Lab-grown dairy won’t replace its conventional counterpart, but we’re going to expand its applications. Big dairy companies won’t sit on the sidelines. They’ll likely make their own precision fermentation dairy products so they can appeal to vegan and vegetarian consumers while also reducing their reliance on live animals. This can help us meet demand for animal protein and dairy without wreaking irrevocable damage to our biodiversity and environment.

But this field of food technology isn’t a silver bullet. Cellular dairy will be a large industry, and energy use will still be an issue, unless we can power it using renewable methods. Canada is also a world leader in plant protein production—specifically oats and peas—and that will be a direct competitor to lab-grown products. (Soon we could see oat milk and cellular dairy milk go head-to-head.) But cellular dairy production can be part of the solution to building a sustainable food system. Having a diverse protein portfolio—growing plant proteins, animal proteins and more—is a good idea in the modern world, where climate disruption and social unrest pose threats to food security.

This year, Canadians will keep hearing the words “agricultural technology” because our country has the ability to become a world power in precision fermentation. We’ll have to work hard to compete with industries in the U.S., Singapore and the Netherlands, but it’s an incredible investment opportunity for our agriculture industry and our government. We already have the land, know-how and technology, as well as the oil and gas expertise needed to develop large-scale industrial infrastructure. This process can even be built into our existing food production systems: when we turn peas into pea protein, we have tons of starch left over to use in precision fermentation. Canada is the carbohydrate powerhouse of the world, and we can fuel this industry.

This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.