Irish farmers run the risk of ruining the country’s reputation as a premium dairy producer by ramping up milk production too quickly.
That's according to Permuth Gandhi, co-founder and chief technology officer of Muufri, the biotech start-up which is developing a synthetic cow-free milk product that is expected to hit shelves within the next two years.
Muufri’s product uses bioengineered yeast to produce real milk protein. This is done by adding cow DNA to yeast cells, which are then combined in vats with fatty acids and water to produce milk.
Gandhi, who says the company has been set up in an attempt to help end intensive industrial dairy farming, spent some time in Ireland last year working on the company's proof of product while on an accelerator programme.
He says the start-up has been highly impressed with the quality of dairy products in Ireland. However, he warns that moves to increase milk production in order to satisfy global demand could lead to a sharp deterioration in quality.
"We loved our time in Ireland and while there we got to visit a lot of farmers to see how they operated and were really amazed by what we saw," he tells The Irish Times after appearing onstage at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna late last month.
“The quality of dairy products in Ireland is fantastic, particularly compared to what we get in the US, and it seemed to me that farmers were going about things the right way with small farms so they could ensure quality and cleanliness, and animals that weren’t being fed corn and soya and getting filled up with artificial hormone.
“However, while we were there we also heard that lots of the bigger players in Ireland were planning on expanding to meet demand for Irish milk and this concerned us because this has led to major problems in the food chain and the environment,” he adds.
Gandhi warns that Ireland could be about to follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, where the country's biggest leading dairy company Fonterra has previously faced criticism after a number of official reports linked a rise in dairy farming activity to an increase in water pollution.
The company was also fined NZ$300,000 (€190,623) last year after it admitted four food-safety violations during a 2013 botulism scare. The scare led to a worldwide milk product recall and to several countries blocking imports of dairy products from New Zealand.
Testing later found there had been no problem with the firm’s products but by then untold damage had been done to the country’s standing. Gandhi is concerned similar problems could arise here.
“You only have to look at what has happened to dairy farmers in New Zealand where Fonterra had polluted the local environment and caused untold damage to the country’s reputation to see that there’s a real risk the same thing could happen in Ireland,” he says.
Muufri was one of six firms selected to take part in SynBio Axlr8r 2014, the world’s first start-up accelerator specifically geared towards “synthetic biology” companies.
Under the accelerator, which was supported by SOS Ventures, Muufri received $60,000 in seed funding, access to laboratory space at University College Cork and valuable guidance from a team of established entrepreneurs, which included former Dragons' Den star Sean O'Sullivan and Bill Liao.
Gandhi says that as well as producing synthetic milk, his company hopes to expand into making animal-free eggs and eventually meat.
“We started out working on making meat without the animal but realised that technology was not at the point where that could be achieved yet.
“We then looked at what was next in terms of having the worst environmental impact outside of that and it was dairy, so that gave us the idea of trying to create a synthetic milk product.”
Gandhi says he had been surprised by the support he and his colleagues had received from farmers both in Ireland and elsewhere.
“Obviously, when we first told farmers we were working on introducing cow-free milk, they were tempted to reach for their guns, but once we explained that we were doing this because we were trying to do something about fixing the food chain, they were all very supportive.”
He adds that many of the major food co-ops are also silently backing the venture. “Most of the major agribusiness players we’ve come into contact with will admit privately that something has to be done about intensive farming. It’s surprising how many big dairy companies tell us they that they know what’s happening is bad but that they’re running companies which have to make money.
“Many of these people have said to us that once we’re got our products ready, they’re ready to talk to us.”
Given the mess that US biotechnology company Monsanto made in introducing genetically modified seeds to the world, Gandhi admits that some members of the public are somewhat nervous about the idea of products that have been developed in test tubes becoming a reality.
However, he is convinced that people can be won over once they realise Muufri isn’t developing Frankenstein food.
“Monsanto messed it up for everybody, so it is a challenge to win over the public. Right now one part of the population hates us and another part loves us, but most are in the middle and don’t really know what to make of what we’re doing.
“They are afraid that we may be a little like Monsanto but when we tell them that we’re not in this for the money but are looking to improve things, then they respect that.
“We’re out to show that food that’s not made directly from animals can be developed which is harmless and better than what we have now,” he concludes.