Animal-free cheese: from technology to societal integration

Food scientists at Wageningen University & Research are developing technologies to make cheese using microbes instead of animals, one of the solutions in the protein transition. Technological advancements are just one part of this development, as there are many social, legal and cultural issues to consider. In an online session on 22 November, scientists and field experts will show how such technologies can contribute to the protein transition and what it means, mainly for farmers and policy makers. What motivates farmers to adopt such technologies and what do they need from policy makers to make it real?

Let’s take a look at the technological part first. Is it possible to make cheese without the involvement of large dairy farms? So far, it has been difficult to produce a vegan cheese with the right taste and texture. But that might soon change, thanks to precision fermentation. This technology is already being used in the medical sector, and food science is next. It involves microbes that can be genetically modified in such a way that they produce a certain type of protein.

Yeasts producing milk

‘Cheese from cow milk is not easy to replicate’, says Etske Bijl, assistant professor at the Food Quality and Design chair group. ‘Eighty percent of all proteins in cow’s milk are caseins, which are essential for cheese making.’ Using precision fermentation, Bijl and her colleagues are working with yeasts to produce proteins. The researchers take a well-known model yeast and insert a piece of DNA that contains the instructions needed to produce casein. Then the yeast only needs nitrogen and energy to be able to produce the casein.

Bijl leads the NWA-funded project Animal-free milk proteins. The project, which started in 2021, is in full swing. Four PhD students and two post-doc students are involved in it, and the team is working with various partners inside and outside WUR. One of those partners is Those Vegan Cowboys, a company established by the founders of the Vegetarische Slager. The end goal of the project is to come up with an animal-free alternative for cow milk protein.

Animal-free cheese could very well make a positive impact on the environment, as intensive dairy farming is directly linked to the emission of greenhouse gases and the current nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands. So what are the perspectives for farmers, if cheese can be made by microbes instead of cattle? Bijl still sees a vital role for agriculture: ‘Microbes will need an energy source to grow, like sugar. Furthermore, we are looking into the possibilities for small-scale precision fermentation stations at farms. A dual approach might also be possible, in which farmers grow crops and have a fermentation tank.’

The cheese chain

While Bijl and her fellow food scientists are developing these technologies, her colleague Zoë Robaey looks at this innovation from a societal point of view. In her work as Assistant Professor in Ethics of Technology at the Philosophy Group, she investigates ethical and social questions that surround the production of milk by microbes. For instance: what motivates farmers to adopt these technologies? What challenges do they see in this transition and what do they need to be able to implement this?

‘There are many structural questions to consider’, says Robaey. ‘Cheese is not just a product, it’s a craft, it’s a tradition. Certainly here in the Netherlands. How do we keep those traditions, but in such a way that it’s better for the environment?’ The identity of farmers is another aspect that has to be taken into account: ‘How are young farmers going to respond to these new developments? And we need to think about consumers too. Will this be a luxury product, that many people cannot afford? We need to understand these types of choices.’

These tough questions have to be discussed by everyone involved, including policymakers and farmers. For the development of animal-free cheese, but also for other technologies that can contribute to the protein transition. The online session on 22 November will be an excellent opportunity to do so. Robaey: ‘It’s crucial to get everyone involved right now, upstream, to prevent societal disruption. How animal-free cheese will be perceived, regulated, and subsidized. We really need policy support to make it easy for farmers.’ After all, Bijl and Robaey agree, this new technology is happening. The only question is how it’s happening.