Special Video Series All Together Now

The ‘Queen of Vegan Cheese’ is trying to change the way we eat to save the planet

Miyoko Schinner is not subtle about her plans to change the dairy industry. A vegetarian since age 12 and a vegan for more than 30 years, Schinner has been working tirelessly for decades to change people’s perceptions about animals and the foods we derive from them. In 2014 she launched Miyoko’s Creamery, a mission-driven vegan cheese and butter company based in Northern California that has exploded in popularity in the past few years, as consumers have become more conscious of the environmental impact of their food consumption. 

Around the world, the meat and dairy industries produce 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle (raised for beef and milk) comprising 65 percent of livestock emissions. Of particular concern to Schinner is the amount of water and land it takes to raise and sustain these animals. 

“Agriculture today is not as it was 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 1,000 years ago,” Schinner explains. “Forty-one percent of all land mass in the United States today is dedicated to animal agriculture. Not only grazing land for cattle but also the crops that are grown as the feed for livestock. That’s a frightening amount of land. We’re in a drought right now in California, and animals consume far more water than humans do.”

In fact, producing 1 pound of cheese requires roughly 600 gallons of water — water that primarily is used to grow crops to feed animals, as well as to directly sustain them. Schinner’s argument is one of efficiency: “We could be just growing crops and eating that directly, saving water, saving resources, and saving land,” she says. Schinner recently announced a project to help California dairy farmers convert from animal agriculture to growing plants, to integrate them into the supply chain of the company’s vegan cheeses. 

Despite advancements in production technology, dairy cheese is still generally cheaper than the plant-based alternatives. As Schinner explains, “that’s because of government subsidies that favor large corporate interests in animal agriculture, in milk and dairy. The cheapest meats, the cheapest dairy products are oftentimes dumped on underserved communities and school children, people that are at the greatest risk for health issues. “

Schinner advocates for a system where those subsidies are transferred to plant-based foods, to bring the cost down and make them more accessible. “We need to change that and make healthy fruits and vegetables, legumes, grains, and plant-based foods available to every community, every single human being on this planet,” she says.

Schinner’s cheese strategy is to make products that are familiar, recognizable, and a substitute for the dairy products someone might eat, but made more sustainably and still with nutritional value. The process is similar to dairy cheese making but starts with a plant milk, usually cashew milk. The milk is inoculated with dairy cultures (lactic acid bacteria) and then undergoes fermentation, followed by brining, aging, or smoking, depending on the type of cheese. Miyoko’s products range from cream cheese to cheddar to their new product, liquid mozzarella. 

“Mozzarella is actually the most widely consumed cheese in the United States because of pizza,” says Schinner. The vegan mozzarella, which comes in liquid form in a bottle, is poured over pizza and then sets in the oven, producing a convincing visual, textural, and flavor simulacra of dairy-based mozzarella. 

“As the food system evolves it’s very clear that how we speak about these foods also must evolve,” says Schinner. In 2019, Miyoko’s was sued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture over its use of terms like “butter,” “lactose-free,” and “cruelty free.” The CDFA also demanded that Miyoko’s remove a photo of a woman hugging a cow from the website. The photo was taken at Rancho Compasión, a farm sanctuary founded by Schinner in 2015 that is now home to roughly 100 animals who were once neglected, abandoned, or homeless. The sanctuary operates tours and volunteer programs, as a way of demonstrating to people how to live a compassionate lifestyle towards and with animals.

In 2020 Miyoko’s counter-sued the CDFA on first amendment grounds and won the lawsuit in August of 2021, with a judge ruling that consumers were not confused by the language and that Miyoko’s could proceed as long as they used modifying expressions on the packaging like “vegan.” 

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re in the middle of this food revolution, because the power is in every single consumer’s hands to make a difference for the world, actually reversing climate change,” says Schinner. “What you eat could determine the outcome of the planet.”