Thursday, September 12, 2013


Butter derived from animal milk is a standard feature of food in many cultures and especially in the US consumers cannot imagine a diet without butter used practically in every preparation. The process of butter making involves extraction of milk and removing the cream by centrifugation to be converted into butter sticks and slabs. Concern about the cholesterol content in butter, consumers welcomed alternative options like margarine prepared from vegetable oils and the latter has been slowly gnawing at the butter market during the last 3-4 decades. The technology for making margarine is now so sophisticated that it is very difficult for a lay consumer to distinguish between natural butter and high quality margarine in terms of appearance, flavor, texture, taste and functionality. But cheap vegetable oils like Palm oil which are used by the margarine industry as a raw material, are increasingly coming under attack from the consumers because of its cascading effect on denudation of rain forests in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and consequent global warming. Against this background path breaking biotechnological processes are providing a viable alternative to vegetable oils via Algae. Algal oil can be processed to get a variety of products with different sensory characteristics and functional features and butter is no exception. The rapid rise of biotech companies capable of producing Algal oil on commercial scale from sugars using the fermentation route is an amazing feat with dramatic impact in the coming years. Here is a take on this "Cow to plant to Algae" story! 

"Consider for a moment that the average California cow produces just enough cream per year to produce 838 pounds of butter, or 3,352 sticks of butter per year. This is based on the assumption that it takes 11 quarts of milk to make 1 pound of butter and that the average cow produces 2,305 gallons of milk per year. On the other hand, there is 1/2 cup of vegetable oil in 1 stick of margarine and each cup of vegetable oil conservatively equates to 8 ounces. According to Solazyme's Form S-1, there are approximately 290 gallons in a metric ton [MT] of Solazyme's oil. This suggests that 1 MT of oil is capable of generating roughly 9,280 sticks of margarine. Therefore, we see that the 100,000 MT facility now under construction for the joint venture between Solazyme and Bunge (BG) could roughly support the production of 928,000,000 sticks of margarine in a given year. Assuming sticks of butter are equal replacements to sticks of margarine, we see that this one facility could theoretically displace over 275,000 cows and their related costs. That's quite impressive when one considers that there are roughly 60,000 dairy farms in the United States with the typical dairy herd averaging 135 cows per farm according to Purdue University. While this example may be a bit of a peculiar comparison, the point illustrates the efficiencies of utilizing Solazyme's technology in relation to the current food system". 

Mankind will be ever obliged to the biotechnology companies for investing billions of dollars on basic research to evolve strains of Algae with high fat accumulating traits and developing the large scale fermentors or bioreactors which can be set up vertically needing very little land unlike the conventional agriculture or pasture land based live stocks. Though sugar is the basic substrate from which fat is produced by the Algal cells, the versatility of the technology is such that any low grade sugars derived from non-edible cellulosic materials also can be gainfully utilized. What is not clear is whether the new potent Algal strains have been developed using genetic engineering and if so one can expect severe and adverse reaction from many consumers who are apprehensive about the safety of GMO foods in general. If Algal oil technology really takes off the whole agricultural landscape all over the world may change with potential for reduction of green house gases from the live stock animals and restoration of rain forests that protect the environment.   

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