Idée fixe 2.3: The Lab-Grown Industry

Part three: Clean Animal Products

Thank you for being here, when really you could be many other places. If you are new to Idée Fixe, welcome. 🤗

This is part three: Clean Animal Products 🥛in a series on the lab-grown industry. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read part one: Lab-Grown Diamonds and part two: Lab-Grown Meat.

🖐Heads up it’s 1,100 words and will take you approximately 12 minutes to read. ☕️So grab your beverage of choice and settle in.

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Part Three: Clean Animal Products

What is covered in part two:

  1. It’s not just the meat industry, we are also creating cell-based fish

  2. The dairy industry is next

  3. What about coffee and vodka

  4. The animal-agriculture system will be replaced with a Food-as-Software model

Cellular agriculture, as mentioned in part two, is a fascinating field focused on growing products (usually associated with livestock) from cells and in a lab. And it extends far beyond the meat industry. Although it is worth mentioning that making products such as eggs or milk is a whole different process.

As I did the research on the myriad of alternatives to milk I came across the term ‘clean animal products’ which is clearly a nod to ‘clean energy’. It encapsulates nicely all the different types of products being created and their different processes.

Clean animal products: are real animal products grown without raising and slaughtering animals, and often created in a lab.

Growing Seafood in Labs

Not unlike lab-grown meat, cell-based fish won’t be hitting your grocery shelves just yet. And it’s probably trailing a few years behind lab-grown meat at this point. Nevertheless, it’s very much being worked on and possible.

Cell-based fish (or cellular aquaculture) “is real fish, such as a fish fillet that one would typically encounter but produced from both muscle and fat cells.” It’s worth noting two things: 1) a few different cell types are needed for this process and 2) no genetic modification is involved in this process. 

As Finless Foods put it, the method is simple, “instead of fishing, or harvesting living fish and seafood, we produce the same fresh fish proteins by growing high-quality marine animal cells. It’s not “lab food,” it’s not vegetarian. It’s real, fresh fish.” Co-founder of Finless Foods, Mike Selden, equates the process to brewing beer.

As with lab-grown meat, there is a desire from companies like Finless Foods and BlueNalu, to help prevent the unnecessary and sometimes cruel killing of animals for food, to eliminate the contamination that’s often possible and high in seafood (such as mercury or microplastic), and overall there is also a desire to create a clean food supply chain. All great reasons for wanting to invest time, effort and money in this.

The Dairy Alternatives

It’s not just the meat industry that is being disrupted, dairy alternatives are seeing attention from both the investment, tech and the consumer side. Companies have been increasingly selling their alternative products, such as soy and almond milk, in grocery stores. Although, it might feel new, soya milk, for example, has been in production in China since the 14th century.

“Visit your local supermarket and you will find a refrigerated aisle overflowing with choice: almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut, tiger nut, walnut, cashew – and that’s just the nuts. Coconut, hemp, spelt, quinoa, pea – you name it, somewhere a health-food startup is milking it.” The Guardian, 2019

And yet, it’s not just about these alternatives (similar to the alternatives to diamonds and meat), companies are innovating even further and have used a process called microbial fermentation that produces actual cow’s milk, yes you guessed it, without any cows at all. And they can now do so in a matter of days. The desire to get the milk without the cow is partially a result of a loss of faith and increasing unease at big agriculture and its practices (as mentioned in part two). 

🍼Disrupting the baby formula industry (otherwise known as breast milk substitute)

Milk has an interesting history, and it’s really only after WWI that political forces aligned behind the dairy business and science identified milk as having vital vitamins and protein that could help with child malnutrition.

Once milk was established as the original superfood, then came infant formula which is today a $70 billion industry - a market that is expected to reach $95 billion by 2026. And now Silicon Valley breast milk substitute companies are coming after it.

There are a variety of reasons for such substitutes; a desire in America to replica the European infant formula that is, as some would put it, healthier; a desire to create plant-based alternatives that don’t include ingredients with a high ecological footprint; or simply a desire to create non-dairy alternatives for babies with intolerances.

