Bruce Friedrich, the executive director and co-founder of the Good Food Institute (GFI) is responsible for some of the most iconic plant-based startups that have disrupted the global understanding and perception of vegan meat. A former animal activist who has been at the helm of show-stopping animal welfare campaigns with PETA, Bruce is now at the forefront of working with existing consumer tastes to drive a transformation, rather than just a disruption, of the global food system – he wants the world to shift to conventional meat alternatives that tastes the same, if not even better, and cost less. A TED Fellow and a renowned public speaker on food innovation, Bruce is arguably one of the most important figures on the global stage working to end industrial animal agriculture so it was an absolute honour for us to be able to sit down with Bruce to talk about his mission towards creating a more sustainable world. In this interview, we gained some truly fascinating insights into Bruce’s thoughts on our current state of the planet, what the future of meat will look like, and how we will get there.
GQ: We’re so excited to be able to sit with you, Bruce! Thanks so much for coming in to speak to us, we really do appreciate it. Many of us are familiar with your work, but since some of our readers might not be, could you give us a snapshot of what you currently do at the Good Food Institute (GFI)?
BF: At GFI, the focus is let’s make meat from plants. We recognise that meat is made out of lipids, aminos, minerals and water. That’s all that meat is made up of, and we can get them all from plants. So let’s give consumers what they want, which is meat, and make it from plants. And for those consumers who still want to eat actual meat, let’s grow it directly from cells. In both these cases, it uses vastly less land, requires no antibiotics, a fraction of water and carbon emissions. It’s just a much better way of producing meat. So here at GFI, we wanted to focus on creating the products that industrial animal agriculture creates, but without industrial animal agriculture.
GFI has been responsible for a bunch of plant-based companies being formed, and a bunch of plant-based and cultivated companies being successful. This is part of why I chose not to start a plant-based company. You can either start one or be responsible for dozens of other plant-based companies making an impact. We obviously do a lot of other things beyond the entrepreneurial space, like the work we do on science and technology. This comes out of the recognition that each company hires scientists to solve various problems, like off-flavours in pea protein, for example. So at GFI, we have contracted our own scientists in China to solve this problem, and when this problem is solved, we will release the scientific discovery into the whole world. It won’t be protected by IP, it won’t be in a silo.
GQ: What is it that made you focus on this big idea of food when it comes to saving our planet? What is driving you behind all your work?
BF: The GFI was started out of a recognition that our meat consumption keeps going up. In North America, it is the highest it has ever been in recorded history, and I’m sure that is the case all over the world. Globally, according to the United Nations, we have to produce 70-100% more meat by 2050. This is despite the fact that year after year, we read these reports about the unsustainability of meat consumption. It will usher in external existential threats from climate change to biospecies loss, water contamination and antibiotic resistance.
Assuming that we can nail the taste to make plant-based and cultivated meat the same, or better than meat, and make it cost the same or less, we can really stop all these external costs of eating meat. We should be able to do the first part, and now we’re working on more efficient processes to lower costs to give consumers everything they like about meat without the negative costs.
GQ: In terms of making all these technological and scientific discoveries public to all, it fair to say you believe in open source, then?
BF: Well, we believe in both. Yes, at GFI, all our science is open source. Nobody before GFI had figured out the groundwork for plant-based or cultivated meat. No one asked what the technological readiness was, what are the critical technological elements, what are the white space areas, where are the areas for exploration. So our science and technological department laid this readiness out, and we have heard from many many startups that said the work we did was essential to allow them to get started rather than having to rediscover it over and over again. So we did that work for everyone, and we are funding open-source science. We put US$ 3 million into 14 projects last year, and we will put US$ 4.5 million this year.
GQ: So does GFI’s mission for a plant-based and cultivated meat revolution speak to affordability and accessibility instead of education?
BF: Yes, that is exactly right. We just replace the product, so consumers don’t have to change their decision-making matrix around food. I don’t know why, but the vast majority of consumers just don’t meaningfully incorporate ethical decisions into their food purchases. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that sits at the bottom of the pyramid. Maybe there is just something about satisfying physiological needs, which just doesn’t involve incorporating ethics into something that people think tastes good.
