Miyoko Schinner has been on a years-long quest to make tasty vegan cheese. Now she wants to help dairy farmers switch to plant-based farming
Miyoko Schinner calls herself “the queen of vegan cheese”. The chef, activist and author wrote the 2012 book Artisan Vegan Cheese, which taught readers how to make cheeses from nut milk. Two years later she launched Miyoko’s Creamery. Based in Sonoma, California, the company makes vegan cheese and butter products sold in thousands of US stores, including Whole Foods and Target.
Schinner believes vegan cheese can be part of the climate solution. While cheese is often seen as less carbon intensive than meat, the dairy industry has a huge carbon footprint. Some cheeses have a larger greenhouse gas impact than pork or poultry.
Plant-based cheese has traditionally lagged behind the plant-based milk and meat sectors, but it’s now one of the fastest growing vegan foods, expected to grow more than 70% between 2019 and 2027. Miyoko’s has been part of this growth – in 2019 the company upgraded to a 29,000-sq-ft facility to keep up with demand.
Schinner spoke with the Guardian about the challenges of making quality plant-based dairy products and her quest to cut emissions by helping farmers transition from dairy to plant-based products.
Miyoko Schinner of Miyoko’s Creamery
Miyoko Schinner of Miyoko’s Creamery. Photograph: Miyoko’s Creamery
How difficult has it been to develop quality plant-based cheeses?
It all depends on what you’re looking for. Are you looking for a fancy cheese for a cheese board? Are you looking for some gooey stretchy cheese for your pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich? Are you looking for something with nutrition? Or just functionality? When I started Miyoko’s Creamery, I wanted to know whether I could make cheese out of plant milk, and the kind of cheese I was interested in was an artisanal high-end cheese wheel that you could put on a cheese platter.
So we launched with cheese wheels that I felt we could scale, and we have the widest distribution of any company in the United States for this kind of cheese. Omnivores are served our products at parties all the time and they don’t realize they’re eating vegan cheese.
Where have the challenges been?
Where we have struggled is with the so-called cheddar and pepper jacks. These cheeses that everyone else makes are made out of just oil and starch. There’s no artistry. There’s no fermentation. It’s not cheese.
We spent the last year and a half really exploring the impact of different cultures and enzymes on different combinations of plant milks, and we have recreated cheddar. It looks like cheddar, and it smells like cheddar, but it’s made out of a composite of different legumes and seeds and grains. It’s fermented and has different enzymes that help to break down the proteins so that they release more flavor. We’re hoping that it’ll hit shelves in December.
What do you tell omnivores about eating vegan?
I always tell people, “Oh, my God, you’re not vegan. Oh, it’s such a great thing to do. You can be a superhero; it’s such a great lifestyle; you should try it!” Because every day you wake up and you realize you’re not harming the planet, you’re not harming animals – or you’re minimizing the harm.
An Oxford University study showed that we could actually reduce global farmland by nearly 80% by switching to just growing crops rather than using land to produce animal protein. So there’s huge benefits, it’s not just carbon emissions; we’re talking about land use and water use.
When we think about the fact that most of the water in drought-ridden California goes to feed livestock – that’s pretty frightening. I live on agricultural land surrounded by all these cattle farms that are having to bring in truckloads of water a day. This is just not sustainable, and if this continues for more than a couple of seasons, these small family farms won’t be able to survive.
Why have you started a program to help California dairy farmers switch from animal agriculture to plant-based farming?
We are encouraging farmers to switch to a lower water-intensive and less taxing farming system that would entail growing drought-resistant crops that can become part of the new plant-based economy.
We wanted to identify one farmer and transition that one farmer, and we were going through the process of making sure that it works out economically. Is it a farm that we can actually convert with the amount of resources we have? How many cows do they have? What happens to the cows? What’s their financial situation like?
We were actually about to do a physical inspection of a dairy farm in March of last year when (California governor) Gavin Newsom announced a lockdown in California. So that got put on hold.
It’s not just about making a buck any more. You have to decide what side of history you’re going to be on.
We have one person at Miyoko’s whose sole job is to work on this, and she is forming partnerships with, for example, an economist, so we can understand what the economics will look like. She’s working with an adviser who’s going to be analyzing the environmental impacts of dairy farming and then what happens after the dairy farmer transitions.
We’re also working with a couple of other nonprofits that are going to use us as a test case and then create sort of a blueprint for other organizations to follow.
What more do you think companies can do to tackle the climate crisis?
None of us are doing well enough, but you have to do something. For example, we’re trying to minimize plastic. We felt that we’d have a bigger impact using some plastic but having vegan cheese than not having the plastic and having people continue to eat dairy cheese, so we have to change the food movement, and then we hope that the packaging will follow.
Everyone has to wake up and realize that it’s not just about selling your widget any more. It’s not just about making a buck any more. You have to decide what side of history you’re going to be on.
What is your hope for the future?
My hope for the future is that humans are going to evolve to become truly humane beings – humane for the planet, humane for animals. That humans will evolve to become true leaders. Being a leader means that you take care of everybody and everything – that you are a steward, not an exploiter.
This interview was edited for length and clarity