Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications

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NOTE: This document is a work in progress.

Environmental Impact of Dairy Industry

ToDo: Copy the stuff from the BioCoder article here. Link UN report on impact of dairy industry.

Efficiency of biomass conversion

Note: These are all very rough first estimates. Don't rely on this. Needs more research.

"...biomass formation can be achieved by innumerous metabolic pathways (Frick and Whitmann, 2005) and biomass yield on substrate can reach values up to 50% in pure oxidative growth (Akinyemi, Betiku and Solomon, 2005)." source

If we can get 1% to 3% casein yield per biomass, then we could maybe get between 0.5 to 1.5% casein per substrate efficiency.

Some info on dairy cow efficiency

Normal milk is about 2.6% casein. If a normal cow produces 25 kg of milk and consumes 25 kg feed per day (which is approximately normal), then that is about 2.6% efficiency.

Milk production in North America is estimated to produce 1.3 kg CO2 equivalents per kg of milk

Anti-GMO Sentiments

Here's a good resource from the skeptiforum wiki

According to estimates, between 80 and 90 per cent of cheese in the USA and Great Britain is manufactured using chymosin produced using gene technology[1].Most of the rest is produced using rennet extracted from the stomachs of suckling calves[2]. "Take your pick: eat GMO cheese, or be a baby-killer?"

The "Yuck Factor": Eating Human Proteins

Even among people who are perfectly willing to contemplate genetically engineered cheese, there seems to be a distinct "yuck factor" regarding using the human genes, even though there could be significant health benefits to doing so.

As an additional mind-twister: if we use the human reference sequence, we would essentially be making cheese from Craig Venter's genes...


Purpose of this statement

As part of our work on this project, we drew up a statement of ethics to help guide our practices. This document describes our core values and how we are striving to implement them in our work on the Real Vegan Cheese Project. Our code of ethics is based on the draft code formulated by participants in the 2011 North American DIYbio Congress. See also, the draft code developed at the 2011 European DIYbio Congress. These ethics are for the Real Vegan Cheese Project and do not represent the ethics of Counter Culture Labs, or Biocurious.

Open Access

Promote citizen science and decentralized access to biotechnology. We believe all people have the right to engage in scientific inquiry and we strive to promote access to tools and technical knowledge to make that engagement possible. Asking questions and seeking answers is a fundamental part of who we are as humans, and crucial to securing a hopeful future for the planet. We are committed to keeping Real Vegan Cheese 100% open, but in a world in which openness is not the norm, it is not necessarily obvious how best to achieve that goal. Our meeting notes and lab experiments are available online, but would this be enough to keep another entity from patenting our techniques? We considered several options to ensure that anybody who wants to can continue to work on this project in the future. One option we considered is the newly developed Defensive Patent License (DPL), which would make our technique freely available to anyone else who also agrees to put their patents in a common “pool” (a legal mechanism similar to and inspired by the GNU General Public License and other efforts to promote free and open source software development) (Schultz and Urban 2012). However, the DPL would restrict access to those who do not opt in to the pool. After some spirited discussion and a vote, our current plans are to patent our innovation and then “abandon” the patent into the public domain. This way, no one will be able to privatize our work and it will remain truly open to anyone who wants to use it. In addition, we are furthering openness in synthetic biology by contributing to iGEM's public Registry of Standard Biological Parts.


Emphasize transparency, the sharing of ideas, knowledge and data. We believe that transparency breeds trust. So many organizations work behind closed doors or patent walls. Like the many processes before us, our open process enhances innovation, brings the conversation to a wide audience, and asks for participation - not exclusion. We implement transparency by publishing meeting minutes and lab notes on our wiki, and publicizing our meeting times and location on and on our website. Those who want to participate but are not local can join us virtually.


Engage the public about biology, biotechnology and their possibilities. Our education philosophy moves beyond a “deficit” model that sees the public as lacking in scientific knowledge, to one that seeks to harness the diverse skill sets of community members and engage them in substantial discussion about how to steer the development of biotechnologies. We recognize that everyone – those with scientific training included – comes to the table with expertise in some areas and not others, and we seek to learn from each other. By working on meaningful, member-guided projects, the question we are asking the public changes from “should scientists or corporations be allowed to…?” to “how should we use these tools?” This education philosophy is supported by recent scholarship in Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS scholarship has moved beyond often misleading and over-simplifying “for or against” opinion polling to show that both European and US publics are not anti-GMO, but rather ambivalent about technologies that seek to modify organisms. In general, people who express apprehension about these technologies are not dead set against a particular technique (such as genetic modification). Instead, they frequently have concerns about the context in which such techniques are “developed, evaluated, and promoted” - concerns which can stem from a lack of faith that institutional actors and processes are acting in the best interests of the public (Marris 2001). Finally, members of the public also express concern regarding the complexity of biology and the unknown consequences of intervening in systems which are not fully characterized (Pauwels 2013). These concerns will not necessarily evaporate by feeding the public more technical information, although many of our members join because they want to learn more about biology. Instead, we believe that the best and most respectful response to public ambivalence is to develop and use biotechnologies in a radically open and transparent manner.