So the point is, we don’t have to change their nature, we just change their food. This is an extraordinarily exciting proposition. The global solution is not more education. Education gets us Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, and clean meat companies like Memphis Meats. These founders got educated and founded these companies, and they are a huge part of the solution. But in terms of actually decreasing meat consumption, which is what we have to do in order to avoid the end of working antibiotics and modern medicine, and meet our obligations for the Paris climate agreement, educating people to not eat meat is not going to decrease per capita consumption. The external cost of eating meat is huge, and if we want it to go down in developing economies and in China where we don’t really have the reach in terms of a consumer education standpoint, instead of beating our heads against the wall, we just need to change how meat is made so it doesn’t come with these external costs.
This is how we have to beat the drum, and beat the drum, and beat the drum. It’s like politicians who say voters don’t care about things, you know? While democrats try and find out what voters care about, Republicans, they teach voters what they should care about. Like Henry Ford famously said, ‘if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’
GQ: What you’re saying is that we need to be tackling this problem from a different angle, beyond activism. Tell us about your personal evolution of going from persuading people to stop eating and wearing animals with PETA, to launching the GFI.
BF: In both cases, it was an explicitly utilitarian analysis. So previously, the idea of vegan education goes like this: you are a vegan, you can convince one other person to go vegan, and they convince one more and the number keeps doubling. While this continues to make sense to me, it has become pretty clear to me that this model isn’t working out in practice.
So I was looking at what Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and JUST were doing, listening to their basic thesis that we can bio-mimic animal products with plants. This was the original idea of the GFI. We were aware of cellular agriculture at the time, but we weren’t seeing it as a short-term solution until we met the people who started Memphis Meats in the same month that I started GFI. Then, I learned it was totally economically viable. The first thing we tasked our first scientists in June 2016 was to figure out whether it was scientifically viable to grow meat from cells, and if it was, can it cost less, and how quickly this can be done. GFI was agnostic on plant-based and cultivated meat. The answer, the scientists found, was yes. We are super bullish on cultivated meat and its prospects. So we decided to focus on both plant-based and cultivated meat.
GQ: There does seem to be more momentum behind the idea of a plant-based or clean meat revolution, but ultimately there might still be consumers who aren’t convinced. Do you think that a world where we no longer consume conventionally farmed meat is possible?
BF: Yes, I believe so, with plant-based and cultivated meat only. Of course, I think plant-based is the healthier product. I mean, cultivated meat is meat! And we know the link between meat consumption and heart disease and cancer and diabetes. So I think there are lots of people who would like to have fibre and complex carbs in their meat. Animal meat has none of that. When cultivated meat is up and running, we can tweak it to be less unhealthful, but the nature of meat is that it does not have complex carbs or fibre, what it does have is cholesterol.
It’s tough to know what the percentage will be, but I think the lowest common denominator of meat will go away in the same way in that now 99.9% of communication happens via text and cell phones, and pictures are taken with digital cameras. Just one generation ago, both of those things were the opposite. In 30 years time, the technological hurdles on replacing meat might still probably be greater than digital cameras and cellphones, but not in any order of magnitude greater. These markets are colossal and our expectations are that corporations will respond to these markets and shift to plant-based and cultivated meat.
So yes, I think that for consumers where the reason why they eat meat is because it is delicious and inexpensive, we can give them delicious and even less expensive using plant-based and cultivated meat. That will become 99% of meat in the future, so 99% of conventionally farmed meat should go away.
GQ: What about this remaining “ick” factor that some people may have about cultivated meat?
BF: We are extraordinarily impressed by the numbers and polls, which generally indicate around 30-70% of people, depending on the poll, are pro cultivated meat. And that is 30-70% bigger than plant-based meat market. Out of the bag, that is huge, especially for a new and novel food that is not something people have heard of or even understand. Human beings aren’t programmed to eat stuff not knowing what it is because for thousands of years if you did, it would likely kill you. So already, for people to be this excited for something they don’t know? We’re in a significantly better place than most of us had thought. We even asked people if they would eat ‘lab-grown’ or ‘in vitro’ meat, to make it sound as unappealing as possible and still, people are enthusiastic about it. Which just completely also underlines the way people are willing to eat meat despite not knowing the way it has been produced.
Anyway, once you have two products, where one you know how it is being made in a lab that is uncontaminated with all these drugs and external costs that comes with industrial meat farming, and another that is coming from a slaughterhouse with no known information, I don’t think marketers will have a big issue trying to sell it.
