Creating Sustainable Cheese with Precision Fermentation
We stand at the edge of a revolutionary shift in how we feed the world. Precision fermentation technology will usher in an era of sustainable animal-free dairy. Today, the global food system generates a third of carbon emissions. Raising livestock for food is responsible for half of that. Cow-based products lead the charts in emissions, water and land use among all foods. Ruminant animals (cows, sheep, goats) naturally produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas that has a global warming potential of 84-86 times higher than CO2 on a 20-year scale.
The industrialization of animal farming has unleashed a multi-faceted threat of methane emissions, water pollution from farm runoff, excessive nitrous oxide from fertilizer used to produce feed crops like soy and corn, destruction of carbon-sequestering soil and biodiversity loss. This old-world method of creating protein just isn’t sustainable.
Climate change and world population growth demand that we quickly advance and scale new ways of creating our beloved dairy foods like cheese in ways that won’t cause harm to earth’s environment.
Precision fermentation may well be one of the most exciting new technologies to arrive on the food innovation scene for the very reason it does not depend on animal agriculture output for its primary ingredients. It offers a vastly improved carbon, land and water use footprint at a time when the world desperately needs to improve the sustainability of our food production system.
“Precision fermentation is the most important environmental technology humanity has ever developed.” – George Monbiot, climate activist and journalist, in the New York Times.
An Evolution and a Revolution
Precision fermentation has been safely used in dozens, if not hundreds, of products we consume every day for over 30 years. From insulin taken by millions of diabetics worldwide, to cheese making enzymes used in 90% of all cheese, to natural flavors in your sparkling soda, to B12 vitamins added to cereal — precision fermentation is everywhere.
“Ancient civilizations used microbial cultures to preserve foods, create alcoholic beverages, and improve the nutritional value and bioavailability of foods ranging from kimchi to tempeh. Over the past century, the role of fermentation has expanded far beyond its historical usage to a much broader range of applications. Fermentation now spans industrial chemistry, biomaterials, therapeutics and medicine, fuels, and advanced food ingredients. The suite of tools developed through fermentation’s evolution is now poised to revolutionize the food sector by accelerating the rise of alternative proteins.” – The Good Food Institute
Until a wave of new food tech companies landed on the scene, most people had never heard of precision fermentation. Why? Most of the ingredients and enzymes made via precision fermentation were used by the food industry in the manufacturing process. Consequently, they were not marketed directly to consumers. Most people weren’t concerned about exactly how those vitamins or enzymes were made. As long an ingredient produced matched its animal-based counterpart, there was no real need to explain the mechanics of how it was created. In the curious example of changing from traditional calf-based rennet to fermentation-based non-animal rennet, the latter has quietly taken over global cheese production with little fanfare.
So, why the publicity spotlight now? Advancements in this technology permit a revolutionary new application that will forever alter how the food we love is made sustainably. While precision fermentation operated in the background as a supporting cast member in our food system until now, the new development of animal-free milk proteins has changed the game completely. It allows us to take animals entirely out of our foods, without sacrificing taste, functionality or nutrition. Precision fermentation is creating a new category of animal-free dairy. This truly is a food revolution.
How Does Precision Fermentation Work, Exactly?
When it comes to animal-free dairy, precision fermentation technology is used to produce bio-identical milk proteins like casein or whey, without involving a cow. Bio-identical means that the proteins are the same at the molecular level. Sounds cool, right? Here is how we do it.
Step One: Protein producing microbes are created. It is done by encoding milk protein DNA sequences from cow genes into microorganisms, like yeast or fungi. Once cow DNA was sequenced several years ago, we were able to copy the piece of code responsible for creating the exact milk protein from a digital database, without a single cow involved.
Step Two: We ferment these special microbes in large fermentation tanks filled with nutrients and sugar, much like those used to brew beer. During the fermentation process, these unique microbes produce milk proteins, an identical twin to those found in cow’s milk.
Step Three: At the end of fermentation, our milk proteins are filtered into a pure milk protein isolate, producing a milk protein powder, just like animal-based whey powder you can buy at any grocery store today. This animal-free milk protein can be used to create our favorite dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream — without the climate impact of farming animals at a global scale.
The benefit of using precision fermentation is simple: produce the dairy products we love with a fraction of the carbon emissions, land, and freshwater use – and without the concentrated animal feedlot operations that the conventional dairy industry espouses. This means billions of people who consume dairy products each day can do so without leaving a significant environmental footprint.
Precision fermentation is an ideal solution to usher in the era of sustainable dairy because it provides a key ingredient to satisfy consumer expectations. Consumers will buy animal-free dairy foods if they are healthy, safe, affordable and, most importantly, delicious. The promise of ‘identical twin’ protein solutions made with precision fermentation means animal-free cheese and dairy products involve no compromise on eating experience. We are creating a brighter, better, more humane and planet-friendly food system.