Richard discusses the international expansion of The Good Food Institute (GFI), and some of the special considerations that alternative proteins face in non-US regions.
Richard leads GFI’s work in Europe. He worked as Special Adviser to the UK Prime Minister between 2012 and 2016, and as Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for International Development from 2010-12 and 2016-18. In government, his main focus was on international development policy, and he worked closely on the formation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Richard holds an MA in modern history from Oxford University.
Below is a transcript of Richard’s talk, which we’ve lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube and read it on effectivealtruism.org.
Hi folks, this is Richard Parr, joining you from London. It's fantastic to have the opportunity, even in these very difficult circumstances, to contribute and to be a part of this Effective Altruism Global event. And it's awesome that we're still able to get together, even if it's over a screen rather than in person, and keep our community strong, engaged, and up-to-date on all of the great work that so many of us in the community are doing.
I work as Managing Director of The Good Food Institute Europe. We're a nonprofit which works to promote alternative proteins. I'm going to be talking today about the prospects, opportunities, and challenges that alternative proteins face around the world. I’ll cover some of the work that my colleagues and I are doing around the world to drive forward progress on alternative proteins in the interests of health, animal welfare, and the planet.
By way of a very quick introduction, The Good Food Institute is a family of philanthropically funded nonprofits working to create a sustainable, healthy, and just global food system. We were established in the US about four years ago, but we're looking to expand globally to drive greater mission impact, outcomes, and change all across the world for our food system.
Listeners may already know a bit about our theory of change, but I'll recap it quickly just in case.
We believe that three main issues are at stake here:
1. Public health and the well-being of people;
2. The well-being of the billions of animals around the world raised for food at any given time; and
3. The sustainability and long-term health of our planet.
It's for those three objectives that we think alternative proteins are important.
Here’s a brief outline of the challenge.
Conventional animal agriculture is a significant contributor to some of the world's most pressing problems, including:
* Global food security. Growing crops to feed to farm animals is inherently inefficient; it drives up the price of grains and legumes and entrenches global poverty.
* Environmental degradation. Conventional animal agriculture is a top contributor to climate change, water depletion and pollution, rainforest destruction, and loss of biodiversity.
* Antibiotic resistance. The vast majority of antibiotics used are administered to farm animals. This is accelerating the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
* Animal welfare. Conventional animal agriculture subjects billions of animals to extreme confinement, trauma, and painful mutilations.
So there's a whole host of reasons why we think a transition from, and reform of, the global food system is important.
At this time, there's one question on all of our minds, and that is: How can we not only respond to the devastating current pandemic, but help prevent future pandemics from emerging? This is a big topic and I'm not going to make it a focus of my talk. But I will quickly note that many disease outbreaks, as we know, are zoonotic, originating in animals and crossing the species barrier to humans.
Many of these zoonotic diseases are linked to animals raised for food. Obvious examples are avian influenza, from chickens and other birds, and swine influenza from pigs. In the long term, reforming the way we produce meat has the potential to make a contribution by reducing the risk of cross-species disease spread.
I would encourage anyone who's interested in considering it further to check out a thoughtful and well-informed article in WIRED by Liz Specht, PhD, who is GFI's Associate Director of Science and Technology.
Getting back to all four of these challenges outlined previously, we think that an important part of the answer lies in alternative proteins. [Let me provide some] brief definitions. Plant-based meat is a combination of proteins, fats, minerals, and water — all of the components of animal meat, sourced directly from plants. And then there's cultivated or cell-based meat, which is meat produced from a small sample of animal cells, replicated outside of the animal.
These two ways of producing meat have the potential to deliver all of the pleasure, satisfaction, and cultural significance that many people find in conventional meat, but in a much more sustainable and compassionate manner. We think promoting these options is an important part of [moving] toward a more sustainable, just, and kind food system.
At the Good Food Institute, we work in three main ways to improve and to drive progress on these technologies:
1. We work directly with scientists in order to [advance] scientific breakthroughs, which are needed to really bring the full potential of these interventions to scale.