GQ: You mention marketers. In your opinion, what is the best way to brand and communicate cultivated and plant-based protein to the masses?
BF: We worked with a branding company, and with their work, we ended up with ‘cultivated meat’ being the best name and narrative for meat made out of cells in a lab. Basically, to talk not in terms of science, but in terms of cultivation. Like taking a piece of plant in soil, and giving it nutrients to grow. Similarly, with cultivated meat, we take a cell biopsy from an animal and maybe not say the word “biopsy”, we bathe these cells in nutrients, and cells multiply and grow. With plant-based meat, it’s even easier to market – it’s simply cleaner and safer than the current method of factory farming. Once all meat becomes started in food labs, whether it is made from cells or plants, it will just be known as ‘meat’ in the future.
GQ: What is the biggest hurdle to get over before we can get to this future then? Cost? Convincing corporations and fighting the big industries? Human nature? How do we get everyone to put their hands on deck?
BF: Well it’s definitely not human nature. At GFI, we work with human nature. The hurdles will be different whether you talk about plant-based or cultivated meat. I mean, we know that Impossible Foods has pretty much already nailed plant-based meat, and they did it with some tens of millions of dollars, which is not a big R&D budget. And with this amount of money they’ve spent, they’ve gotten formulas for beef, chicken, fish, and pork – they didn’t just nail the burger. So it’s likely to not be an overwhelmingly expensive proposition to get plant-based meat going. As they scale up, they will have to prove that they can lower costs, but certainly Pat and Ethan Brown both believe that they will become cost-competitive and that only makes sense. If it takes 9 calories into a chicken to get 1 calorie back out, that is literally a 100% food waste just by nature of the physiology of a chicken. Bear in mind that chickens are already the most efficient animal at turning crops into meat, and yet they still need 9 times more land than plant-based meat, 9 times more water and you’re operating feed mills, farms and slaughterhouses. Whereas with plant-based meat, you just need to operate a processing plant. All in all, plant-based meat is just so much more efficient, so it should certainly cost less.
The same story goes for cultivated meat, but the scientific hurdles on cultivated meat with the idea of scaling up? It’s just incredibly expensive. There are questions about all four of the critical technology elements in this space, but probably the biggest question is cultivators and what it will look like to produce cultivated meat in 20,000 litre bioreactors. But so far, the more scientists dive in, the more optimistic they become. Overall, we’re bullish on it, though it might take longer than plant-based meat.
GQ: How does GFI’s strategy and goals differ by region? Has the African swine fever epidemic affected the strategy in Asia, if at all?
BF: GFI‘s model is to give tremendous autonomy to our regional directors, and they communicate extensively with each other and they dictate each region’s focus. Myself and others at the US headquarters just advise. I have yet to see the data that is coming out, I know there is a lot of prediction whether this is the turning point for China and Asia to turn to plant-based and cultivated solutions, but we have yet to see much of it right now. Historically, we can look at some examples of how epidemics have affected industrial meat demand. When there was mad cow disease, for example, people just switched to other forms of meat.
GQ: Are you concerned about plant and cultivated protein being politicised as farmers might suffer economically?
BF: I mean, plant-based meat should be good for farmers. Agricultural consolidation, in general, has been bad for farmers. The ‘get-big-or-get-out’ ethos in modern farming has been bad for them. If you shift away from monocropping for animal feed, which is what a huge portion of farming is now, towards a wider variety of crops with a focus on turning them into plant-based meat, that allows farmers to move back into what we historically wanted farming to be. Similarly, if you think about farmers in developing economies, the cash crop economy of Brazil being a quintessential example where small farmers are tossed off their land as most are moving towards cattle ranching and soy cultivation to feed these animals for export, the current system has been extraordinarily bad for them. The reason why people like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt are supporters of plant-based and cultivated meat isn’t because they want a tastier veggie burger, it’s because they are concerned about people, including small-holder farmers, in developing economies and the wider problem of climate change.
GQ: There are some farmers out there who believe they practice animal agriculture in a sustainable, humane way, and believe that humans have evolved to eat a certain amount of meat. Assuming we follow their logic, that farmed animals for meat can have a happy life, is there any percentage of this to exist in the world?
