If you could hear 5,000 peoples opinions at once? Ask them about cheese.

Changing the world is a lot about knowing what other people think and a lot about knowing what other people want. For that reason, it’s a special feeling to take a cross-sectional slice of society and ask them about the things that matter most to you. Do my ideas about the world stack up outside the cozy confines of my head? Nothing like a nationally representative sanity check to provide some answers. 

My co-researcher Chris Bryant of the University of Bath and I just took a plunge into this realm, surveying 5,000 people from around the world on whether they would embrace precision fermentation made dairy. Is the world ready to milk microbes rather than cows? We dipped our toes to check the temperature.

While Formo is laser-focused on the science and logistics necessary to bring precision fermentation dairy into the mainstream, none of that happens without a populace who can see, taste and enthuse about the arrival of animal-free dairy.

It’s for that reason that we put equal emphasis on understanding how to harmonise what people cherish about food today with the possibilities of food tomorrow. How does the vision of dairy without animals work for as many of earth’s inhabitants as possible?

Publishing our findings in a peer-reviewed journal was a thermometer reading of this question and showed some really interesting things about the way forward for a food system leaning less heavily on animals. I saw three main takeaways in the data about the state of play for companies looking to recreate animal products.

1. People are ready to roll when it comes to precision fermentation made dairy. 

After laying out the process of copying cow DNA into microorganisms that underpins precision fermentation, a strong majority of people across all surveyed countries were ready not just to try, but also buy precision fermentation made dairy cheese, with an average of over 70% claiming that they’d be definitely or probably likely to buy. Demand will not be a limiting factor for these products and it should, thus, be full steam ahead to create the infrastructure and supply chains necessary to deliver these proteins at scale.

2. Flexitarians will be key in taking these products mainstream.

We’ve spent more time thinking about cheese than you’d believe and it turns out lots of different types of consumers purchase cheese: it’s been clear from the beginning we wouldn’t be making cheese products with one niche group in mind, rather catering to a spread of cheese desires. However, seeing how strongly flexitarianism predicted enthusiasm for precision fermentation dairy cheese, it looks likely this group will chaperone precision fermentation derived dairy into the mainstream. It’s tremendously promising that these consumers ‘get this product’ and are ready to embrace it, especially given the well-documented increases in flexitarianism.

3. Don’t worry, be cheesy.

Of all variables examined, the strongest predictor of willingness to purchase animal-free dairy cheese was the current level of cheese consumption. People don’t want cheese reinvented, don’t want self-driving cheese, don’t want Jar Jar Binks cheese - as a product, classic cheese makes people happy. The people currently eating the most cheese were the ones most excited about precision fermentation for dairy products. This suggests to me that, much like Impossible Food’s unapologetic ‘We Are Meat’ adverts, precision fermentation companies need to make no apologies about being real, decadent cheese. Own it, love it, showcase it - the consumers will follow.

On reflection, this piece of research was an initial gauge of how consumers will respond to animal-free dairy cheese in five different countries. It showed that once consumers understand animal-free dairy and the basics of precision fermentation, they are ready to embrace it heartily. The logical next step for companies like ours is to invest the energy and conscientiousness into expanding the breadth of people who understand the possibilities of precision fermentation, converting them to animal-free dairy cheese buyers and advocates for reducing our reliance on industrial animal agriculture.

Transparently and accessibly communicating precision-fermentation to consumers is crucial, as well as the combined research around it. I’m not unaware of the optics of precision fermentation companies publishing research into consumer acceptance of precision fermentation derived products, hence why having our research peer-reviewed and open access was so important, as well as collaborating with a fantastic research institution, the University of Bath. We need to continue in the same transparent and collaborative manner as we start to tell the story of precision fermentation to the wider world, doing so with respect, honesty and enthusiasm.

The future is cheesy!

Oscar Zollman Thomas is Business Analyst at Formo and Co-Author of: Zollman Thomas, O. M. & Bryant, C. J. (2021). Don’t Have a Cow Man: Consumer Acceptance of Animal-Free Dairy Products in Five Countries.