How to experience the exciting world of precision fermentation up close? Hanno Kossmann and Martin Reich got a tour around the offices and laboratories at Formo, a German start-up that’s rethinking dairy production.
By Hanno Kossmann and Martin Reich
The Formo Bio GmbH office building, located on the banks of the Spree in Berlin, is a synthesis of old walls and ultra-modern glass construction, flooded with daylight. It looks like a mixture of trendy tech start-up, test kitchen and laboratory – a place where people not only think about the future, but work on it.
On our visit to Formo, we were not alone. We were joined by Peter Breunig, Professor for Innovation and Technology Transformation in Food and Agriculture at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences. He took 20 students with him, who seemed inspired by getting to learn about the possibilities of animal-free dairy products using genetically modified microorganisms.
Yet worlds collided here. Many of the students grew up on dairy farms. During their studies so far, they have dealt primarily with the economic aspects of agriculture and animal husbandry. They were born and raised into a traditional way of producing milk using cows.
That’s exactly why it was so exciting for us to bring these two worlds together for a constructive and critical exchange.
The office building looks like a mixture of trendy tech start-up, test kitchen and laboratory – a place where people not only think about the future, but work on it
Formo relies on a technology called precision fermentation. This process uses microorganisms to make proteins, fats and other biological compounds normally found in the animal products we eat. At Formo, this method is used to produce casein, which it says is the main ingredient in its animal-free dairy products.
To be sure, it’s not an exact imitation of cow’s milk. After all, there are other components in milk. Casein is the main ingredient needed to make cheese. As other start-ups are working on other components, it may be possible to come close to animal-free milk and cheese in the future.
At Formo, the microorganisms are fed and raised in a bioreactor. Their genes have been altered to make the desired proteins. The end product is then filtered out and the protein separated from the microorganisms. This process makes it possible to produce dairy products without any animals being involved.
Also, this process means that the altered DNA does not end up in the product. Therefore, the cheese from precision fermentation will likely not be regulated and labelled as a product of genetic modification (GMO). Instead, it is a so-called ‘novel food’.
If and when animal-free products are developed and ready for the market, they could not only radically change the dairy industry, but also the future of agriculture as a whole. Why? Because with large scale precision fermentation, the need for vast areas of grassland to feed cows will be gone. This technology is expected by many to drastically reduce the ecological footprint of the agricultural industry while meeting the increasing global demand for dairy products.
When animal-free products are developed and ready for the market, they could not only radically change the dairy industry, but also the future of agriculture
During our visit to Formo, we got a rare chance to sample some of its animal-free cheese products. We were tasting alternatives for cream cheese, Gouda and feta. These varieties are still in development, so we’ve only tried prototypes. And we were … pleasantly surprised! The feta in particular was amazingly ‘real’. The texture of the Gouda, however, is still a bit soft and the aroma not particularly strong.
Already, plant-based alternatives to milk are gaining more and more acceptance. That’s why Formo is focusing on cheese. So far, vegan cheese alternatives haven’t been met with great enthusiasm. That’s not surprising. The process of producing cheese has been perfected over many centuries – a process in which fermentation is already used. With animal-free cheese made from precision fermentation, the milk proteins are produced in a different way. Luckily, centuries-old expertise in cheese production can be used for the subsequent maturing process. This way, vegans may finally find a cheese alternative they like.
However, Europeans may need to wait to get a taste of the new technology. Regulation from the European Union has become complex and rather unclear. That’s why many start-ups from the novel food sector are planning to launch their products in other countries, such as Israel, Singapore or the US.
For example, the approval of cultured meat in Singapore was fairly straightforward and fast, making the country the first in the world to bring this food innovation to market. We hope Europe will make its regulatory system ready for the future, encourage innovation and show itself a world leader in developing novel foods.
With animal-free cheese made from precision fermentation, vegans may finally find a cheese alternative they like
Formo recently received €42 million in funding. This will strongly support the further development of animal-free dairy products. As part of the expansion, Formo plans to open new office space in Frankfurt am Main, which will serve as a hub for the team of scientists working on the development of microorganisms. Scaling seems to be one of the biggest challenges.
As with all food innovations, acceptance is another potential hurdle. However, current surveys in the US suggest this hurdle is not as high as some might think.
Obviously, precision fermentation poses a potential challenge for the agricultural industry. Currently, dairy farming is a substantial branch of the economy, and part of a country’s culture and history. We will need to figure out how to make a fair transition. Also, extensive pastures can be ecologically highly valuable, especially if they include cows as large herbivores.
This and more was part of a lively discussion between the agricultural students and Formo’s employees. At our project ‘Progressive Agrarwende’, we see ourselves as a platform for exactly this type of open exchange.
Dairy farming is a substantial branch of the economy, and part of a country’s culture and history. We will need to figure out how to make a fair transition
Our overall conclusion from our visit: as an alternative to cheese made from cow’s milk, there will probably be no better future option than cheese made from microorganisms, especially with regard to the often-bland plant-based variants. Precision fermentation could cause a transformation of the cheese market. Mass production of cheese products could be replaced with such alternatives, relieve pressure on the livestock industry and make our consumption more sustainable.
We are excited about future developments in the field of animal-free dairy and its impact on agriculture. We are optimistic that it will make our food system more sustainable. New approaches, such as Formo’s, may play an important role.
>> Everything you need to know about precision fermentation.
>> Interested in the current state of the emerging precision fermentation industry? Have a look at this report by the Good Food Institute.
Hanno Kossmann studied agriculture in Göttingen and Berlin. He is a research associate at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences, where he explores the socio-economic consequences of alternative proteins.
Martin Reich is co-founder of Progressive Agrarwende. During his PhD in biology, he mainly researched the nutrient efficiency of crops. Today he works in life science communication and as a scientific consultant for topics such as bioeconomy, biotechnology and nutrition.