2. We work directly with existing companies to stock and sell these products, and also with entrepreneurs and investors to drive the creation of new companies in the sector.
3. Thirdly, and very importantly, we work to promote a supportive policy environment for these interventions.
We started about four years ago in the US and have built an incredible [collection] of expertise and a track record of impact. But as an organization driven by outcomes and by an optimizing mindset — which is familiar to many in the EA community — we want to reform not only the US food system, but the global system. To that end, GFI has established a series of affiliates around the world in Brazil, India, Israel, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. [Through these affiliates,] we work to strategically magnify our impact.
I want to quickly run through some of these regions. I’ll talk about the unique context for promoting alternative proteins in each area, identify some of the things which we think are priorities for intervention, and outline some plans for the future.
GFI’s work in Europe
I'd like to start with Europe, the part of the world about which I know the most. Why is Europe so important for driving global change? First, there is massive potential there in terms of scientific expertise, entrepreneurial drive and vision, and financial capital. Also, Europe has a market population size twice that of the US, so it's a significant consumer of meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood. And the stakes are very high. We're at a real fork in the road, I think, and there is a genuine chance that the outlet for alternative proteins could either go really well or run into a series of roadblocks and risks. So we think intervening in Europe has the potential to be very high-impact.
Let’s talk through some of the main challenges which alternative proteins face in Europe, and from that, some of the work that I've been focused on to drive progress. We think that there are basically three key obstacles to overcome:
1. Ensuring that the scientific breakthroughs needed to create better and cheaper products for people to enjoy happen.
2. Handling regulation and ensuring that these products can finally come to market.
3. Influencing consumer acceptance and attitudes — public engagement is really important.
Some examples of GFI Europe driving change in the last year include encouraging the European public funding sector to engage and invest in alternative proteins research and development. The EU is about to sign off on a €100 billion research and innovation program over the next seven years. We think there's a very strong case for a chunk of that money to be invested in alternative proteins R&D [research and development].
Just within the last few months, we've made progress on that front through our engagement with the EIT [European Institute of Innovation and Technology], which is a major EU funding agency. We have worked with them, and managed to encourage them, to make alternative proteins one of their priority funding areas for 2021. This is just a first step. There's a long way to go, but it shows, I think, that this is a tractable endeavor.
Another important thing we've been working on is fighting some of the proposals seeking to censor terms such as “veggie burger” and “vegan sausage roll.” These proposals, which echo those in the US and elsewhere in the world, have been introduced by a small minority of members of the European Parliament. We’ve been working with other like-minded organizations to push back against this irrational proposed restriction on what you can call plant-based products.
We have had some success in prompting relevant decision-makers to pause and reconsider some of these proposals, but we're right at the beginning of what will be a long and taxing fight. Although we've made some initial progress, there's a lot more work to do, and that will be a big focus of our efforts in Europe going forward.
Another thing that we've been doing is trying to inform and enlighten the public debate and discourse on alternative proteins by engaging with the media. We had an encouraging success recently when _New Scientist Magazine_, which is the main UK-based serious popular science magazine, devoted the editorial page to endorsing the call for radically increased public investment in research and development for alternative proteins.
All of these things, however, are just the beginning of our journey. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in these areas and more. We relish the thought of the fight in the coming years and plan to [stick with it].
GFI’s work in the Asia-Pacific region
Another region that is critically important to the success of efforts to reform the global food system is the Asia-Pacific region, where GFI’s Elaine Siu leads a fantastic team of six people. It goes without saying that the sheer scale of the proportion of the global population in Asia-Pacific makes it an area where the global impact and prospects of alternative proteins will essentially be decided.
Therefore, it is critically important to get [our approach] right. Elaine has been doing incredible work, including publishing the China Plant-based Meat Industry Report, which is the first-ever document to set out the state of China’s plant-based sector, and provides a foundation for more investor, corporate, and staff engagement.
