Unilever is working on “cow-free dairy”. No, we’re not talking dairy alternatives. We’re talking a replica of dairy in taste and consistency but, as the term suggests, without the cow.

These scientific efforts have a significant barrier to overcome, though. “The food industry has traditionally struggled to position science as a force for good” says Unilever president of ice cream Matt Close.

Close was speaking from Unilever’s world-leading Colworth R&D centre this week, where the company revealed its research into precision fermentation technology – the process that could make “cow-free dairy” a reality. 

In short, the term refers to a form of synthetic biology whereby animal proteins are encoded into micro-organisms such as algae, and then fermented in tanks with nutrients and sugar to produce products that resemble meat and dairy

Although the process has been around for decades, precision fermentation has begun to receive a lot of attention from big companies in recent years. One of these is Unilever, which has partnered with biotech startup Algenuity to explore its potential in greater detail.

However, the scientific advancement comes with commercial risks.

“The thing that would keep me awake at night in this space is getting the positioning wrong with the consumer too early on,” Close says. “The risk is that if we don’t get it right as an industry, then people will misunderstand it, and there’s nothing worse than fear in a food system.”

Close is right to worry about consumer perceptions. After all, public distrust of genetically modified (GM) crops remains high, despite the scientific consensus that GM crops are perfectly safe to eat. And there remains substantial opposition to the gene editing bill passing through the House of Lords.

If precision fermentation were to be pitched wrongly, it could carry the same connotations. And those connotations could outweigh its touted environmental benefits, even compared with dairy or meat alternatives. According to climate change solutions advocacy group Replanet, the process is up to 40,000 times more land efficient than traditional farming.

So it’s understandable the likes of Unilever want to tread carefully. But Close is hopeful of reaching the end goal: to educate the general public and create great-tasting products with a lower carbon footprint.

As he sums up: “Ultimately, we want consumers to see this as a positive choice and a force for good, rather than as some kind of Frankenstein scientific monster.”