Red To Green Series – Isha Datar of New Harvest: ‘Sustainability Should Not Rest on Individual Purchasing Decisions, It’s Unfair to Consumers’

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The Red to Green Podcast features food startups and food industry leaders to cover game-changing breakthroughs in the future of food. In Season 3, Promoting Alternative Proteins, show creator Marina Schmidt takes a deep dive into the world of alt-protein, from novel technologies like precision fermentation and cellular agriculture to tackling industry challenges like getting mass consumers to make the switch. For this new content series collaboration, we’re going to be highlighting the most insightful quotes from each episode of the season starting with Episode 2. In it, founder-host Schmidt speaks with Executive Director of New Harvest Isha Datar about the consumer acceptance of alternative protein.

Kicking off the conversation, Schmidt and Datar discuss the standing debate over cultivated meat’s nomenclature. Currently, there is no consensus on what to call this novel food product. There are layers to this terminology dilemma: companies must consider what’s on the front, back, and ingredients label of the package, the branded terminology, and the product category. Datar is wary of using market research to determine the nomenclature; consumers often recycle past experiences and the alternative protein industry should not draw inspiration from how the existing food industry operates. 

Transcription by Katie Collier.

Consumer acceptance is not just about marketing. It is about transparency and self-governance and accountability.

Isha Datar, Executive Director, New Harvest

They discuss how Soylent entered the world as a vibrant and consumer-involved community on Reddit. The way passionate consumers rallied around the product is a testament to how the alternative protein industry shouldn’t go about selling its products in the same way as the meat industry. If Soylent’s CEO used traditional market research to name the product, “Soylent” never would’ve been the number one pick, according to Datar. The entire development of Soylent represents an “abundance mindset:” how do we make sure the people who love the product eat it and the people who won’t love it won’t eat the product? After pleasing the initial group, everyone will follow. Building a community organically is more appealing to Datar whereas engaging influencers or celebrity investors is like old-school “spokespeople.” A real community, like Soylent’s, is compelling because there are layers of credibility from individuals’ commentary and suggestions on the product. In a similar way, the New York Times cooking app includes people’s insights in the comments section, allowing users to gauge if the recipe is good or if they need to make alterations. That sort of engagement and interconnectedness of consumers creates a rich community. 

At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to [the fact that] we are a mission-driven industry today. We may not be a mission-driven industry forever, but since we are one today, how can we rally together, create accountability structures for ourselves, and make sure that we are actually moving towards a future where we don’t need to consume animals for food?

Isha Datar, Executive Director, New Harvest

Datar and Schmidt also discussed the alternative protein industry’s current initiative to emphasize the product’s safety to consumers. Around 50 cultured meat companies came together to work on describing the safety considerations of the manufacturing process between mid-2020 and early-2021. However, there are challenges in telling the whole story of cellular agriculture and communicating its safety. This is especially true when this narrative needs to be condensed on the front and back of a package. Beyond the storytelling element, there is a bigger concern about transparency and self-governance: how is the industry going to hold itself accountable? Datar feels this question needs to be answered in the next year or two because governing retroactively will be messy. By equipping policymakers with data and information New Harvest could play a role in solidifying the industry’s governance. But since the alternative protein industry is mission-driven, it also comes down to the companies and organizations themselves to create accountability structures so that the industry moves in the right direction. 

I would love to see a world where companies all over the world could use the technology to create products that are relevant to the people surrounding them. So how do you create products that are culturally relevant in African countries? How do you create products that are culturally relevant in India? In Southeast Asia? [The products are] all going to be different. And with too much IP protection, we might find ourselves in this deep westernization of food globally.

Isha Datar, Executive Director, New Harvest

The conversation then shifts to a discussion on intellectual property within the industry. Datar hopes that the cellular agriculture world will not rely on IP protection. Ultimately, too much IP will stand in the way of the industry achieving its greater goals and inhibit companies all over the world from making products that are relevant to their own people and cultures. 

In the final topic of this episode, Datar and Schmidt discuss breaking down barriers in the industry through snack food. As a low-commitment purchase, alternative protein snack food can be an easier way for consumers to test the water of cultivated meat. If they like the product they can keep it, but if they don’t they’re only throwing away a bag of chips or jerky, not an entire steak. It’s also a shareable food: Schmidt talked about how friends can just pass around a bag of cultivated meat chips and more people can get a taste easily. 

I think, worse than that are things like if safety is not correct, it could all fail. If people feel lied to, it could all fail.

Isha Datar, Executive Director, New Harvest

This episode is wrapped up with Datar’s “unpopular opinion:” she still eats all foods, despite her role in the plant-based industry. The sustainability of the world should not rest on individual purchasing decisions; “it’s unfair to consumers,” Datar states.

The Red to Green Podcast is available on iTunesSpotify, and all popular podcast apps by typing in “Red to Green” in the search bar. 

Listen to this episode of Red to Green here.


Lead image courtesy of New Harvest.


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