February 20, 2024

These delicious French cheeses could disappear, scientists warn

Unfortunately, Camembert is in trouble.

The soft cheese, which smells a bit like feet, is on the brink of extinction, according to the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Other cheeses, including brie and several blue cheeses, are also threatened, the group warns.

This looming cheese crisis, this Camembert disaster, stems from a much bigger problem: a collapse in microbial diversity.

Every piece of camembert or smear of brie is an ecosystem, an assortment of fungi and bacteria that turn milk fats and proteins into hundreds of different compounds. These compounds produce the flavors, smells and textures we love.

However, in recent decades the genetic diversity of some of these microbes has collapsed. And today, some of the most famous French cheeses depend on just one vulnerable species of mold that is at risk of extinction.

This is bad news for France, bad news for bread and bad news for fine cheese lovers around the world. And it reminds us that biodiversity matters, even if you can’t see it. The better things in life indeed depend on it.

A wheel of Camembert that this author was forced to buy and taste for this story.
Benji Jones on assignment for Vox

Why Camembert as we know it could disappear

To make cheese, producers typically use fresh milk and mix bacteria and often fungi, including both yeasts and molds (fungi that tend to be fuzzy). Different microbe blends produce different types of cheese.

Historically, camemberts and bries likely depended on fungal strains of a fungal species called Penicillium biforme, according to Jeanne Ropars, an evolutionary biologist who works in a laboratory affiliated with CNRS. Each strain was genetically slightly different, and so the resulting cheeses had slightly different colors, flavors, and aromas.

About a century ago, however, cheesemakers identified a particular strain of P. biforme that was fast-growing and albino; it produced a fluffy white mold that was apparently quite tasty. This species, known as Penicillium camemberti, was henceforth considered the gold standard for brie and camembert (which differ mainly in size). It soon dominated the cheese industry, and the diverse group of other mold species used to make camembert and brie, and the colors they produced, disappeared through disuse.

Today, all camembert and brie cheeses worldwide are inoculated with this one genetically identical albino fungal species, which does not occur in the wild, Ropars said. That means a brie from a supermarket in France and a brie from a bodega in New York City have identical (or nearly identical) Penicillium microbes.

This is a good thing for those who value uniformity; for people who expect their brie to look a certain way, just as they want their tomatoes to be perfectly round and their apples bright red.

But uniformity comes at a price.

A hand in a blue plastic glove holds a stack of small white cheese curds.

A worker from the Farm Cite des Vents displays cheese curds in Saint-Flour, central France, on February 28, 2023.
Zoccolan/AFP via Getty Images

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the albino species cannot reproduce sexually, as most fungi can. This means that the albino species cannot ‘multiply’ with another individual to create new genetic diversity. To create more of these fungi, cheese makers must clone them, just like you propagate a plant from a cutting. Still, decades of replication of the same individual can introduce damaging errors into its genome, Ropars said.

That’s what happened to P. camemberti. In recent decades, the albino fungus has picked up mutations that disrupt its ability to produce spores, making it much more difficult to clone. Simply put, it’s now difficult for cheesemakers to grow the main mold used to make brie and camembert.

“Camembert will not disappear tomorrow,” says Ropars, and it is not clear how these challenges will affect the cheese supply. “But it will become increasingly difficult to produce it.”

In a broader sense, our foods are losing their resilience

In the cheese world, this problem is not unique to camembert and brie. The diversity of molds used to make blue cheeses, such as Gorgonzola and Roquefort, has also shrunk dramatically in recent decades, Ropars said. Farmers have similarly selected certain varieties that produce the right appearance, aroma and taste, thereby reducing the genetic pool. So far, these species – considered “domesticated” microbes – can still reproduce, but some are virtually sterile.

This rapid collapse in genetic diversity also threatens other food industries, as author Dan Saladino writes in his book Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Must Save Them. For example, most bananas we eat are genetically similar. That means that if a pathogen develops the right machinery to kill one, it can kill many – which is a very real threat.

A stack of camembert cheeses in a store.

A cheese stall in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Uniformity is especially bad in a warming world. Different genetic varieties of plants, such as wheat, have different strengths and weaknesses; some may be more tolerant of long periods of drought, for example. Losing diversity means losing several strengths that can guarantee the survival of a particular food.

“If you lose diversity within a species, you lose adaptability,” says Tatiana Giraud, a colleague of Ropars who also works at CNRS.

This diversity also matters among communities of wild organisms, Giraud said, whether you can see them or not. Fungal communities, although poorly researched, are invisible forces in the environment that operate in the background to ensure ecosystems function properly. They can break down dead leaves and branches, help plants absorb nutrients and remove toxins from the soil. Protecting the diversity of fungal species, scientists say, will safeguard these crucial services.

Get comfortable with funkier cheeses

Ultimately, this doesn’t mean we have to say goodbye to brie, or that camembert on toast is, say, toast. There is a way to save these cheeses, although it will require some changes in our own tastes and tolerance.

To make Camembert or brie, cheese makers could simply inoculate cow’s milk with other Penicillium biforme fungi, which are naturally present in raw milk (these microbes would have to be added manually when the milk is pasteurized). As a group, Penicillium biforme has a lot of genetic diversity and these fungi can reproduce sexually, Ropars said, which is key to maintaining genetic diversity.

P. biforme is closely related to the albino species, although it may give the cheeses a slightly different appearance and aroma. Maybe your brie wheel would be a little more blue or gray, or a little funkier. But this is something consumers should embrace, Ropars said: a diverse mix of flavors, of scents, a resilient collection of insects.

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