Fermenting - animal-free food production
As the necessity of moving away from our disastrous animal-based food industry becomes ever clearer, the race to develop alternatives to feed the globe is heating up. Lila Pitcher talks with one local company looking to take the lead on animal-free precision fermentation technology.
Most vegans, at one point, will have heard a sentence like this from their friends: “I would go vegan but I simply can’t give up the cheese”. It’s hard not to empathise with that feeling — vegan cheeses, as well as being less affordable, have yet to recreate the full breadth of dairy options. So, how can we reconcile a love for dairy with the immense impact it has on the planet? Irina Miller, co-founder of Daisy Lab, has a solution: precision fermentation. This up-and-coming process recreates dairy’s texture, flavour, and nutrients — all without the cow. Irina spoke with us about this intriguing new process and how she came to set up her business.
Like most, Irina was not always a vegan. Although she dabbled with the lifestyle during Lent [the Christian period of penitential preparation for Easter] as a child, the idea of committing to a plant-based diet seemed impossible: “I have always loved dairy, and not just the taste, I somehow liked the idea of it — a product coming from a warm, cosy, beautiful creature… I would say I had the dairy addiction so many others have”.
Contrary to popular belief, dairy addiction is not a myth. Our favourite milks and cheeses contain a protein called casein. When digested, a small amount of it turns into caso-morphine, a molecule which, as the name suggests, contains similar entities to morphine. The molecule attaches itself to dopamine receptors in our brain and creates cravings. Therefore, as Irina claims, our obsession with melted cheese and grazing platters isn’t coincidental, “it is literally addictive!”.
Years later, Irina and her partner watched the documentary Cowspiracy. Witnessing the shocking realities that exist in the dairy industry motivated Irina and her household to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. However, an integral part of Irina’s transition to veganism was also influenced by her time working for dairy production firm Fonterra. As a human resources employee, she witnessed the disconnect between the company’s efficient business processes and the reality of where the dairy ingredients came from: “When I got to see the scale of the trade and the impact it has on animals and the environment… the reality started to sink in. It was hard to make peace with what I was contributing to.”
How it works
This is where Irina’s work with precision fermentation comes in. Her business, Daisy Lab, offers plant-based alternatives to vegans and fellow dairy lovers. The organisation’s motto, “dairy without the middleman”, sums it up perfectly. Daisy Lab recreates the feel, taste, and nutrients of dairy without needing any animals. But how? The process of precision fermentation combines multiple existing techniques. It uses traditional food fermentation, which we know from the breads, beers, and kimchi we frequently consume. This technique, where an organism converts carbohydrate into an alcohol or acid, is then merged with biomass fermentation. Biomass fermentation enhances the fast growth and high protein content of microorganisms — essentially contributing to increased protein production. Add a specific aim to these two fermentation processes, and you get precision fermentation.
Irina explains it well: “The reason it is called ‘precision’ is because you can train the microorganism to produce many different things”. Daisy Lab is currently working on milk protein, but it could also create multiple constituent milk parts, including fats and sugars. Around the world, a multitude of companies use precision fermentation to create various plant-based alternatives, including eggs, ground meat, and even pet-food.
The Good Food institute, a non-profit organisation committed to securing sustainable alternative protein production, released a report on precision fermentation in 2020. The document highlighted an incredible rise in the process, which the World Economic Forum says “presents an opportunity to fundamentally change the way the world eats and improve global human and environmental health and the economy”.
In the last year, 51 businesses internationally dedicated themselves to fermentation enabled proteins, and they received $587 million in investments — twice what they received the preceding year. Abril Estrada, whose Wild Earth biotech company makes pet food, says people are starting to see meat alternatives as a necessity, not just simply an added choice. “Fermentation science is poised to enable the next generation of alternative proteins to enter the market,” she explains.
Land of the long, fermented cloud?
Irina was initially introduced to precision fermentation during her time at Fonterra, and she expected microbiological casein to be widely available within a few years. However, while leaps have been made in the US, Aotearoa was still lagging behind. This space in the market encouraged Irina to take the leap and create her start-up alongside Dr Nikki Freed. Though she says setting up the business was not without its difficulties.
“In addition to normal start-up challenges, like finding talent and funding, there were a number of New Zealand-specific headwinds”. One example of this was finding a location to conduct the work — Irina and her co-founder had to sign a scholarship agreement with a University in order to access confinement facilities.
As Daisy Lab gained momentum, Irina expected reluctancy from non-vegan communities. Instead, she was met with “curiously supportive” reactions. Because of the presence of dairy components in the product, including casein, it was made apparent pushback might actually come from existing vegans.
“Our product won’t be suitable for people with dairy allergies, and I bet long-standing vegans will see little point in it,” Irina explains. Daisy Lab, although plant-based, was not created to target existing vegans as much as it was intended for people with a love for dairy. Nonetheless, the positive impact on the planet could be huge.
“New Zealand currently trades around 100 tonnes of casein. Our product can directly substitute a portion [of that], reducing the volume coming from animals.”
Precision fermentation, as it takes away involvement from the animal and land, has the potential to reduce the huge carbon footprint coming from dairy.
It’s not only the climate that will be positively influenced by the process. Good Food Institute is confident that modernising meat production by introducing alternative proteins is crucial to avoiding future pandemics. Safe production within labs would mean reduced risks of unhygienic meat trades, increased food supplies and cruelty free practices. The organisation thinks that, alongside plant-based proteins and cultivated meat, fermentation could help “sustainably feed a global population of nearly 10 million by 2050”.
With all of this in mind, what does the future of precision fermentation look like for Aotearoa? It’s still growing, and while a few international brands exist, having companies in the country is key. Daisy Lab is currently in a self-funding stage, where creating the culture and finding investors is the primary aim. Past that, Irina’s team can start making dairy-identical ingredients that can be added into products such as yoghurts and ice-creams. Making dairy-identical animal-free cheese that stretches and melts is also on the agenda.
Starting a plant-based alternative dairy company under the shadow of Aotearoa’s towering dairy industry is a real challenge, but Irina says it’s worth the work. “We are doing it because we are passionate about changing Aotearoa for the better”.
I, for one, am excited to take my first bite of a dairy-identical cheese made from plants, without any animal suffering required.
If you would like to follow Daisy Lab on its journey, visit www.daisylab.co.nz for further information and links to their social media accounts.
Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.