People everywhere need the same kinds of protein in their diets, but Seth Goldman doesn't think they're choosing the most efficient way to get them.
Plants have all of the proteins people need, the serial entrepreneur said on a virtual panel at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and conference.
"The animal just processes the plants, extracts the energy from them, and converts them using its skeletal and digestive system to make them into protein we can access," Goldman said. "But we can also access protein and nutrients directly from plants, and that's more efficient. It saves a step that cuts out the middleman, or middle-cow, or whatever the other animal is."
Eating more plants and fewer animals, Goldman and others on his panel said, is the quickest way to make the food system more earth friendly.
The panel topic was about whether the food system was harming the earth, and Goldman, Oxford University researcher and founder of the Food Climate Research Network Environmental Change Institute Tara Garnett, and water project funder John Robinson of Mazarine Investments, all said there are steps to take to improve it. Shifting to new practices, such as focusing diets on eating plants instead of meat, are helpful for the planet.
Refocusing the consumer's diet on plants rather than animals has far-reaching ramifications, panelists said. Robinson, a partner in a funding arm that invests in new companies that make it easier to manage and understand water use, said many consumers think they can save water by using less in their homes. This is helpful, he said, but agriculture used to provide food actually represents most of a person's "water footprint" — the amount of the resource that they are responsible for using.
"With water conservation, people think, 'Oh, I'll take a shorter shower,' " Robinson said. "I don't know, taking a shorter shower doesn't really create a wedge in the pie. You want to create a big wedge of water savings, convert to vegetarian immediately. And then you're saving water."
Goldman, who started Honest Tea in 1998, recently shifted from executive chairman to chairman at Beyond Meat. Now, he's working with two new related ventures: PLNT Burger, a restaurant that serves only plant-based food, and plant-based brand platform and investment vehicle Eat the Change.
Goldman said he considers himself more of an activist than an entrepreneur, and plant-based eating is the best way consumers can bring about environmental change. A Beyond Burger gives the consumer a similar protein profile, but uses 99% less water and 93% less land than one made from a cow, he said.
The facilities that process meat also have distinct environmental impacts, Goldman said. These include ecological impacts as well as those from workers at the plants. Because the coronavirus spreads through the air and workers stand close together, meat plants have been epicenters for outbreaks. Similar to COVID-19, there are other diseases that can be devastating to humans that have started in animals. These issues, Goldman said, aren't present in plant-based food.
Right now, marketing and branding are vital to driving greater adoption of plant-based food. Getting products where meat eaters can find and taste them is necessary for people who don't already eat a plant-based diet, Goldman said. For Eat the Change, which Goldman said will launch CPG products, he's working with a chef to try to make products as delicious as the ones that use animal-based proteins.
"From our point of view, if you can have a product that is as delicious, as price competitive and as nutritious, ... I don't think the consumer has an intrinsic need to say, 'Well, I'm going to have an animal slaughtered for to feel like it's real food.' "
Goldman said there are other ways that the consumer mindset can shift toward plant-based eating. Eat the Change will be funding groups that have the same goals as U.K.-based DefaultVeg, which defaults menus to plant-based options. Consumers would need to individually opt in to get meat. A small mindset shift like that, Goldman said, can go a long way to encourage more plant-based eating.
But encouraging plant-based eating isn't the only change the food system can bring to help the environment and consumers — especially considering plant-based products have been criticized as being overly processed, high in fat and sodium, and difficult to digest.
Garnett said there are many other things that need to be done, including more concern for biodiversity, reducing food waste and using technology to rebalance availability of nutritious food to all, not just the people who can afford it. There are leaders today who are making poor policy decisions about food and nutrition, she said. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted both some of these failures, as well as individual consumers realizing their actions make a difference.
"The idea that you lead the future direction of the planet to some self-appointed non-democratically elected people who happen to be extremely clever and have developed some good technology, that in itself has its consequences," Garnett said. "That's a policy in itself."
Correction: A previous version of this article said Eat the Change was funding DefaultVeg.