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Could animal-free ‘dairy’ offer a sustainable alternative to milk and cheese?

Game Changers: Precision fermentation involves adding animal DNA to microbes and brewing them in vats to produce milk

Less than 30 years ago a technology company was the fifth biggest brand in the world. It commanded two-thirds of the global market, employed tens of thousands of people and was valued at more than €31 billion. It seemed untouchable. But the Kodak Film company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Film faded “like an old photo”, as the Economist put it. Phone cameras consigned those little black canisters that opened with a pop to history.

Today global food giants are buying into disruptive food technology, keen to avoid their own Kodak moment. New Zealand’s dairy corporation Fonterra announced a start-up with Dutch bioscience company Royal DSM in August. The two had been quietly co-operating since before the pandemic. Their project? To commercialise precision fermentation.

There is no kimchi involved. Precision fermentation makes animal-free dairy by adding animal DNA to microbes like yeast, fungi, algae or bacteria and brewing them in vats to produce milk. “I would never eat that Frankenfood,” you might say. But if you eat cheese you already do. Most rennet is now made by precision fermentation.

The next generation of eaters doesn’t want to eat the products of a system with high carbon emissions, pollutants and the wholesale loss of living things from land dominated by ryegrass and ruminants. The consumer research is clear.


Unlike plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, these precision fermentation products taste like the animal version, their manufacturers say

Significant hurdles including regulation, what to call these products and fears around its GMO nature still exist for the new food. Unlike digital cameras, the development does not have to sweep everything away. Fonterra has said their venture is intended to be complementary to farmed dairy.

But animal-free dairy is not weather-dependent. Fermentation factories can produce it anywhere in the world, which could make Ireland’s niche as the best little country in the world to do dairy fade away.

In this headlong dash to a more sustainable future, there is still space for Irish dairy, done better. On a growing number of regenerative farms, small herds are fed on organic multi-species swards, agroforestry dairy farms where cows browse on tree hay. We have the models that can provide healthy futures for farmers.

The uncoupling of protein production from livestock farming will hinge on consumer acceptance. Unlike plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, these precision fermentation products taste like the animal version, according to their manufacturers. “Our products are not like cheese, they are cheese,” Berlin-based company Formo says in its marketing.

Formo is eyeing 10 per cent of the European market by 2030. Freed up from relentless production demands, farmers can be paid to farm for nature, to allow soils to come back to life and become carbon sinks, a double win that could help keep the planet habitable. Heroes in wellies. How’s that for a happy picture, to which we can all say cheese?

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests