Nearly all cheese-styles utilizeacoagulant (rennetting agent) in order to clot fluid milk and produceagel, with the exception of some fresh and soft-ripened cheeses, which undergo only lactic-acid coagulation. Most cheese today, espec¬ially cheeses that are made onalarger scale, do NOT use rennet derived from the stomach-lining of un-weaned ruminants. That would be preposterously inefficient for the methods of industrial cheese producers. These producers use either Microbial Rennet or, now, more commonly, Fermentation-Produced Chymosin (FPC), which are both vegetarian-diet compatible. Microbial rennet originates from fungal or bacterial sources that naturally produce chymosin or “rennin,” and acts similarly to the chymosin derived from the stomach lining of un-weaned ruminants. Fermentation-Produced Chymosin is nature-identical to calf chymosin, and acts therefore identically. It is produced through fermentation ofahost microorganism impregnated with the same rennet-producing genes found inacalf’s stomach, but again originating from both fungal and bacterial sources with only copies of what would otherwise be derived from the stomach lining itself. Actual Animal Rennet is used in typically only more traditionally produced cheeses around the world, on smaller scale operations, and often on the small farms from which the milk is also derived. There are actual vegetable-based rennets that have been used for centuries in certain Sheep/goat milk cheeses in areas like Extremadura in Spain and also in Portugal, however they are exceedingly rare, comparatively, and function somewhat differently than Animal or Microbial rennet. It is unlikely that most people will ever taste cheese coagulated with this cardoon thistle stamen rennet – though this is highly unfortunate as they are some of my personal favorite, though incredibly exotic in taste as cheese goes.
In fact, for vegetarians who espouse the diet for genuine concern of animal well-being and to whom the support of ecologically-sound agricultural practices are important, it is quite convoluted and perverse to seek out cheeses in the marketplace with only one judging-parameter, such as the use of Microbial Rennet or FPC for its vegetarian diet compatibility. One would by no means be supporting animal well-being and ecologically-sound agricultural practices simply by seeking out cheese made with vegetarian-friendly rennet. This is akin to purchasing the certified organic cotton t-shirt that was constructed inasweatshop by unpaid child laborers – with cotton that was grown organically, but by the hands of underpaid and ill-treated farm-laborers in the worst imaginable living conditions.
I’ll start off withasimple reality check and mathematical/rhetorical question. Ifafemale dairy cow gives birth witha50/50 ratio of male/female calves, how many of the male offspring should one assume the dairy farmer would need to keep – since they cannot be milked? So, where there is dairying, there is inherently (male) beef cattle produced in calving season. It is an inescapable truth… and if one cannot come to terms with that and read whatIhave to say next, he or she ought to cease eating dairy altogether – understanding that most non-dairy dairy-alternatives are highly processed cash-crops with little to no traceability, derived from ecologically-intensive agricultural practices and ingredients (with similarly dubious origins and health implications) that are transported from all over god-knows-where to finally be processed by some of the world’s largest (and ethically questionable) food corporations intoa“food-product” that somehow meets many individuals’ maladjusted concept of nutrition and principled consumerism.
It would be more relevant to focus on the method and scale of farming that has generated the milk from which your cheese, etc. is contrived. Huge companies that produce vast quantities of cheese typically source milk from similarly industrialized dairy farms, or factory farms, on which cows are treated withasimilar amount of care as animals on Beef/Pork/Poultry/Egg Industry AFOs and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Whether for meat, milk or eggs, big ag-industry factory farms pose phenomenal risks to animals, the environment, and human health. Environmental issues from devastating water and soil contamination to significant air pollution are rampant in the regions that are home to these operations. Sewage runoff contaminated with antibiotics, growth hormones and disease-carrying pathogens and bacteria from animal waste lagoons or “holding ponds” seeps into surrounding soil and water, contaminating lakes, rivers and streams as well as other farm-products that reach consumers. Vast amounts of bull calves on these massive farms are the impetus behind the huge veal industry. Dairy cows on commercial factory farms can expect to live for maybe3years (lactation-cycles) before being culled, after being induced into incredibly high-volume milk production. This, because under severe stress, poor diet, artificial hormones, and in unclean, unnatural, incredibly cramped conditions,adairy cow quickly becomes infertile, develops ketosis, mastitis or lameness, and or simply ceases to produce milk at an “economically viable” volume. This is less than one third the lactation-cycles, and less than one fifth the lifespanadairy cow could expect onasmall dairy farm with access to fresh pasture,anatural diet, and proper care.
There, every cow is revered instead of disdained, and its labor, like the farmers, tempered to the optimal balance of productive work, rest and the appreciation of the finer things in life, like green grass, good dirt, fresh air, space to roam, and even relaxing music in some dairy barns. Cheese from these small artisan producers and farmsteads is as complex in flavor as it is in nutrition and biochemistry, and requires great mastery of both the craft and science of dairying and cheesemaking-but is as simple in ingredient as it was over six thousand years ago. Many regions in the world have consistently been home to traditional farming, dairying, and cheesemaking practices for well over three and four thousand years and as such are beacons of the literal definition of ecological, social, and economic sustainability. The constituents of these communities and systems of agriculture are some of the healthiest and longest-living in the world – land, animals, and people included. From communities in Vermont and the California coast to the French and Swiss Alps, and Basque country, these are some of the most pristinely beautiful locations on Earth. Cheeses can represent and harness all of this (the literal biochemistry of these places) as well as the profound effort and history associated with the human cultures alongside which they developed, or they can harness somethingalot less appetizing and digestible (literally) – gastronomically or philosophically.
The huge industrial cheese producers almost exclusively use vegetarian-friendly Microbial Rennet or FPC as one component of the final product, as do many small farms and artisan cheesemakers, because it is cheap, easy, consistent and efficient, but it is hardly the best, or evenalogical indicator for determining ethical provenance orawholesome end-product. It would be wiser, and certainly less duplicitous, to make the effort to learn more about the derivation of everything around oneself, to question everything and flesh intelligible information from suggestive labeling/marketing, to not let the wool be pulled over one’s eyes and blindly follow (sheep pun fully intended), and to attempt to make every decision an educated one. If one finds it difficult to discern the provenance of, or ascertain any viable information aboutaparticular product, it would likely be good measure to simplify the search and seek simpler products, like those produced on (and traceable to) small farms and producers that proudly put their names, faces, ingredient sources, and information about visiting their farms and facilities on their products. You’ll findaconsiderably higher correlation between sustainably managed dairy farms with the most well cared-for animals and land (and the most incredibly flavorful cheeses) and the use actual Animal Rennet (or actual Vegetable Rennet), than you would with either Microbial Rennet or Fermentation-Produced Chymosin. It wouldn’t be negative, but simply ambiguous, and therefore invalid asaparameter upon which to make such value judgmen