Interviews

PBFA: “The Plant-Based Foods Industry Represents an Opportunity to Re-Envision How We Feed the World”

The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) is a pivotal organization in the plant-based food industry, founded with the mission to promote the expansion and acceptance of plant-based foods. Established in the United States, PBFA advocates for its members, which include plant-based food companies and affiliate organizations. Its primary goals are to improve conditions for plant-based food companies by working on policy initiatives, promoting plant-based products, and addressing regulatory issues that could impact the industry.

PBFA also focuses on engagement with retailers and foodservice providers to enhance the distribution and availability of plant-based products, aiming to make them more accessible to consumers. This involves educational efforts and collaborations to improve the understanding of the benefits and potentials of plant-based diets.

Rachel Dreskin, CEO of the PBFA and PBFI, here discusses their collective vision in this detailed, informed, and impassioned Q&A, urging, “We cannot pull our planet back from the brink without food system transformation.”

Can you share with us the core mission of the Plant Based Foods Association and the significant impacts it has made on the plant-based foods industry?
As the only US-based trade association for the industry, PBFA works exclusively on behalf of companies that make plant-based foods and the broader plant-based industry to champion, strengthen, and elevate our members; advance our movement; and advocate for a sustainable, plant-based future of food.

PBFA Logo

There’s no doubt that our vision is ambitious, but though we think big, we also think smart—moving the needle for plant-based foods through targeted policy action, data-driven marketplace strategy, and focused community-building. Our organization is over 200 members strong, representing a diverse roster of plant-based food companies, ingredient suppliers, investors, and key stakeholders in the plant-based industry.

“The shared vision of PBFA/I is to influence the creation of a plant-based food system, one where agricultural production is diversified, regenerative, resilient and adaptive”

While PBFA is a trade association supporting its members’ interests, we also have a sister non-profit organization, the Plant Based Foods Institute, known as “PBFI.” Working in alignment with the PBFA’s ethos that business is a powerful catalyst for change, PBFI’s focus is helping the plant-based foods industry realize its potential for driving food system transformation. The shared vision of PBFA/I is to influence the creation of a plant-based food system, one where agricultural production is diversified, regenerative, resilient adaptive, and based on plants for direct human consumption.

How have consumer behaviors and market trends shifted towards plant-based foods in recent years, and what role has PBFA played in these shifts?
Whether they’re buying in-store or online, eating in or dining out, the success of the plant-based foods industry is powered by consumers—and the incredible growth our sector has experienced in recent years demonstrates the many ways that consumers are connecting with plant-based products on shelves, on menus, and beyond. Retail sales for the plant-based foods industry have grown 79% in the past 6 years.

“…the success of the plant-based foods industry is powered by consumers”

PBFA actively partners with some of the largest retailers in the US as well as foodservice operators to inform their plant-based strategy and we collaborate to share the latest consumer insights with our membership to inform their success on a brand level as well. One example being our “Uncovering the Unmet Needs of Plant-Based Consumers” report which is designed to illuminate crucial consumer sentiments. This first-of-its-kind research leverages insights from Kroger’s plant-based food shoppers to hone in on what the plant-based industry needs to prioritize to meet the needs of consumers, build trust, and create sustainable pathways for growth. PBFA members are able to access reports for free and consult with the experts on our team to help craft their strategies as they look to expand.

PBFA driving forward
©PBFA

In which segments of the plant-based market are you observing the most rapid growth, and how is PBFA supporting its members in these areas?
When PBFA started reporting on US retail sales for plant-based foods nearly six years ago, we only covered a few categories – now, thanks to consumer demand and the growth of so many innovative companies, there are over 20 categories of plant-based foods we report on. We will be launching our full State of the Marketplace report that covers 2023 sales for plant-based foods in retail as well as e-commerce and foodservice. Generally, we see the plant-based foods industry diversifying with emerging categories gaining prominence – a few include plant-based creamers, protein powders, and baked goods.

“Retail sales for the plant-based foods industry have grown 79% in the past 6 years”

PBFA is dedicated to supporting our members in all categories of the industry through our policy and marketplace work. On the marketplace side, PBFA works with retailers to conduct research to inform merchandising best practices, provides insights on how foodservice menus can be optimized to entice consumers interested in plant-based, and we provide shopper marketing opportunities for brands to advertise in top retailers at an affordable price point. On the policy side, PBFA is dedicated to defending plant-based companies’ right to use common sense labeling terms, ensuring federal dietary guidelines accurately represent the many benefits of plant-based eating, and meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to educate them about the health, sustainability, and economic benefits that plant-based foods have to offer. Together, these strategic pillars help plant-based food companies compete in a landscape that is heavily stacked to support industrial animal agriculture.