Adopt safe practices. (What safety standards do our labs comply with?) FDA guidelines; Biosafety level 1; people experimenting on self by eating cheese


Respect the environment. We believe that using animals as large-scale food production machines is ethically and environmentally irresponsible. The Real Vegan Cheese project was motivated by a desire to find more sustainable and humane alternatives to the model of industrial agriculture. While using yeast seems clearly preferable from an animal welfare perspective, assessing the environmental impact of shifting production to yeast is more complicated. To understand whether large-scale cheese production using yeast would be more environmentally friendly than the current mammal-based model, our team is working on comparing the efficiency of each method: how much biomass is required to produce a given amount of cheese through each method? How much energy input is required for both? Finally, the dairy industry is known to be a significant contributor of the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet (producing 4% of the total human-caused greenhouse gases, according to a 2010 UN report). Could our method of cheese production help reduce this number?

Peaceful Purposes

Biotechnology should only be used for peaceful purposes. We are currently living the consequences of science used in the name of creating power and profit for people (environmental degradation, poor access to meds). If humanity wants to grow and evolve into the future, we must harness the power of biology for the betterment of the planet and its inhabitants. Real Vegan Cheese has committed itself to producing a sustainable and renewable food source that is not only good for human consumption, but also good for the planet. We recognize the potential of open-access projects to contribute to resource equality and peace around the globe and are committed to playing our part in moving humanity forward.


Tinkering with biology leads to insight; insight leads to innovation.

In our work, we are not only tinkering with biology; we are also tinkering with the kinds of social forms that support scientific innovation. Our diverse, open, and decentralized group is practicing science in a new way, with different constraints and motivations than teams in the academic or corporate world. We are consensus based, rather than having a PI or a CEO. Inevitably, our organization will inflect the work we do and the direction we take the project. But it takes continued reflection, and occasional readjustments, to the organizational aspects of the project (for example, how team members communicate) to keep things moving forward. As one example of this reflection and readjustment, members with extensive lab experience recently led a discussion about to include in the lab notebook, to make sure that everyone is on the same page and information about experiments is recorded consistently.


Reach out to the local community, carefully listen to any concerns and questions and respond honestly. We have made an effort to respond thoughtfully to those who reached out to us with sincere concerns on social media. In addition, we have reached out to Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that is also located in the Bay Area and has been critical of synthetic biology. We hope to start a dialogue that builds on our common concern for the environment, and we hope that they can provide constructive criticism that helps us stay true to our vision of producing a more ethical and sustainable cheese.

In addition, this project is helping to build the DIYbio community in the Bay Area, attracting people and resources to our community labs so that they can continue their mission of providing the education and tools to make science more accessible.


Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations. “Greenhouse Gases From the Dairy Sector: A Life Cycle Assessment.” 2010. Available:

Marris, Claire. “Public Views on GMOs: Deconstructing the Myths.” EMBO Rep., 2(7): 545–548. Jul 7, 2001.

Pauwels, Eleanor. “Public Understanding of Synthetic Biology.” BioScience, 63(2):79-89. 2013.

Schultz, Jason, and Urban, Jennifer M. “Protecting Open Innovation: The Defensive Patent License as a New Approach to Patent Threats, Transaction Costs, and Tactical Disarmament.” Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, Vol. 26, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Notes from Bryce, May 15


It's riddled with bacteria. It's the product of a series of biochemical reactions. The process of making it requires, by traditional methods, ground-up calf stomachs or, by industrial methods, steel vats, powders, emulsifiers and "natural flavoring". Love it or hate it, cheese is a complex food.

Cheese is basically storable, easily transportable milk. Ever since humans first discovered that milk gone rancid, curdled and fermented is delicious, we've been fine-tuning the process. There are hundreds of varieties of cheese based on different strains of bacteria, preparation methods, and other factors. There is even vegan cheese, made from non-animal sources such as nuts.

CCLabs will engineer baker’s yeast to express milk protein (casein). By purifying the protein and blending in vegan replacements for lactose and milkfat, the resulting milk substitute will be used to make real vegan cheese using the normal cheese-making process.

So what are the issues?

Is it cannibal cheese?

No, there is no actual human in CCLab's cheese. The protein produced by the yeast is derived from a human protein. Think of it as a recipe. The recipe is written on paper, but you're not going to grind up the paper and sprinkle it on your cake. The yeast will "read" the blueprint and produce the correct sequence of amino acids to form the human casein protein.

