Speculations about the future of dairy
This is not a note about robotic milkers, genetically modified cows that can produce 300 pounds of milk a day with a 10 year lactation, or rotary milking parlors the size of the large hadron collider. It seems quite evident that in the next few years – 5 to 10 at most but likely sooner – lab produced milk that is chemically identical to cow’s (or goat’s, hippo’s, or giraffe’s for that matter) milk will be produced in a commercially viable fashion.
There is little reason to think that problems of efficiency – with respect to water and raw materials, sustainability, environmental impact and, certainly, animal welfare will not be solved better than in almost all feedlot style commercial dairies and their counterparts on the meat production side for whom a similar disruption via lab meat is coming. There is also no reason that the quality and freshness of the synthetic product cannot be commensurate with pricing.
Starting a new industry from scratch means that issues with legacy infrastructure and regulatory compliance can be lessened and maybe sidestepped altogether with enough forethought. The dangers of such an approach for milk production include the risks of over-concentrated production (contamination, over-dependence on a particular formula/algorithm which might have unintended consequences, logistics of supply chain and distribution). There are also market driven concerns such as tinkering with the products to follow nutritional fads. Arguably all these risks exist currently in the industrial dairy world.
In our mind, the benefits of replacing the vast majority of dairy and meat production with lab grown counterparts are immense with the animal welfare and ethical considerations as well as environmental impacts being the most obvious. Of course, vegans will be initially attracted to these products but eventually most mainstream consumers will transition to these products as they become ubiquitous, familiar and inexpensive.
But what of the traditional dairy? Our view is that there is room for some fraction of current production to come from small, geographically diversified farms where the highest standards of animal care and respect for them as individual, emotional beings and personal involvement in food quality and safety can be maintained. The cattle on such farms live outside consuming natural forage as much as possible, calves live with the cows and the cows would be milked once daily for minimal stress, non-therapeutic medications avoided, and cows not over-bred for production but rather for long healthy lives. Completely slaughter-free dairies like ours may also become more commonplace as they will be the only production method directly comparable to the lab products from an ethical standpoint and should command a sufficient price premium to support their greater costs. Products from these dairies will also
Because of the artisan, high quality product these dairies should thrive with support from local food communities and there would also be interest from a broader population who will want to understand the technology and processes that preceded and ‘inspired’ modern dairy foods. This glimpse into the past may be an idealized one (at least if one focuses on the near history of the later part of the 20th and early 21st century); it seems much more desirable to preserve this one in the event humans manage to invent an artificial general intelligence that will judge us by our treatment of ‘inferior’ animals.