BF: I do believe that, that there is a way for animals to have happy lives. Yes, even if we eat them. I think that is possible if you treat a pig, chicken, or cow, like how we do with a cat or a dog. Except at the end, you kill them and eat them. That animal still probably led a life worth living, and they are probably better off alive than dead, but only plant and cultivated meat replaces this end problem.
Of course, all the Alice Waters of the world will want to continue to want to eat high-welfare regeneratively farmed meat, and they will pay more for high-welfare regeneratively farmed meat. So ultimately, the goal isn’t to replace meat from farmers who are working within the “circle of life” kind of manner, we want to compete with those products created with industrial animal agriculture and appeal to people who want to eat cheap and delicious meat.
I don’t think consumers will choose when they have a choice between industrially farmed meat, or plant-based and cultivated meat that costs them less. Some people will go to pay more for an animal who lived a life on a happy farm, but this will be a tiny minority.
GQ: Can you talk a bit about the regulatory hurdles that plant and cultivated protein faces globally and how GFI is addressing these?
BF: One of the things we are working really hard to do is to convince governments that they should be putting massive resources into investing in cultivated and plant-based meat. It would make sense to wake up tomorrow and the Chinese government has suddenly put a billion dollars into eliminating the insular farms of industrial agriculture in China and replacing them with capsules to engineer cultivated meat. China has food safety, food security, water quality, water scarcity issues and a colossal antibiotic resistance threat all while wanting to be the leader on climate change. And this is the solution to all of those issues, so it makes sense if the Chinese government were to say that they are giving consumers everything they like about meat by putting resources and scientists behind the acceleration of cultivated or plant-based meat. But of course, at our current trajectory, it might take a bit longer than that.
GQ: Milo Runkle has said this about you: ‘He always had this ability to see potential friends and allies where others would only see enemies’. This quote really stood out to me about who you are, and your pragmatic approach to solving the global issue of our food system. Can you comment?
BF: I believe that people are basically good. Even when I was at PETA and we were doing campaigns against McDonalds, KFC and Burger King, the people who we were working with were good people who could have simply been working anywhere. It just so happened that this job was the job came along for them, and within the constraints of the capitalistic economy and their competitors, they wanted to try and do the right thing. So I believe that people in the meat industry do ultimately want to do the right thing, but they must satisfy shareholders and remain competitive. One of the best things about plant-based and cultivated meat is that it gives these companies an opportunity to be even more profitable and do what they want to do, but without the same adverse external impacts. At the end of the day, I like people, I think people want to live ethical lives and if we can make it easier for people to do so, then most people will go along with that.
GQ: Speaking of your earlier public campaigns with PETA, which include organising some of the highest-profile campaigns to date like being arrested for fake blood incidents at Fashion Week, which of these memories stayed with you the most?
BF: This is hard, I have an awful lot of memories. Maybe when we went to the International Whaling Commission. We dressed people up as a chicken, cow and pig. And we went to the meeting, got some nasty plant-based meat in a can that looked like whale meat. We stuck toothpicks on it that said ‘eat the whale.com’ and the dressed-up animals held signs that said ‘eat the whale’. We wanted to make the point that people wouldn’t eat whales, but they would still eat chicken, pigs and cows. It said a lot about the kind of dissonance that some people have about how some kinds of animals are worth protecting, while others aren’t. But yeah, getting a phone call from Paul McCartney’s personal assistant asking us about what we were doing! That was pretty fun.
GQ: What is your ultimate driver for everything you do? Is it fair to say that it’s utilitarianism? It’s kind of what I’m getting from you at the core of it.
BF: Well I’m not a strict utilitarian. I think that with most people, whether you’re a utilitarian or deontological or preferential option, which is the more religious ‘prioritise the weakest’ kind of argument and is where I probably am since I am a Roman Catholic, the day to day decision making is going to be identical across the three constructs. The distinctions between the three are interesting for dinner banter, but probably less so for day to day living. It is certainly true that with everything I have done, I have attempted to be as effective as possible with the mission being to solve the external harms of animal farming.
GQ: What do you hope to accomplish, say 10 years from now?
BF: I would like to see a world where the inefficiencies and all of the harm that comes with the industrial farming of animals goes away.
GQ: We have to ask. Team rice or team noodles?
Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.