The Good Food Institute is a global nonprofit building a more sustainable, healthy, and just food system. Its aim is to bring closer a future where plantbased foods and slaughter-free ‘cultured’ meat are a normal part of life. Regular readers will be familiar with the crucial and compelling work of the GFI which we cover on a regular basis .
The GFI consists of scientists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and policy experts working to harness the power of food innovation and markets to accelerate the transition of the world’s food system to plant-based and cellular agriculture.
We were delighted to speak with Sanah Baig, Chief of Staff at the Good Food Institute.
Please can you explain the purpose of the GFI to our readers?
We work across three key programmatic areas: corporate engagement, science & technology, and policy. Our Corporate Engagement Team builds collaborative relationships with the largest food processing companies, chain restaurants, and grocery stores to maximize the availability, quality, quantity, and promotion of plant-based and cultivated meat. Our Science and Technology Team are the leading experts on the cutting-edge science of alternative proteins. They analyze the state of the industry, identify top research opportunities, engage scientists and engineers from academia and industry, and mobilize funding to accelerate the industry.
Along with Corporate Engagement, they also bring people together to form new companies and connect these new companies to expertise and funding. Our Policy Team works closely with legislators and regulators to ensure a clear and efficient path to market for cultivated meat. They also work on the federal and state levels to ensure that plant-based meat can compete on a level playing field. Finally, they work to secure R&D funding for alternative proteins from governments and funding institutions.
GFI does all of the above not only in the United States, but also through our five affiliates in Asia-Pacific, Brazil, Europe, India, Israel, and in collaboration with partners in a growing number of countries around the world. We are trying to accelerate the delivery of sustainable protein globally as quickly as possible.
What were the GFI’s greatest achievements in 2019 – what are you most proud of?
Our team accomplished so much in 2019 that it’s hard to pick just a few achievements. Our SciTech team provided $3 million in grants for open-access research on alternative proteins. Our Corporate Engagement team published State of the Industry reports on plant-based and cultivated meat, providing the first in-depth analyses of the investment landscapes in these fields. Our Policy team successfully lobbied Congress to affirm support for funding for alternative proteins research in the 2020 agricultural appropriations report.
Internationally, GFI India secured a partnership with the Indian government to create the Centre for Cellular Agriculture for cultivated meat research, and GFI Brazil provided support to the country’s largest egg producer to launch a plant-based egg product. GFI Europe was officially incorporated in Belgium and began operating across the continent. GFI APAC published the first China Plant-based Industry report, while GFI Israel worked with two leading universities to add alternative protein courses to their 2020 curricula.
All of these achievements and more are detailed in our 2019 Year in Review.
Where do you already have subsidiaries?
GFI has always recognized the importance of expanding our work beyond the United States. 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 just over three years ago, and since then we have expanded to India, Asia Pacific, Europe, and Israel.
Can you give us an idea of the scale of the GFI – how many employees in how many countries?
We have 65 employees in the United States and about 30 employees across our affiliate teams.
What exactly is cultivated meat and how is it produced?
We can grow meat directly from cells. Compared to conventional meat production, this alternative requires a fraction of the land and water and emits a fraction of the greenhouse gases. This is just a much better way of producing meat for our environment.
Beginning with a small sample of animal cells, we can directly grow the cells into the same meat, poultry, and fish products we enjoy eating today. In conventional animal farming, cell growth occurs in an animal. But we can grow these cells in what is known as a cultivator. The cultivator facilitates the same biological process that happens inside an animal by providing warmth and the basic elements needed to build muscle: water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Cultivating meat is similar to the way we help plant cuttings to take root in a greenhouse, which provides warmth, fertile soil, water, and nutrients.
The result is an abundance of pure meat, identical to conventional meat at the cellular level. It looks, tastes, and cooks the same. Compared to conventional meat production, meat cultivation requires only a fraction of the natural resources, decreasing the rate of methane emissions, deforestation, antibiotic resistance, biodiversity loss, and foodborne illnesses. Because this new method of production requires fewer resources, it should ultimately be possible to cultivate meat at a lower cost. Innovators around the world are working to bring this new way of producing beef, poultry, pork, fish, and seafood to market at a competitive price point.
When will cultivated meat be on the shelves? Why do we need it?