Elaine and her team have been helping to frame conversations around alternative proteins for public speaking, media exposure, and in-person meetings. They’ve also supported the growth of plant-based and cultivated meat startups to create products suitable for the Asian market. They’ve done that through strategic advice, connections, and publishing resources such as the Hong Kong and Singapore editions of GFI’s Startup Manual, which are fantastic go-to guides for anyone who wants to know how to create, from scratch, an exciting, profitable, and impactful plant-based or cultivated meat startup. That's an example of taking collateral developed in the US and adapting it for the specific context of a different region.
Going forward, Elaine is focusing on novel food ingredients for Asian cuisine. Clearly, in the US, burgers represent the product sector where plant-based progress has been the quickest, with Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, etc. The proportion of burgers eaten in the Asia-Pacific region is much lower. And the shape of people's diets and cuisine is different. So a big focus for Elaine is how to drive and accelerate innovation in food ingredients and types which can be adapted to the Asian palate.
In terms of context, of course, Asia-Pacific can probably claim to be the great-grandmother and father of plant-based meat. There's actually a very rich sector that goes back millennia called the “mock meats.” That’s different from the direct sensory mimicking of products which exists today; hopefully mock meats are a cause for optimism about the prospects of alternative proteins in Asia.
Other priorities for Elaine and her team are mapping technical barriers and “white spaces”; supporting the creation of solutions through R&D projects and industry collaboration; encouraging scientists and researchers to advance R&D and alternative proteins; and dramatically increasing the amount of research and government money invested in alternative proteins.
Certain Asia-Pacific governments are interested in going big on [alternative proteins]. Singapore comes to mind because of its focus on food security and technological innovation. They've been pretty forward-leaning on this, as well as the push to ensure that cultivated meat is brought to market in at least one Asian jurisdiction, if not more by 2020, and making those launches a success.
These are some of the things Elaine and her team will be prioritizing in the years to come. They have huge potential for impact.
GFI’s work in India
Turning to India, Varun Deshpande leads GFI India and is also a stalwart of the effective altruism community. In many ways, he will be the driver and founder of the EA movement there.
Why is India particularly important for the future of hundreds of proteins? Obviously, population — there’s no need to say more about India’s enormous and growing proportion of the global population. India also could potentially spearhead alternative proteins throughout the developing world, enabling South-South cooperation between India and other developing countries, and serving as a role model and testing ground for the sector.
Varun has identified the work he's doing as particularly important because the sector pretty much didn't exist there [before he arrived] and wouldn’t be growing nearly as quickly if it weren’t for Varun and his team making connections and driving this forward.
In terms of work that Varun and his team has done so far, they recently hosted the very successful second version of the Future of Protein Summit, which was an excellent event with over 400 speakers and attendees. It really is the crucible for creating the alternative protein sector in India. Varun's already delivering incredible results, including working with the government of India to secure $640,000 of research funding for cultivated mutton, which is a type of meat particularly enjoyed in India. He’s also working with the government and other players to drive forward the creation of a research center for cultivated meat.
On top of engaging policymakers, Varun has been successful in engaging senior leadership at over 25 major corporations in India, supporting the startup ecosystem, educating investors, and speaking at prominent industry events.
Looking ahead, GFI India is working on the launch of “Mission for Smart Protein” in partnership with government agencies, corporations, universities, and philanthropists. Again, it all comes back to catalyzing the creation of the alternative protein sector in India.
To that end, GFI India is looking to set up a startup incubator to take nascent and newly formed alternative protein companies [to the next level]. They aim to kickstart them through expertise and the introductions that they need to succeed and reach scale. GFI India is also going to advise [existing] companies on the development of corporate innovation facilities and foster the publication of information about pivotal markets and consumer research.
We're planning to establish a scientific research grant program as well to accelerate technology transfer for alternative proteins in India. Clearly, India has a strong science base, and if we can get more Indian scientists working on creating the breakthroughs they need, that could help drive the global acceleration of scientific programs in alternative proteins. GFI India will also be funding original research in economics, food systems sustainability, and policy.
GFI’s work in Israel
Turning from one of the world's largest countries to one of the smallest, Israel is still critically important. Israel is an absolute tech powerhouse — one of the most innovative and dynamic countries in the tech sector, particularly in food technology. It is the home of many of the most important established [alternative protein] companies, such as Aleph Farms, which is leading the way on this.