All cheese-making is biochemistry. A starter culture of bacteria ferments the sugar in milk (lactose) to produce lactic acid, while enzymes in rennet cause the milk to coagulate into the curds that will become cheese. Modern cheese-making relies on science and technology to produce consistent texture and taste in any type of cheese. Processed cheese, contains powders, colors, stabilizers, preservatives and added ingredients. Many cheeses are already arguably GMO. (also: health effects of bovine-derived dairy)

CCLabs vegan cheese project is a healthy alternative because it is not derived from cows / two-fold: human health, and the welfare of livestock.

Is it any more or less ethical, legal, or significant than any other vegan cheese?

Why is it better than cow's milk?

There’s a saying that there is more cruelty in a glass of milk than in a hamburger.

Livestock's Long Shadow report:


-GMO: There is animal, vegetable and microbioal rennet. Most rennet today is GMO, produced in labs by fungal or bacterial sources. Labs also extract the DNA from calf stomach cells that encodes for chymosin to produce it in high enough quantities to be sold commercially.

As stated on wiki: Chymosin, the rennet enzyme, is already commercially produced by genetically modified organisms. They label it “microbially produced” and most major cheeses use it so also producing the casein protein shouldn’t make any difference with regards to law/regulation."

The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom ( applauds the method, stating that "genetically engineered chymosin will end the cheese making industry's reliance on the slaughter of calves."

Quorn is made from a mold species, and eggs (and more recently vegan products) are starting to be used as binders

Moot point? GM material is no longer in the final cheese product

-Environmental impact: "The cruelty of dairy. How do we get dairy? By punishing both the mother cow for life, and killing off baby cows that are the runoff by-product." No use of recombinant growth hormone.


Who will supply the genetic material? Privacy issues stem from that. Any health issues depending on donor health / genes?


-Access: can make healthy food more egalitarian. Healthy foods often more expensive or inaccessible to majority. Localized food and cheese making more possible by way of local labs.

As stated on wiki: Nutritional yeast is already used as a cheese substitute by many vegans, so we could make a cheaper less purified product

-Health & Safety: Do we need to address what yeast is / isn't and how it affects our health? “The American Parasite: Candida” scare.

Notes From Policy and Practices Discussion, 9/15/2014

From ELSI to human practices to “policy and practices” – what’s in a name?

-“Ethical, Legal, Societal Implications” implies a “downstream” model of social engagement; it suggests that we do the science first, then think about the implications later. Neglects the fact that social values are present in the practice of science from the start, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not, in the kinds of questions we choose to pursue and how we go about our research. -“Human practices” suggested a move to integrate thinking about issues “beyond the bench” with laboratory practices, being more reflexive about these issues from the start and allow them to shape the way we work -However, “Human practices” sounds anthropocentric – doesn’t reflect our concern for nonhumans (animals, the environment)! -With Policy and Practices, we aim to work from a framework of co-production: the idea that science and other sectors of society mutually constitute each other

Potential Concerns Brainstorming Session: What could possibly go wrong?!

RVC is motivated by the desire to find a more sustainable and humane method of cheese production. However, we acknowledge that it is not enough to simply have good intentions - we need to consider potential unintended consequences (good or bad) of our actions. Here are some concerns our members raised.

Yeast escape

Many of us are concerned about the potential risks of releasing our genetically engineered yeast into the environment.

-Disrupting microbial/ fungal ecosystems (brings up issues of scientific uncertainty since these ecosystems are poorly characterized – we might not even be aware if we had disrupted them!)

Complexity vs. simplification

-We tend to value decentralization and as a participant in the DIY movement, our organization is all about making science more accessible. A concern is that we may make the cheesemaking process more complicated and thereby less accessible – more dependent on expert knowledge and industrial capabilities.

-Some people think it could theoretically be done as a “homebrew” process, but this would be more likely to distribute yeast into the environment (conflicting with other potential concern below)

-Someone suggests that an alternative use of the technology is to replace the caseins in other products that use casein as an extract, to “veganize” other products that contain casein but are otherwise vegan

What if RVC becomes really really popular?

-Unforeseen consequences of shifting production – possible destabilization of economies.

-Possibility of putting current (more sustainable) producers of cheese out of business.

-Could cows go extinct?!

-The more popular RVC, the more impact our decisions about where to source ingredients will have on the environment. Highlights need to identify and use sustainable sources from the start (palm oil problem)

Risks to humans (health and safety)

-Our cheese might lack some of the nutrients of regular cheese (like B vitamins). We could add them back in but it doesn’t seem feasible to do this for every nutrient…and the more we do this, the more complicated our product gets, the more sourcing concerns are likely to arise

-Does casein cause cancer? (we don’t think the evidence suggests this)

-Possibility of transferring antibiotic resistance to other organisms (like gut bacteria)

-Possibility of creating a more allergenic protein (through site-directed mutagenesis)

Next steps for Policy and Practices

-We have already articulated a statement of our values. Now we need to consider how we will ensure that our actions and results remain in line with these values. What mechanisms of accountability can we put in place?