However interested consumers might be in sustainability, we don’t often think about it when we sit down at the table to eat dinner. When we consider the sources of the food we buy and eat, many of us picture grain growing in fields or cows in a pasture — it’s all natural, what could be unsustainable about that?
As it turns out, a lot. One pound of vegetables takes about 39 gallons of water to produce. But a pound of beef takes over 1,800 gallons. That same pound of beef produces almost 15 pounds of CO2; a pound of asparagus produces less than 1/36th of that.
Consumers are generally unaware how the food choices they make are affecting the environment but when they learn, they act differently. An organization called the Educated Choices Program runs food information programs for students and consumers. Educated Choices’ follow-up studies show that a majority of people who participate in their programs report that they’ve reduced or eliminated meat in their diet.
One of the issues for consumers is not knowing what to do when they learn about the negative impact of the food choices they’re making. Irina Gerry, Chief Marketing Officer at Change Foods says there is a great “sense of powerlessness” among consumers. Action on climate change and sustainability “has to be simple, something you can do as an individual and that’s missing.”
We are at the beginning of the beginning of making it simple for consumers. Unilever says that its vegan version of Hellman’s Mayonnaise is selling now in 10 countries and that 20% of Ben & Jerry’s flavors are plant-based.
How Change Happens
Part of the issue is what the government does. Tesla now makes more than 20% of its profit from selling regulatory credits for environmentally sustainable cars to other automakers who don’t make enough such cars. Because of regulation, the economic incentives favor more sustainable vehicles. But in food, the government does the opposite, spending about $38 billion in grain subsidies with 0.4% of that amount going towards fresh fruit and vegetables.
As consumers become more aware, their choices will change. Ten years ago, only tree-huggers bought electric vehicles. Now it’s cool and the best-selling vehicle in America, the Ford F-150, is available in an electric version that is priced competitively. The same is likely to happen with food but it will take time, according to the experts I spoke to at the Food Innovation & Investment Summit in San Francisco recently.
Valerie Christy, Investment Associate at impact investor Astanor Ventures, told me, “change takes a long time, not five years,” more like 10 years is reasonable, she said. The change will require two things: consumers to become informed and great choices to become available.
As Gerry of Change Foods told me, a lot depends on “how it comes out on a consumer’s plate.” Today many plant-based products available are defined by not being animal-based or environmentally harmful. What’s needed is products that are better tasting and more healthful than the current choices.
Matt Crisp, CEO of food ingredients maker Benson Hill, summed it up when he said that food manufacturing “sits on the precipice of massive disruption driven by colossal forces – the changing climate, severe geopolitical stresses, and today’s conscientious and digitally-informed consumer.”
Where Change Will Come From
If you’re concerned that all this change will cause you to have to eat salads and sprouts at every meal, fret not. The greatest innovation in food right now is coming from startups that are reproducing every conceivable form of animal-based protein but without the animals.
The new protein sources aren’t fake. Instead of coming from animals, they are grown in laboratories and biologically indistinguishable from their animal-based forebears. Right now, companies are making and developing beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs and all of it is identical to what comes from nature except that no animals are involved. Over the next decade, these food development technologies will get perfected and scaled.
To work, the taste and pricing of the new products will have to be competitive and accessible to normal people. But it’s also true that people’s tastes will change based on what they learn and the peers they associate with. The younger you are, the more likely it is that you prefer oat milk to cow’s milk. It’s not about age, it’s about value systems. Lou Cooperhouse, Founder & CEO of aquaculture company BlueNalu, says “what’s changed is it’s not all about taste and better-for-me, it’s about the planet.”
And it’s not just food, it’s everything. Alcoholic beverages are not known as health food but, according to LatentView Analytics, interest in alcoholic beverages that are more sustainable is exploding.
Katerina Axelsson, Founder and CEO of Tastry, an AI-based sensory science company focused on alcoholic beverages, told me, “Most of our winery clients are embracing sustainable initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint. Changing consumer sentiment is the key driver of that change.”
Like most change, the path for these new products is unlikely to be perfectly smooth. Consumers like what they know and switching will require time, education and expense.
What The Future Looks Like
There’s data showing that almost a quarter of consumers under 25 are vegan or vegetarian. As they get older, the demand for quality, animal-based protein will skyrocket. When that happens, the demand for good tasting, healthful food will not diminish, what comes to market will have to be all those things.
We can’t know now which of the new food products will be successful. But what we’re seeing in food, as we are seeing in so many consumer categories, is that new technology and cultures are causing shifts that are threatening to the legacy infrastructure and that will accelerate over time. It won’t happen quickly and now it sounds like a vegetarian’s fantasy. But when it happens, it will feel like the market changed all of a sudden and there’ll be no turning back.