Alison Rabschnuk is Director of Corporate Engagement at The Good Food Institute (GFI). Alison leads the corporate engagement team in their work with leading food processing and food service companies, supermarkets, and restaurants to help increase the quality and quantity of plant-based products available on the market.
GlobeScan’s Nadia Hazime spoke with Alison about the role that plant-based and cellular meat can play fostering the transition to a more healthy and sustainable food system.
What is The Good Food Institute’s (GFI) strategy for bringing change to our current food system?
We are a supply-side organization, so we don’t focus on consumer behaviour or messaging. What we try to do is help companies make meat in a way that is more sustainable, healthy, and humane. We know that changing consumer behaviour is difficult. For example, if you look at the percentage of consumers in the US who identify as vegan or vegetarian today compared to 20 years ago, those percentages haven’t really changed much. It is difficult for consumers to make changes, especially if alternative choices aren’t easily available.
Our hypothesis is that if there are enough alternatives to animal products that taste as good, if not better, than animal products, are price competitive, and are widely available, then consumers will choose them, even leaving ethics off the table. We really are at the nascent stage of these industries, but given the very quick momentum that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, we believe that we’re going to hit a tipping point after which the acceleration away from industrial animal meat and toward plant-based and cellular meat will be inevitable.
Do you envision that tipping point being driven by sustainability or ethical reasons?
It’s a variety of reasons. A primary reason why people today choose to eat more plant-based foods and less meat is health. But it’s also environmental sustainability. As more people learn about the environmental harm of animal agriculture, the threat of antibiotic resistance, and animal welfare implications, we believe that the change will happen. But the flip side is that there must be alternatives available to consumers. So once the supply is there to meet the consumer demand, that’s when the tipping point is going to happen.
There are many motivations, but it’s all pointing to one thing which is that consumers, especially the younger generation, are looking for alternatives. I think a crucial tipping point is also that many corporations who are developing plant-based products are no longer focusing on vegans and vegetarians, but instead are focusing on meat-eaters. That’s where the bigger opportunity lies.
GFI takes a unique approach to promoting meat alternatives by moving away from ethical and moral arguments and instead focusing on bringing viable alternatives to market. What have been the benefits of this approach?
It’s always easier to get corporations on board when you can show them the money to be made by supplying consumers with the products they are seeking. It’s been much easier for us to get access to decision makers by being partners rather than adversaries.
How does GFI’s work contribute to the transition to a more sustainable food system?
We’re doing this through our five main program areas: policy, innovation, science and technology, corporate engagement, and international engagement. Our policy department works to ensure a smooth and clear regulatory path for both plant-based foods as well as cell-based foods. On the innovation side, we work to ensure that start-ups and entrepreneurs in the plant-based food space have as much material support as we can provide them. In science and technology, our team of PhD scientists work to ensure that the scientific foundation has been established for plant-based and cell-based meat. In corporate engagement, we help manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants to understand the growth of the plant-based sector, and the potential of cell-based meat. We also provide advice on how to market these products and how to merchandise them. Finally, our international engagement department aims to replicate the work we’re doing in the US across all of our international offices.
What kind of trends are happening in the market that excite you or demonstrate promising opportunities?
What’s so new and exciting, and really the reason this whole sector is getting so much press, is Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. These companies decided to take a different approach to plant-based meat through their production, marketing, and retailing. They’ve taken a scientific and molecular approach to replicate the sensory experience of eating meat by using plants. No other company had done that before. The other thing those companies have done is that they are unabashedly targeting meat eaters, rather than vegans or vegetarians. Beyond Meat also changed the merchandising of these products by demanding they be sold in the meat aisle. Because of these things, they’re getting a lot of press and there is potential for a much larger market given they are going after the majority of consumers.
What do you see as some of the primary obstacles that are preventing a transition to plant-based or cell-based meat alternatives?
I think the main obstacles to consumers are price and availability. On the price front, that’s going to be solved when these companies achieve more prominence of sales and are able to lower prices. Currently, the premium of the product is being passed on to the consumer, which they seem more than happy to pay at this point, but for us to really achieve maximum impact, the price of these products does need to come down. On availability, these products are being carried in more retailers and restaurants than ever before, but they’re still not everywhere. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat literally cannot keep up with the demand, so over time as they are able to expand their facilities and as other companies come on the scene, that problem will be overcome as well.
While demand for plant-based alternatives is increasing, global meat eating is actually on the rise, particularly in middle-income countries like China and Brazil. How do you see this trend playing out in the next few years?
We are seeing interest in plant-based eating around the globe. We have a lot of international market research which is showing that there are very similar dietary shifts happening in a lot of other countries. While meat consumption is on the rise in some areas of the world, it’s partly because the supply of plant-based meat and other alternatives is not enough to meet demand.
A lot of it also has to do with consumers becoming more educated. Disease outbreak related to meat production seems to be hitting the headlines more and will continue to raise questions in consumers’ minds. Particularly on the issue of antibiotic resistance, some organizations are predicting it will be one of the biggest threats to humanity, even more significant than climate change. The more this information becomes public, the more we think people will start switching to alternative protein. The more that people learn about and understand the realities of climate change, the more they will change.
Do you think that a transition to cell-based meat would help to feed more people more sustainably than conventional animal agriculture does?
The science behind cell-based meat has been proven. There are about 36 companies around the world that have already proven that they can grow real animal meat. The big challenge is now how to scale this, and particularly how to take it from a small laboratory to a large factory. There have been some scientists that have done preliminary life-cycle analyses, and they are predicting that cell-based meat will use 90% less land, water and energy than conventional animal agriculture. The benefits from an environmental and human health perspective are enormous, and it’s significant from an animal welfare perspective as well.
Thinking about the next few years, what are your expectations of the future impact of GFI?
In the coming years we hope to have open-source cellular and plant-based meat research labs that universities, scientists, and corporations can visit to experiment and do the work necessary to move these industries forward. We will also likely have an additional competitive grant program. We launched our first one this past January and gave out $3 million to scientists around the world working to solve scientific problems addressing both cellular and plant-based meat. Through our innovation department, we’ll help in the creation of new companies. We have already aided in the creation of a few companies like Good Catch and Good Dot in India, and we’ll hopefully help in the creation of even more. Additionally, through our annual conferences as well as our online courses, people will be able to continually learn more and network. Not to mention, all of this will be replicated across all the global regions where we have offices.