Figuring out the protein problem
18 March 2019 at 8:27 am
Thomas King is the CEO of Food Frontier, a not for profit that helps food manufacturers and entrepreneurs get into the business of making plant-based and cell-based meat alternatives. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
While many people know about the adverse effects of meat on our bodies, the planet, and animals, giving up a juicy steak or hamburger forever is not an easy decision.
But according to King, it’s not about “giving up” meat, it’s about providing an alternative that tastes and looks the same, and provides the same protein that a chicken breast might.
With food demand expected to increase by 70 per cent by mid-century, many of the world’s leading authorities on the issue are warning that we are fast running out of the natural resources to keep up with that demand.
This is where Food Frontier steps in – working with and equipping governments, food manufacturers, the agriculture sector and entrepreneurs with the knowledge to look to a more sustainable version of the celebrated food type, so many of us love and enjoy.
In this week’s Changemaker, King talks about how he’s developed as a leader in the space, changing cultural attitudes and norms, and how he’s bringing Australia up-to-speed with the rest of the world in the future of food.
How did you start out in the sector?
My first foray into the social sector was as a very passionate, but naive 13-year-old, who had just learnt about deforestation in South-East Asia, and decided to do something about that issue by launching a campaign. This was something that I shared with friends and family, but it quickly kicked off, went global and gained a lot of attention, becoming the highest ranking site on the specific issue.
And how did that lead you to become the CEO of Food Frontier?
From there, I worked with several organisations in different parts of the world on issues from climate change to poverty alleviation. A key thing I learnt in that time, was that there was a factor underpinning every issue I had ever worked to address, which was the industrial animal agriculture industry which produces things like meat and milk.
I quickly realised how damaging the industrial agricultural industry was to conservation, biodiversity, marine ecosystems, food security, antibiotic integrity, or animal welfare. The industry is second behind fossil fuels in terms of its contribution to climate change, and it’s also the leading cause of deforestation globally. For somebody who had become set on finding a way to have maximum impact for what I felt were the most important causes, I couldn’t identify any area other than this where my energy was going to be better spent.
As an organisation, we’re a think tank and an industry accelerator. We help new innovators, the existing industry and government to navigate and engage in this space. If we are to diversify from meat or dairy, we need more options, and that requires an industry for those sorts of alternatives. So we provide the information, advice and connections to make that happen.
Changing attitudes and an entire industry that’s really profitable is a big task, where did you start?
One of the first things was definitely how to change consumer habits. To shift the dial on any considerable level, when it comes to people’s purchasing decisions, you need to offer an alternative, and you need to make that alternative the easy choice. People buy meat not because of how it’s produced necessarily, in fact a lot of people eat it in spite of how it’s produced, people eat meat because it tastes good, it’s convenient, and for nutritional reasons.
The challenge has been highlighted by some of the world’s leading authorities, the IPCC, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and Chatham House, which is that we can’t continue to solely rely on livestock production to feed the world and to meet people’s protein demands. If people want to eat sausages, burgers, meatballs and dumplings, we have to meet that demand, satisfy those drivers, without relying on livestock as the means of production.
Countries like the United States are quite far ahead in terms of food technology, is that something you’re trying to get Australia up to speed with?
I was in the US a few years ago, spent time with scientists, food companies, and entrepreneurs, where I started to learn about recreating meat, either by replicating it from plants, or by growing actual meat from cells. I tried some of the food, met some of the founders, toured the facilities, and learnt about the level of investment they’d received from the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Google, and two of the biggest meat corporations in the world, Tyson and Cargill.
I came back to Australia, and realised that next to nothing was happening here, despite the huge potential we have. We’re in the Asia-Pacific region, which is a hugely concerning region when talking about food supplies moving forward. It is half the world’s population and consumes a lot of meat, particularly with rising affluence in the Chinese middle class. As the local neighbours, who are trusted, quality food developers, growers and suppliers within the region, I started to realise the potential for Australia and NZ to become another leader for our region, alongside places like America, and Israel who are forging ahead in the field of alternative proteins.
Since you started Food Frontier, what sort of growth have you seen in the alternative protein industry?
We have seen in recent years the emergence of companies producing impressive plant-based meat alternatives that represent the next generation of options. They are basically trying to replicate meat at that detailed sensory level, and provide consumers with what they want in a meat product but in a form that is better for them, and for the world.
Whether it’s internationally or locally, these options fly off the shelf, and supply is not meeting demand at the moment. When people can enjoy delicious familiar foods and integrate them into their lifestyles and recipes without having to change their behaviour in any considerable way, and [at the same time] address their concerns around sustainability, their cholesterol levels, and animal welfare, people embrace those options.
The Australian agriculture industry holds a lot of political and cultural sway, how are you convincing them that this is a good idea and won’t make them lose money?
We see alternative proteins as complementary to traditional forms of agriculture. In order to meet global demand by mid-century, production will need to increase by 70 per cent. We are already at our resource and ecological limit in terms of current production, whether we are talking land, water or climate carbon budget. We now need to think about how we add sustainable options into the mix, that present business and economic opportunities, adding value to the Australian economy and agricultural sector.
Alternative proteins are a reality, the question for Australia now is do we want to sit on the sidelines, or do we want to become a sectorial leader. We are faced with the prospect of feeding 10 billion people by mid-century, in the age of potentially devastating climatic shifts, severe public health challenges, and food and water scarcity, which is going to continue to become a greater issue in certain regions.
This emerging industry for alternatives should be viewed as complementary, and it’s about achieving a more diversified, efficient, and sustainable food system.
Veganism and vegetarianism are still dirty words to many, is that a problem when developing and convincing people that it’s good?
Some of the newer alternative protein companies have taken a very different approach to how they market their products. They are making it look, and taste like the real thing. In a variety of focus groups, people are completely fooled if they are told it’s not fake. These options are not being labelled as vegetarian or vegan, but are using terms like plant based, as a way to open these options up to the mainstream consumer.
Statistics actually show that the majority of people driving these trends, are not vegetarians or vegans, they are people wanting to reduce their meat consumption whether it’s for health or environmental or ethical reasons.
These products aren’t aimed at the converted either. Some of these American companies are targeting the standard male meat eater, using elite athletes in their ads.
What does your typical day as CEO look like?
Plenty of calls, emails and meetings. Sometimes I’m on stage delivering talks, sometimes I’m in front of a camera or in strategy meetings with our team and board.
So from a thought leadership side, it’s research, papers, media engagement, and events. On the industry acceleration side, we provide support to several startups forming ventures, we advise existing meat and food manufacturers wanting to enter the space. We also work with government to increase support in this space and to ensure a fair regulatory playing field.
Why did you want to be a NFP instead of a business?
It allows us to be truly independent, and focus on what the highest impact is. Some people question why we’re an NFP when we work with and support the industry. But if we were tied to any one stakeholder group, it would restrict a lot of what we would be able to do, in terms of reducing regulatory barriers, and advocating and educating.
Are you confident that the industry can transform in time?
I wouldn’t be running an organisation like this if I didn’t think it was needed, and it was possible. We are going to need a lot of effort from a lot of people, from philanthropists that are backing us, or investors that are backing new start ups, governments playing their role, or consumers trying new options.
In terms of industry, Australia is a country where agriculture is very prominent economically, and culturally. I think that actually gives us strength and a competitive edge over some other nations.
I think that industry here needs to think hard about how we want to engage in this space, knowing that unless you’re in a state of denial, this is going to be a significant part of the future of food. Across the ditch, Rod Slater the CEO of Beef and Lamb NZ applauded a conventional meat company there for launching a plant-based product. That’s the kind of leadership I’d like to see in Australia.