I was always fascinated with that replicator on Star Trek that generated food out of thin air, although it seemed like a far-off idea (and against the rules of the Harry Potter universe…) But that is rather how I feel about ‘precision fermentation’, a technology which is attracting ever larger amounts of investors’ money these days to make cheese and dairy products – but not in the ways we’ve done in the past. These cheeses and butters are made without cows.
Essentially, it means using proteins and cells to make meat and dairy products. And while I had been following the developments in meat and seafood, I hadn’t realized how much was happening in the dairy sector until I spent a chunk of the weekend reading about it.
There was a raft of stories this past week about the record amount of money that Berlin-based startup Formo, which makes cultured mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, raised from investors interested in environmentally friendly dairy alternatives.
Formo is part of a new generation of startups making cheese without livestock farming, Bloomberg reported. Miyoko’s Creamery in the US, which urges people to ‘milk plants and hug cows’, and Sweden’s Stockeld Dreamery also have secured funding in recent weeks, it said.
“Since 2019, Formo has been in the business of reimagining how and for whom the food system works. By making milk proteins using microorganisms instead of cows, we figured we could bust some of the most damaging elements of our relationship with food. Combining precision-fermentation made dairy proteins with artisanal, age-old techniques, we’re making unbelievably decadent cheese that will set the world on fire (in a good way). That’s right — We’re talking real proteins, real cheese, unreal flavours: and all with no animals involved.”
Formo describes itself as Europe’s first cellular agriculture company developing cultivated dairy products – “that is dairy which is based on real, animal-free milk proteins produced using precision fermentation.” Raffael Wohlgensinger and Dr. Britta Winterberg founded the company with the goal of creating a more sustainable and ethical food system.
Formo uses microbes to create proteins that form the basis of its cheeses. “What our products contain are the actual milk proteins, but we don’t get them from a cow,” said Dr. Winterberg. “We get them from our microorganisms.”
Its cheeses have the same taste, texture, and functional properties as animal-derived cheeses, but come at a substantially lower cost for the environment, human health, and animal welfare. Microorganisms are up to 20 times more efficient than cows at converting feed into food, so Formo can already undercut consumers’ willingness to pay at commercial production scale.
“The true cost of dairy on human health, planetary health, and animal welfare is devastating, yet governments across the world still subsidize this industry,” says Christian Angermayer of Elevat3 Capital, one of the co-leads of the financing group. “Formo’s exceptional team has successfully demonstrated how biotechnology can be applied to create not just equally, but even better-performing products that will be price-competitive in no time. This is just the beginning of the dairy revolution!”
Miyoko’s Creamery, California
Miyoko Schinner, who founded Miyoko’s Creamery from her Northern California kitchen, has a 200-person team and her plant-based cheese and butter is sold in more than 29,000 stores across North America, South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore. Her company raised $52 million in series C funding in early August.
“I believe that our philosophy of using nutritious, plant-based ingredients people understand, such as cashews, oats, legumes, and applying biological processes to them to transform them from familiar formats to new ones never imagined before, inspires people,” she told Vegconomist. “People want to trust the companies that make their food, to know what’s in it, and still get something new and exciting. Ultimately, we are looking at plants through a different lens, asking, “What are the properties this plant has? How can we, through fermentation, the use of enzymes, etc., trigger certain reactions or functionalities that can make them behave like dairy?”
Miyoko, who became vegan in the mid-1980s, wrote the best-selling Artisan Vegan Cheese in 2012 to empower people to make their own vegan cheese. But after readers kept telling her they’d rather buy it, she launched her company in 2014.
While she was already in her mid-50s, “my sense of urgency to change the food system greNw stronger and stronger over the years,” she said. “I realized that the most effective way to make an impact was by providing alternatives to dairy that could help people transition to a more compassionate and sustainable diet.” She also runs Rancho Compasión, a farmed animal sanctuary that rescues neglected farm animals.
Stockeld Dreamery, Stockholm
Sorosh Tavakoli and Anja Leissner founded Stockeld Dreamery early in 2019 because they wanted to reinvent the foods they love, by producing them without using animals.
Anja, who heads research and development,has a background in biotechnology, food science, microbiology, sensory and nutrition. Sorosh, who was born in Iran and lived in New York and London before returning to Stockholm, previously founded, ran and eventually sold a software company with close to 100 employees across 8 offices.
The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, after testing over 1,000 iterations before finding a combination that worked.
Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 13% protein. Stockeld is working on spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months.
Including the latest round which raised $20 million, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.
The Coming Food Revolution
It is part of what RethinkX says is the coming food revolution. “We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago,” it says in its report, Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030. “The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety.”
Food innovator Bruce Friedrich, who is the founder of the Good Food Institute and was named a TED Fellow in 2019, puts the case for replacing animals in our food chain in this incisive TED talk delivered last year. On the Good Food institute blog, he said:
“Over the past three decades, I’ve had the chance to talk about animal agriculture with countless people from around the world and have been struck by the similarity of their responses. None of them wants animals to be slaughtered. None of them wants food waste or fecal contamination in the food supply. None of them wants worsening climate change or antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Yet basically all of them eat meat. They won’t shift to tempeh or algae or bugs, but they are excited about the idea of being able to eat meat without slaughter.”
After patent win, Wilk on track to produce animal-free cultured milk and breast milk. Times of Israel, Apr. 18, 2022