As CEO of Bobbie Baby, Laura Modi, puts it, “It’s hard and it should be because we’re developing products for a vulnerable population, but it shouldn’t be impossible.”

Indeed, just like with any large multi-billion dollar industry, the lobby against disruption (often representing the large incumbents) will be present, loud and well funded.

Rethinking Your Coffee and Even Your Vodka


When you thought you had seen it all, we can now also have our coffee without the beans. Global warming is affecting the production and supply of coffee beans, and it’s expected that potentially half of all coffee farms will have to move in the coming 20-30 years.

Coffee farmers are having to move uphill for cooler temperatures to avoid coffee trees ripening too quickly, which is leading to further deforestation.

Companies like Atomo Coffee offer a molecular coffee alternative that is “reconstructed to the full flavor profile of a slow ripen bean, eliminating bitterness and harsh acids.” In other words their molecular coffee mimics coffee’s caffeine and flavour. It’s coffee just without the bean. Just like your burger and milk without the cow, or your fish pie without the fish…

🍸Vodka, or rather Vodkow

It seems like the list of products that are being disrupted by this industry are endless. One last one I thought I would share is vodka, or rather Vodkow. One Ontario distillery is fermenting vodka using leftover milk permeate.

According to the Dairy Distillery website, they have “married artisanal distilling techniques with cutting edge science to transform unused milk sugar (or lactose) into an incredibly smooth and clean spirit.” In doing so they are creating new opportunities and reducing waste.

It definitely feels like the opportunities are limitless as the technology gets smarter and more affordable.

Final Comments

According to the latest report from RethinkX, '“the current industrialized, animal-agriculture system will be replaced with a Food-as-Software model, where foods are engineered by scientists at a molecular level and uploaded to databases that can be accessed by food designers anywhere in the world. This will result in a far more distributed, localized, stable, and resilient food-production system.”

A few last thoughts to leave you all with:
  • Whether you are talking about cell-based fish, lab-grown diamonds, lab-grown meat, all of these products are the real thing. They are real meat, fish and diamonds.

  • The technology to allow for all of this is available today and will only get better. The key, and probably the greatest challenge, will be how to make the process affordable and get the price down from $200,000+ closer to $10.

  • All of this is about providing a stable supply of such products to a growing population, and do so with environmentally friendly outcomes. Something which is critical for our planet.

  • Catherine Tubb, a senior research analyst from technology disruption think-tank RethinkX, “thinks of food as a software, becoming tastier with each iteration.”

Before starting the research for this Idée Fixe, I knew more than most about lab-grown diamonds and I knew a little about lab-grown meat and cell-based products but I soon discovered there was a lot I didn’t know. In addition, so much has and is evolving and fast in this industry, it’s hard to keep up.

But more importantly, there was a lot I had refused to look into such as the cruelty of our current meat industry. We have got to find a better way of producing meat as right now it is barbaric and I imagine in 50 years we will look back at this time and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

This whole research also led me to a piece on ‘What’s wrong with eating people?’, not a piece I ever thought I needed to read, or would ever be written.

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Cellular Agriculture: The Future of Food
Cell-Based Seafood: 4 Important Facts Everyone Should Know (Forbes, 2019)
Meet the startup that makes milk—without cows (QZ,2018)
Lab-made meat could be the next food revolution: here's what it tastes like (The Guardian, 2018)
White gold: the unstoppable rise of alternative milks (The Guardian, 2019)
Could lab-grown fish and meat feed the world – without killing a single animal? (The Guardian, 2017)

Rethink Food and Agriculture report (RethinkX)
Meet the Test-Tube Turkey That Costs $34,000 (MIT, 2016)

Finless Foods
TurtleTree Labs
PerfectDay Foods
Else Nutrition
Bobbie Baby
Atomo Molecular Coffee
Dairy Distillery 

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