The current consensus is that cultivated meat may be available in very limited terms in high-end restaurants (e.g. a pasta dish with cultivated meatballs) within a year or two, but that it will be at least five more years beyond that before cultivated meat/seafood is anywhere near widely available to the average consumer.
We need cultivated meat for a number of reasons. Climate change is quickly approaching a point-of-no-return, and land and marine ecosystems are degrading at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, the human population is exploding and per capita income is increasing, which is driving the global demand for meat and exacerbating these issues. Unabated, meat production and consumption will increase by another 50% or more by 2050, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Industrial animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14% of greenhouse gas emissions— more than the entire transportation sector combined (i.e., the exhaust of every plane, train, and automobile). Chatham House – the most widely cited think tank in Europe – declared that governments will be unsuccessful in meeting their Paris Accord goal of holding climate change to less than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 unless their populations consume less meat.
However, the vast majority of people are not likely to make food choices based on environmental concerns. We’ve known for 50 years that conventional meat production is inefficient and polluting, and yet meat consumption continues to increase, especially in developing economies. We are unlikely to change that, but we can change the nature of the meat that people eat.
How is the GFI’s work financed?
GFI is completely financed by philanthropy, both from foundations and from individual donors. We have an amazing community of donors that are very invested in our work and wholeheartedly support our mission and theory of change.
How will coronavirus impact the world of plant-based industry?
While it’s still a bit early to say, there are several possibilities we think could happen. For example, product demand could outpace supply, which would require a significant ramp-up of production. We could continue to see significant declines in foodservice sales, which could trigger a meaningful shift in distribution channels towards retail and direct to consumer (DTC). And of course, there are a host of possible ingredient sourcing and manufacturing challenges that could impact production.
In the near-term, manufacturers will need to shift volume from foodservice to retail channels. Foodservice outlets have provided a great channel to introduce consumers to plant-based meat – including the many new consumers introduced to plant-based meat through the popular restaurant chains that launched new options in the past year. Those consumers will now be looking to purchase the same plant-based meat products at the grocery store. Retailers will be looking to manufacturers who can provide a steady supply of high-velocity plant-based proteins.
Many retailers and restaurants have slowed down or paused new product launches, so many existing and planned tests of plant-based items are now on hold, which will depress short-term sales growth for many plant-based companies. This is likely to impact many emerging categories and newer, smaller brands throughout the store, whether plant-based or not.
Some previously overlooked plant-based product attributes are coming in handy during the crisis, such as shelf-stable plant-based milks. While cow milk is usually sold fresh and perishable, many plant-based milks can be stored at ambient temperatures and last longer, which consumers are seeing as an asset as everyone stocks up and tries to avoid frequent grocery store trips. The recent history of plant-based meat showed stronger growth in refrigerated vs. frozen plant-based meat, but with consumers now more interested in longer shelf life, the frozen category might gain a growth boost that could build long-term loyalty.
What is your biggest focus in 2020 and in the current climate?
Our focus in 2020 is staying the course. We have been on an incredible trajectory the last few years and are as committed to our mission as ever. While we are no doubt experiencing changes to our work, our aim has not shifted. Time that we would have spent on travel and attending conferences is now devoted to reflecting, strategizing, and strengthening our internal systems. We are also very focused on keeping morale up and providing our employees with the support that they need during this time, be it additional mental health resources or even greater flexibility in taking time off to take care of family.
Luckily, most of our employees were already working remotely, so we have been able to continue our work fairly seamlessly. We are interfacing with companies, universities, scientists, and investors as much as ever, and are finding more ways to reach our audiences virtually. GFI Israel, for example, recently hosted a webinar series that had over 600 attendees, and our University Innovation Specialists are helping students figure out how to advance alternative proteins while their school experience has been moved online.
Our team remains completely committed to accelerating vital changes to our global food system, and we believe that whatever the changed world on the other side of this pandemic may hold, a more healthy, just, and sustainable food system will need to be a part of it.
What is your mission for the next years?
Over the next few years, we would like to move the plant-based meat field to maturity and the cultivated meat field from infancy into adolescence. This will involve helping plant-based meat become normalized in the same way that plant-based milk is, and preparing consumers for cultivated meat.
We would like to see alternative protein become its own recognized field. Within that field, GFI hopes to continue serving as the glue for all alternative protein players and the destination for all things alternative proteins. We are aiming to be a truly global organization, powered by philanthropy, and sustainable in all of our practices.