Ahead of his speaking role at Future Food-Tech, San Francisco, we spoke to Bruce Friedrich, CEO about the plant-based revolution and the expansion of The Good Food Institute.
What, in your opinion, has been the most important factor in increasing consumption of plant-based products over the last couple of years?
Start-ups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are harnessing the power of food technology to redefine the plant-based category, and, in turn, expanding the appeal of the plant-based burger to reach new demographics. These next-generation plant-based products are being designed for the more than 95% of the population that eats meat, rather than those who already adhere to a plant-based diet. Plant-based meat companies are breaking down meat into its component parts – proteins, fats, water, etc. – and finding creative ways to recreate each component from a plant source. We saw this turning point with the plant-based milk category a few years ago. Sales of these products were initially negligible, and now they make up at least 13% of the overall milk market. Plant-based meat products are now at the cusp of a similar watershed moment, and this is really only the beginning.
You have just announced the launch of GFI Israel. How has this come about and why is this location of strategic importance?
GFI has always recognized the importance of expanding our work beyond the United States because we know that meat consumption is rising worldwide, especially in emerging economies, where population growth and per capita income are both steadily increasing. Our first affiliate team was established in Brazil two years ago, and since then we have expanded to India, Asia Pacific, Europe, and, most recently, Israel.
Each of our offices is picked with technology and government support in mind. So that’s why we’re so excited about GFI-Israel. First, Israel is renowned for its innovative technology and entrepreneurial spirit; it’s often referred to as “The Start-up Nation” as more start-ups are established per capita there than anywhere else in the world. Additionally, Israel’s supportive government policies and funding have fostered an ecosystem that includes technological incubators and support for basic research and innovation that encourages investment capital. This has led to the country’s recognition as a world leader in agriculture research, water expertise and crop innovation, as well as a front runner in stem-cell research, tissue engineering, microbiology, and nanotechnology. With this technological expertise, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit and government support, Israel will play a significant role in the future of food globally.
What plant-based products are you most excited that could/will become mainstream over the next 3-5 years?
I’m really excited about the potential of plant-based seafood products. This is a sector of the market that has been largely ignored in comparison to the attention that animal-free versions of terrestrial animal products have received. Currently, 33% of wild-caught fish populations are being depleted faster than they can be replenished, and an additional 60% are being fished at maximum sustainable capacity. Meanwhile, worldwide demand for seafood is increasing at a rapid rate, and aquaculture has not proven to be a sustainable alternative at scale. As demand continues to rise and supply diminishes, seafood products are going to become very expensive and potentially pose an increased human health risk. Plant-based seafood will offer consumers the taste and experience they crave but without the food safety, labor, and environmental consequences rampant within the current system. I’m very optimistic about their potential to meet demand while helping preserve our oceans and their precious and complex ecosystems. And they’re technically not plants, but mycoproteins— which are derived from fungi and other microbes —are also very exciting. They require even fewer resources and less land to produce than plant-based products, and are almost endlessly customizable in terms of texture, flavor, and appearance. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how these products evolve over the coming years.
How can we successfully develop the plant-based products of the future, not just for the mainstream but tailoring to dietary and cultural tastes and preferences? What partnerships and collaborations could make this possible?
I speak about this question broadly in my TED talk from this past April, which has now been viewed almost 2 million times and translated into 25 languages; you can check it out here.
But really, this question underlines why the work of our international affiliate offices is so critical. Each of our five international teams is comprised of programmatic experts who are intimately familiar with their local food ecosystems and can navigate them using their understanding of cultural, business, and governmental norms.
In Brazil, for example, our team recognized the importance of working with established big food companies to help them launch their own plant-based product lines. Earlier this year, GFI-Brazil worked with Mantiqueira, South America’s largest egg supplier, to successfully develop and launch a new plant-based egg product. And GFI’s Asia Pacific team is a founding member of China’s Plant Based Foods Alliance, a coalition formed to accelerate the development of protein innovation in alignment with local taste preferences and traditions.
The biggest takeaway from GFI’s work in its affiliate regions has been that there is no one-size-fits-all approach: each region has varied consumer preferences, political climates, regulatory structures, and cultural and historical contexts that are determining the path forward. There is, however, still a lot of opportunity for collaboration and sharing of best practices between regions, and this is a key role that GFI will continue to play as the alternative protein sector develops worldwide.
Bruce will be speaking on the panel New Frontiers: Developing Plant-Based Products of the Future on Day 1 of the Future Food-Tech Summit in San Francisco.