Getting choosy about cheese

by Jennifer Knoch

My friend recently announced his attention to switch to a plant-based diet, with one exception . . . cheese. And I both applaud the intention and understand the exception, because how can a bunch of old milk taste so good?

Cheese has a higher environmental price tag because it takes a LOT of milk to make it — ten pounds of milk to make one pound of hard cheese, on average. That means a lot of animals, usually cows, who need a lot of land, water, and feed to raise, plus they produce methane, a greenhouse gas up to over 20 times as powerful as CO2. The dairy industry is working on carbon-cutting strategies, such as adjusting cows’ diets and installing methane digesters, but unless they remove the cow from the equation, cheese is still likely to be a carbon heavyweight. 

The biggest way to reduce your cheese impact is, of course, to eat less of it, but are there any rules of thumb to make indulging a little gentler on the planet? Absolutely.

Softer cheese > harder cheese

Lovers of brie, rejoice! Soft cheeses require less milk, which means they have a lower climate impact. They also don’t have to be aged, which involves storage at a climate-controlled temperature for months or even years. Dairy researcher Steve Zeng named feta the most climate-friendly cheese, but goat cheese, brie, camembert, and even mozzarella get a pass.

Is one animal really baaaaaaad?

Does it matter what kind of animal made the milk? Not really. Cows need the most feed and make the most methane, but they also produce a lot more milk than sheep or goats. Sheep may be even gassier than cows for the amount of milk they produce.

Support a local producer.

A local producer doesn’t automatically have a smaller footprint, but they may manage animals more responsibly and humanely. You’ll also do some good by supporting a local business. My favourite local cheese is Montforte Dairy’s Waltzing Matilda.

Try a vegan cheese replacement.

There are now a range of vegan cheese options, from an everyday replacement like Daiya or fancy artisanal cashew cheese like Culcherd that certainly wouldn’t look out of place on a rustic wood plank. For a dash of cheesy flavour (and bonus B vitamins), I integrate nutritional yeast (Karma has it in bulk) into some recipes, like one of my top salad dressings.

Store it properly.

Now that we know how precious cheese is, don’t let it go to waste! I’ve been known to cut off mouldly parts of a hard cheese and carry on eating it, and the Mayo Clinic backs this strategy if you cut away one inch around the mould. (Eating mouldy soft cheese is widely considered a no-no.) Ideally store it in a designated cheese drawer in your fridge, but certainly don’t store it in the door, as I used to. Storing it in plastic isn’t great — ideally rewrap in beeswax wraps or parchment (which you can reuse).