PBFA It's Simple
©PBFA

In your opinion and experience, what are the main challenges facing the plant-based food industry today?
The plant-based food industry has experienced exponential growth across a broad variety of categories, so the challenges facing the industry are changing and adapting as quickly as the industry grows and evolves. We’ve reached a point in time when we have to be bold in making a shift to a plant-based food system — there is a human health, social justice, and planetary imperative to do so. Not to mention, consumer demand for values-aligned plant-based foods is soaring. Around 90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat, in part to lower their climate impact. In 2023,62% of US households purchased plant-based foods with a remarkable 81% repeat purchases.

The question is really how can we support our industry so plant-based food manufacturers can meet growing consumer demand, and how can we work with policymakers, farmers, and other agricultural stakeholders to ensure that the system supports a decisive shift toward a plant-based future.

One way we are hoping to influence this positive shift is via our Consumer Marketing Initiative. The plant-based foods industry has grown significantly over the past decade but supporting continued growth means we need to shift our focus to strategies that increase awareness for plant-based foods in service of stimulating market growth. The conversation around food generally has grown over the years – thanks to new social media platforms, the rise of influencer marketing, and personal blog platforms like Substack – and we want to ensure that plant-based food does not get lost in the noise. There is a direct correlation between the share of voice and market growth as awareness for certain products or a category overall grows.

PBFA data
©PBFA

Could you discuss any emerging opportunities that PBFA sees for the plant-based foods sector, especially in light of the global push towards sustainability?
The plant-based foods industry represents an opportunity to re-envision how we feed the world. Producing plant-based foods requires significantly less land, water, and carbon-producing processes and contributes far less to ocean acidification and biodiversity loss. Simply put, we can not avoid climate and environmental disaster without addressing our food system and cutting back on the number of animals raised for food.

Consumer awareness about the environmental benefits associated with plant-based foods is increasing. Research from our Plant-Based Migration Analysis report with 84.51° found that of shoppers who increased their dollars spent on plant-based foods in 2022, 33% stated their purchasing was motivated by environmental reasons.

Building a sustainable plant-based food system means starting from the ground up. Through PBFI, we’re launching the Sustainable Sourcing Community of Practice, a new network to build more sustainable supply chains across the plant-based sector. The Community of Practice will connect brands working to diversify ingredients, support more ecological farming practices, and improve livelihoods for the people who grow and make our food. By sharing knowledge, strategies, and solutions to common challenges, members will advance their own companies’ sustainability goals and strengthen their collective impact on the food system. We believe that as the plant-based foods industry grows, its influence to positively impact food systems change will grow – and we’re proactively supporting that effort through our Community of Practice and advocating for policy measures that make prioritizing plant-based foods more viable overall.

Umaro Foods breakfast sandwich
© Umaro Foods

How is PBFA working to influence policy and regulations in favor of plant-based food companies, and what successes have you had in this area?
Our policy work includes defending plant-based companies’ right to use common sense labeling terms, ensuring federal dietary guidelines accurately represent the many benefits of plant-based eating, and meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to educate them about the health, sustainability, and economic benefits that plant-based foods have to offer.

Congress is still trying to pass a new Farm Bill and we are looking for every opportunity to advance the PLANT Act. We’re working to help shape the 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in favor of promoting plant-based foods and diets. We’re also proactively engaging with FDA and USDA on regulatory priorities to support the plant-based sector.

In a recent win, the USDA announced an update to foods provided through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC. This was the first update to WIC in 10 years and incorporated expanded access to plant-based yogurts and cheeses, as well as higher flexibility for states to authorize additional plant-based foods as they meet program nutrient specifications. These are two key updates that PBFA advocated for and submitted comments to influence revisions.

plant-based-innovation-investing-meat-aisle
© PBFA

What are PBFA’s main goals for the next few years, and how do you plan to achieve them? Are there any upcoming projects or initiatives that PBFA is particularly excited about?
Our north star for the work of PBFA and PBFI is to drive food systems change by increasing the U.S. market share for plant-based foods to a critical tipping point that displaces industrial animal agriculture. We have reach
ed a moment in history where the actions that we take now, as a society and global community, will have an enormous bearing on the viability of our planet and the life it sustains. The science is clear: We cannot pull our planet back from the brink without food system transformation. We know that achieving this goal will require the support and collaboration of a variety of stakeholders but PBFA and PBFI are uniquely positioned to build aligned communities to advance our vision. We are beginning the process of developing our next three-year strategic plan ahead of 2025 to build the roadmap for how we reach our ambitious goals in the short- and long-term.

“The last decade has been monumental for the plant-based food industry”

For now, our biggest new effort is entering into the world of consumer-facing work through the Consumer Marketing Initiative. The last decade has been monumental for the plant-based food industry, with the introduction of new brands and products driving the industry to an $8 billion retail business. With this growth and consumer traction, however, the industry is experiencing increased headwinds and a diminishing “share of voice” within the broader food conversation. To reverse the tide and embed plant-based foods as a cultural mainstay for the long term, PBFA rallying leading brands, investors, and influential market partners to launch an overarching consumer marketing strategy and campaign that will not just create a cultural moment for plant-based foods, but spark a cultural movement.

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