Meet the Innovator Behind the Plant-Based Meat Movement
Americans may be some of the biggest meat consumers in the world, but the last five years have seen a sea change. Almost a quarter of respondents in a 2020 Gallup poll reported eating less meat than the year before, citing health and environmental concerns as their top reasons for cutting back, and 36% of those said they'd done so by swapping their cheeseburger or chicken breast for plant-based meat alternatives. The market for foods like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat "sausage" has exploded in kind: in 2020, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods shot to $7 billion—a growth of 43% in just two years. And analysts project that the market for plant-based meats will more than triple by 2027.
Behind the scenes of this surge—everywhere you turn, from advising new companies and funding scientific research to sparking our cultural obsession with meat alternatives—is Bruce Friedrich. A former vice president of PETA, he founded the Good Food Institute in 2016 after realizing none of his flashy campaigns to convince people to stop eating meat were working. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that animal agriculture—beef in particular—is responsible for 14% of greenhouse gases worldwide. And a growing number of experts insist we need to eat less meat to limit the disastrous effects of climate change and lower the incidence of health conditions like obesity and heart disease. Yet while consumption of animal protein may be trending down among some, the production of it in this country has hit record highs. So Friedrich decided to transform meat itself. "To remake meat is how we solve climate change," he says. "Remaking meat is how we prevent the next pandemic. Remaking meat is how we take antibiotics out of the food system."
For Friedrich, "remaking meat" means coming up with realistic-tasting, affordable plant-based substitutes made from, say, soybeans or yellow peas that have far lower carbon footprints. Or figuring out how to culture lean beef, bluefin tuna or duck cells in a lab—producing real animal meat without raising any animals. It also means not being afraid to court controversy, like horrifying vegans by recruiting major meat producers like Tyson to add plant-based alternatives to its lineup.
In its early days, GFI offered scientific and marketing advice to startups like Good Catch Foods and Memphis Meats. As billions of dollars of private investment flowed into companies like these, however, Friedrich realized the big players were keeping their technological breakthroughs to themselves. Now the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit increasingly focuses on lobbying countries around the world and advancing scientific knowledge in the public sphere. "Our focus is really on open-sourcing science and convincing governments that they should be funding this type of work," Friedrich says.
In the past three years, GFI has written white papers identifying gaps in scientific knowledge—the need for plant fats that taste more like those from animals, or bigger bioreactors for cultivating cells, for example—and has given out $13 million in research grants. It also lobbies Congress and agencies like the USDA and the National Science Foundation to fund research into alternative proteins. In 2020, the federal government allocated nearly $5 million to do just that. Friedrich, never wavering from his mission to change the global food system, says it's a start: "That should be billions."
This article first appeared in EatingWell, July/August 2021.