Milk without cows – how synthetic biology and dairy farmers can both win
Where they once went head-to-head at the negotiation table, Michael Hampson and Jim Fader are now combining forces to bring a lab-brewed, dairy-free milk to market. The pair say ‘Eden Brew’ could be a billion-dollar company – and they want dairy farmers to have a slice of the pie.
$196-million worth of cheese was on the negotiation table when Michael Hampson and Jim Fader first met in 2017. Michael was then a senior executive at Bega Cheese, while Jim was there in a buying capacity, then General Manager of the Woolworths Group.
When Jim came across the concept of dairy-free ‘brewed milk’ in late 2020, Michael – now CEO of Norco, an Australian-owned dairy co-operative – was the first person he called.
“I’d identified that working within a dairy industry using their production equipment and supply chains would be a really smart path for the business to take,” Jim explains. “I said, ‘Michael, have I got a deal for you’. He said, “‘Fader, I knew you’d pop up somewhere.’”
Jim is now Co-Founder and CEO of Eden Brew – a CSIRO-backed startup that brews proteins in a lab to create a dairy-free milk which has the same taste and nutritional benefits as traditional milk – just without the cows.
“We’re using an age-old process. The technology is proven. Rennet (Cymosin) is an enzyme which helps us to digest milk and is in cheese – and is currently made via fermentation, as opposed to being harvested from the stomachs of calves like it used to be.”
“We source naturally-occurring yeast and insert synthetic bovine DNA to program the yeast cells to express dairy proteins, casein and whey, via a precision fermentation process. The proteins have a nature-identical amino acid sequence – the same as proteins found in cow’s milk. We combine the casein proteins with nutrition, for example calcium, the same way they are combined in the cow to form casein micelles. This casein micelle, a cluster of protein and nutrition, is nature’s way of making much of the nutrition in milk bioavailable to the baby. This provides the building blocks to create a glass of milk without the cow. As a result, we can emulate the sensory and nutritional experience of dairy – it’s just made in a different way”
Using Norco’s marketing, distribution, bottling and customer insights means the scaling and industrialisation of Eden Brew will be fast tracked – with the first products slated to hit shelves in 2024.
“The best way to describe Eden Brew from Norco’s perspective is that we are their non-dairy division,” said Jim. “Dairy companies have non-dairy divisions, because in Australia, 85 per cent of the consumers consume dairy, therefore 15 per cent don’t. And that 15 per cent is growing.”
Michael now wears two hats – at the helm of Norco and as Co-Director of Eden Brew. It’s a balancing act that has frustrated some traditionalists in the dairy industry.
“At the end of the day [Norco and its farmers] have made more profit in the three years than there has been over the last 25 years, plus improved milk price by about $60 million a year.”
And as a dairy co-operative, boasting 326 active members on 199 farms across New South Wales and Queensland, its farmers will continue to benefit from Norco’s future market growth.
Michael’s mind is already jumping ahead to a future where a glass of Eden Brew could have significant health benefits and even potentially reduce the risk of illness.
“I can see the big picture. We already know the lactoferrin protein within milk has amazing healing benefits and immune benefits. So, how do we boost that up on a protein basis so that when everyone’s drinking this glass of milk, their immune system is boosted by 500 per cent?”
Michael wants to secure a slice of the dairy-free pie for his farmers and shareholders – with Eden Brew poised as the perfect adjunct for Norco.
“The fresh milk market in Australia is declining by about 2.9 per cent, but the alternative milk space is growing by about 15 or 16 per cent,” he said. “There will always be demand for fresh dairy milk. For our farmers, they will have a stake in both of those big markets, which I think provides them a lot of value to then go back and invest in their own businesses and indeed to make them more sustainable.”
Jim couldn’t agree more.
“Demand for dairy is going to go up by as much as 100 per cent over the next 30 years. We don’t have two planets worth of resources to feed nearly 10 billion people,” said Jim.
“Economies are becoming wealthier and the standard of living is increasing. Hundreds of millions of people consuming a small amount of dairy are going to double or triple their consumption over the next generation. This [partnership] is about helping the dairy industry meet that demand in a sustainable way, and it’s a really positive story.”
At AgriFutures evokeAG. 2023 Michael and Jim delved deeper into the future of Australia’s milk production and how Eden Brew and the Norco Co-operative are working together to create synthetic dairy products to create more resilient supply chains, which complement the profit models of farmers in Australia’s largest dairy co-op. You can watch the session here.