Home » Change Foods’ cheese revolution: Spearheading food systems transformation in the MENA

Change Foods’ cheese revolution: Spearheading food systems transformation in the MENA

by Mohammad Ghazal

Change Foods is a US-Australian food tech company on a mission to change cheese for the better. Founded in 2019, the company is one of the key players working to disrupt the dairy industry and is doing so by recreating dairy foods in a sustainable and animal-free way. How? Precision fermentation. Why? Not only are dairy products made through the cruel exploitation of dairy cows, but the industry is also responsible for 3.4% of emissions globally and contributes to deforestation, water pollution, zootonic diseases and soil degradation.

Despite this, however, global cheese consumption is growing, including in the Middle East, where research shows it’s now an important source of nutrition. It makes sense then that Change Foods has entered the Middle East with its cheese transformation plans.

In fact, the company signed an agreement with KEZAD Group in 2022 to design a dedicated commercial manufacturing plant for the production of its animal-free dairy in Abu Dhabi. With the support of the Ministry of Economy of the UAE under the NextGen FDI initiative, the facility will be the first of its kind in the region to produce animal-free milk protein, casein. The company shared that it is targeting the end of 2025 to launch the plant.

ESG Mena spoke to David Bucca, Founder and CEO of Change Foods, to find out more about the company, its precision fermentation technology and learn what role it has in addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time.

As the world heats and climate change impacts worsen, all the research points to the need for food systems transformation. Tell me how you understand the situation, David.

The way we feed the world today is unsustainable. Our food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the largest user of land and freshwater resources, and is the leading driver of ocean and freshwater pollution, biodiversity loss, and tropical deforestation. Livestock farming is by far the biggest contributor to the food sustainability crisis. It is also the leading source of anthropogenic methane emissions ahead of oil and gas, coal, and landfills.

Not only are the emissions incredibly high, but the land required to farm cattle is also massive. Today, we use about one-third of all ice-free land on Earth to graze livestock and grow crops to feed them, which is driving biodiversity loss and tropical deforestation. And, of course, water has become a big area of focus, with many parts of the world struggling with increasing water scarcity and drought.

The problem is that people love eating meat and dairy, and demand is growing rapidly in developing economies. In fact, global demand for animal products is projected to increase 40% by 2050!

Can you tell me about how precision fermentation helps address some of these issues? How does it work?

Precision fermentation allows us to create animal-free foods that match the taste, texture, and nutrition of their animal-based counterparts but with a much lighter environmental footprint. Let’s look at dairy, for example. Milk serves as the key ingredient for some of the world’s most beloved foods, such as cheese, yoghurt, and ice cream. Producing these foods is incredibly resource intensive and polluting. Precision fermentation allows us to offer the same foods but made in a different way.

In its essence, precision fermentation uses microorganisms as tiny factories to make specific ingredients, like milk proteins, instead of animals. It’s a combination of age-old fermentation techniques that we use to make foods such as beer and kimchi with cutting-edge biotechnology.

The precision fermentation process starts by encoding microorganisms, such as yeast or fungi, with a dairy milk protein DNA taken from a digital database, to create unique milk-making microbes. Once these new microbes are created, they are placed in giant fermentation tanks similar to those used to brew beer. Sugar and other nutrients are added to start the fermentation process, during which the special microbes make milk proteins. So, essentially, instead of brewing beer, we can brew dairy. Once the fermentation process is complete, the milk proteins are harvested by filtering them from the fermentation broth, creating a milk protein powder concentrate. It looks just like the whey protein powder one can buy at a health food store.

Because the microbes were coded with the exact DNA sequence from a dairy cow, the milk proteins are molecularly identical to those made by a cow, but without any cows involved at all. In essence, we are changing the process, but not the food.

And what is the primary benefit of producing them in this way?

The biggest benefit of producing key proteins without farming animals is environmental. By skipping the animals, we can dramatically reduce the resources needed to produce the same basic ingredients. For example, milk proteins produced via precision fermentation are estimated to require up to 10 times less water, 100 times less land, five times less energy and 25 times less feedstock compared to the same proteins from cows.

Drawing from that, more broadly, what role do you think tech has in food systems transformation in the MENA?

We are on the cusp of the next era in food production. Emerging food production technologies, like precision fermentation, can help us address the climate crisis, provide food security, and boost nutrition availability. Precision fermentation could allow us to return large parts of the most critical ecosystems to nature and restore biodiversity while freeing up land to scale regenerative agriculture.

By reducing demand for water, we can supply critical drinking water needs, as well as rebalance the water equation in drought-stricken regions and replenish aquifers. By decoupling food from land-based animal agriculture, we can provide food security for many resource-constrained regions. Finally, by developing and deploying new food technologies locally, we can unlock new economic growth opportunities.

Looking forward, what are your projections for the scalability, price parity and consumer acceptance of precision fermentation?

Commercial-scale manufacturing, price-competitive protein production, and consumer acceptance are key hurdles in driving the kind of impact needed to create a sustainable food system.

Our first facility is designed to provide 1.2 million litres of fermentation capacity, with the option to double it to 2.4 million litres. We estimate that this production volume will replace the output of more than 10,000 dairy cows.

This, of course, is just the start. Successful commercialisation of precision fermentation technology in the region, will open up the doors for future expansion and development of this emerging industry.

And, lastly, what’s ahead for the company and when will you unveil your animal-free cheese?

Next year will mark several milestones for Change. We’ve completed the pre-development phase for our manufacturing facility in the UAE and are moving to detailed engineering phase next. We plan to break ground this fall. We are also progressing our strain and process optimisation work on the R&D front as well as cheese prototype development on the product front. We plan to showcase our cheese next year.

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