Nir Goldstein, who came on board just a few months ago, has already helped to drive and work with the Israeli government to plan for [launch of] the National Food Institute, which will allow cutting-edge food innovation.
The team will work with all of the big food companies in Israel in order to target their R&D resources toward alternative proteins. GFI has held and participated in dozens of events, creating a name for GFI as Israel's thought leader in this field. We are very lucky to have Tom [Ben-Arye] on board, a senior scientist who is a genius-level thinker and a driver of science research in Israel. He is one of the most respected players in this field.
Looking forward, the team wants to combine a national plan for making Israel a top global alternative proteins R&D center. They're aiming to stimulate academic research for intense engagement with leading institutions, giving courses and lectures, organizing events, and building student groups.
Commensurate with the scientific expertise and focus of the team, they're looking to create a fund for PhD students. They’ll specifically target alternative protein research, and therefore generate significant additional research and, I think, scientific breakthroughs in the field.
The team is also looking to engage at a policy level with the Israeli government, with the objective of encouraging them to become a global leader in alternative proteins R&D. The team is really making incredible progress in Israel.
GFI in Latin America and Brazil
Last, but very much not least — and zipping all over the globe — I’ll turn now to Latin America and Brazil as one of the crucial [regions] for alternative proteins work.
Brazil is clearly the economic powerhouse of Latin America. As we know, it’s also a place where meat is enjoyed and produced at scale. GFI Brazil is led by Gus Guadagnini, who in the last two or three years has basically helped to move the Brazilian alternative protein sector from non-existence toward the launch of several products and new entrants. He’s done so not just in the local Brazilian plant-based meat market, but also has increasingly encouraged them to export and go global.
There are several specific examples, a good one being the Futuro Burger, which was the first next-generation plant-based burger sold in Brazil. Gus and his team were in at the ground level, interacting with the company to provide advice and guidance, and to encourage them to move into the plant-based sector. It has been a huge success.
In going global, Gus and his team have engaged with many leading companies, including some of the largest animal product corporations in the world. They’ve played a key role in successful national and global launches of plant-based products. Also, with the advice of Alexandre Cabral, Gus has worked to successfully engage with the Brazilian government on important issues, such as the regulatory process for both plant-based and cultivated meat. Gus has built a strong partnership with Brazil's national public agriculture research institute, Embrapa, to stimulate scientific research on alternative proteins.
Looking forward, Gus is planning to focus on the regulatory agenda, with the goal of making Brazil one of the first five countries to fully regulate cultivated meat. The team in Brazil is looking to stimulate local research through partnership with Embrapa, and is helping researchers secure government grants. They plan to continue working with Brazilian industry, investors, and startups to launch excellent products [which will be] widely available at a competitive price.
Gus and his team will be coordinating a corporate-funded research consortium with the potential to significantly alter product costs, availability, and the taste and texture of these products. Importantly, that will accelerate global competition in the industry by increasing the number of Brazilian companies selling at a competitive price point on the global market.
That concludes our world tour of alternative proteins. I’ve covered almost every region of the world, countries large and small, with different histories, geographies, languages, and cultures. Each presents unique challenges, but also opportunities, for the alternative protein sector.
At GFI, we're very excited about driving this work forward. One of our values is working in partnership with other like-minded organizations and individuals. So if anyone’s ears have pricked up listening to this — if you spot particular opportunities, if you can offer introductions, if you want to start a company yourself, if you want to offer your time, talent, resources, money, or volunteering capacity, or if you just want to enter into our orbit and be kept up-to date on the latest news from GFI US and the GFI global affiliates — please do reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd be excited to work with you going forward, and to continue to drive positive reforms in the global food system with the objective of helping people, helping the planet, and helping animals.
We're always looking for assistance. This is a very big challenge, and it's going to take much more than just us as individuals, or even as one organization, working on it. It requires a network of people to get to the place where we want to be.
I hope that during this challenging time, we can at least crack on with making some positive changes on the agendas that we care about. Thank you very much.