Ten Questions with Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director at The Good Food Institute

From foodtank.com
Kate Reed

Food Tank, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is hosting the 1st Annual Chicago Food Tank Summit on November 16, 2016. 

This event will feature more than 40 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director at The Good Food Institute, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Bruce Friedrich (BF): In 1987, I read Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Before then, it had somehow not occurred to me that farm animals have to eat a lot more calories in feed than they turn into meat. It’s a vastly inefficient system that wastes at least 90 percent of the caloric inputs (and that’s just for chicken—it’s even worse for other animals). Some of the animals’ feed they burn off simply existing (just like everyone reading eats more than 1,000 calories a day just to exist), and some of that feed produces inedible parts of the animals—bones, blood, fur, etc.

Most of us recoil at food waste, but the waste involved in feeding grains and soy to animals that they simply burn off is just as real as if we threw all the food straight into the trash. I open with this concept and expound upon it in a presentation I gave at a recent Bread for the World conference.

A few years back, the United Nations (U.N.) Special Envoy on Food argued that biofuels are a human rights crime because they divert 100 million metric tons of corn and wheat to fuel, driving up the price of those crops and leading to starvation. That same U.N. report he was citing indicated that 756 million metric tons of corn and wheat are diverted to feed farm animals, with equally dramatic economic effects. And that doesn’t even count the 85 percent of the global soy crop that is fed to farm animals, leading to scarcity, rain forest deforestation, and the displacement of farmers in the developing world.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

BF: At The Good Food Institute, we see plant-based and “clean” meat (i.e., meat produced in a culture, without animal slaughter) as most likely to be maximally transformative. Animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and global poverty, produces products that are generally unhealthy, and supports a treatment of animals that most people find deeply objectionable. These are points that are generally accepted by anyone who considers them. So it’s clear that conventional animal agriculture is ripe for innovation, and we exist to encourage that.

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

BF: We’re very excited about a variety of innovations in both plant-based and clean meat, dairy, and eggs. In particular, we’re excited about what Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek, and Memphis Meats are doing.

For example, Beyond Meat, which counts Bill Gates among its investors and boosters, just debuted the first raw, plant-based meat available right in the meat counter, and it sold out in hours. Impossible Foods, which has received (and turned down) buyout offers from Google to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, is bringing the most realistic plant-based burger to market imminently. Hampton Creek is doing amazing work with plant proteins and plans to create an open source database to accelerate even more segment growth—similar to what Elon Musk has done with electric car technology. And Memphis Meats has raised millions of dollars for clean meat development; Fortune Magazine called them the hottest tech in Silicon Valley.

There is a lot of other incredibly exciting work happening in both plant-based and clean food technology, and it would take pages to do the question full justice. The future for these technologies and the companies taking on this pioneering work is insanely bright.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

BF: I can’t pick one food hero—there are just too many. Really, I’m inspired by anyone who thinks about new ways to solve big problems. I’m inspired by anyone who sets goals that are focused on making the world kinder and our economy more sustainable. For example, I’m inspired by Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, R.J. Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Elon Musk and Tesla Motors, and everyone who is working to bring cell phone technology to the far reaches of the Earth, to bring weather reports, crop prices, and banking to subsistence farmers. I’m especially inspired by the venture capitalists who see a problem and choose to fund the innovation that will solve the problem. In the food space, specifically, I’m inspired by Bill Gates’ support for Beyond Meat and other plant-based food tech companies, and by Li Ka-Shing and Sergey Brin because of their support for clean alternatives to animal-based meat, dairy, and eggs. I am also inspired, of course, by the food innovators themselves, and probably no one more so than Memphis Meats’ CEO Uma Valeti, who left a successful cardiology practice at the University of Minnesota to put all of his energy into creating real meat that doesn’t have all of the global health impacts and threats that conventional animal meat has. Dr. Valeti is a visionary, and he’s probably my top food hero. His commitment is deeply inspiring to me.

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

BF: Right now, plant-based milk comprises more than eight percent of the milk market, but plant-based meat comprises only about 0.25 percent of the meat market. I have no doubt that we can close and then surpass that market share, and it’s exciting to me to think about the fact that simply getting plant-based and clean meat to 15 percent would spare about 1.4 billion land animals per year, and more than 2 billion sea animals. It would also have massive positive impacts on global poverty and other sustainability issues, climate change and other environmental issues, and global health.

Just about everyone wants to make choices that are consistent with their values, so just about everyone supports sustainable farming practices, wants to lessen their adverse impact on the climate, and wants to see animals treated well. The solution to a lot of very big problems is pretty simple—we just need to create and promote the companies that are making plant-based and clean alternatives to animal products a reality. That’s why we formed The Good Food Institute (GFI)—to accelerate the plant and cultured spaces as effectively and efficiently as possible.  

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system that our grandparents didn't have to deal with?

BF: Our grandparents didn’t live in the same global food system that we do, and meat consumption was a fraction of what it is now. They were dealing with far fewer animals and had not heard of climate change. Plus, the system wasn’t as globalized: there wasn’t the same link between eating meat in this country and deforestation and poverty elsewhere.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

BF: A key focus of GFI is to put plant-based and clean alternatives to animal products onto the radar and into the budgets of governments, big food companies including meat companies, and venture capital investors, so that we can address a variety of issues and opportunities at once. There is tremendous financial opportunity in plant-based and clean alternatives to animal products, and these products can also help governments deal with climate change, resource scarcity, and the prospect of a world without antibiotics; basically, we’re talking about solving some of the world’s biggest problems, using a clear solution that is currently vastly under-resourced. On the one hand, these are massive issues; on the other hand, the solution is pretty simple—markets and food technology.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

BF: Obviously people can eat less meat—that’s pretty easy. But much more important is for people to educate their friends, family, key policymakers, corporate executives, and so on. If someone is on the Food Tank website, they’re off to a good start. It’s important to find the causes with regard to food that excite you and get active. Changing our personal decisions is great, but real power resides with changing as many others as possible, and then the entire system. For readers who want to support The Good Food Institute’s efforts, please sign up for our email list at GFI.org.

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

BF: I’m not sure we can solve it for the next generation, but I don’t think we’re too far away from a world in which 100 percent of meat is either plant-based or clean (i.e., grown in a culture without animal slaughter). We have the technology—we just need the will. Considering the myriad of problems in conventional animal agriculture, I think it’s likely that, in a few generations, animal slaughter for food will be extremely rare in the developed world.

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

BF: Subsidies—it’s ridiculous that foods that contribute to such an array of problems are subsidized by the U.S. government (and most other governments, of course). Conservatives tend to oppose subsidies because they are anti-competitive and interfere with the fair workings of the marketplace, and liberals tend to oppose subsidies to industries that are harming our environment and human health. But because of the power of animal agriculture, the subsidies persist. It’s time for a president to spend some political capital to get rid of subsidies for products that are bad for the environment, our health, and animals.


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Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Chicago include: Almond Board of California, Annie’s Inc., Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Blue Apron, Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Clif Bar & Company, Driscoll's, Elevation Burger, Farmer’s Fridge, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Inter Press Service (IPS), Niman Ranch, and Organic Valley. More to be announced soon.

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