Today, we’re chatting with Zak Weston of The Good Food Institute on the importance of plant protein and why more companies are starting to prioritize this over animal meat.
Scroll below to learn more about Zak and all the good work he’s doing to change the world, one meat-free meal at a time.
Tell us a bit about what you do at The Good Food Institute.
The Good Food Institute is a nonprofit and research-driven think tank. Our mission is to create a more healthy, just and sustainable food system. We do that primarily by promoting plant-based protein technologies, as in alternatives to traditional industrialized animal agriculture.
We do this in a variety of ways. We have a science and technology team that really focuses on understanding the different sorts of technical elements of these types of technologies and trends. Then, we have a team that focuses on the regulatory side, making sure there’s a fair and level playing field for plant based products and a path to market for new types of proteins such as cultivated and fermentation-derived proteins.
The organization was started about four years ago and at this point we have approximately a hundred staff members around the world. So it’s, it’s grown quite quickly.
What is your role within the company?
The team that I work on is really focused on doing market research and consumer research, understanding who’s buying these products and why, what they look for in these products.
We do a lot of engagement with the food industry, so everyone from distributors and restaurants and retailers through to any company that is related to a member of the supply chain.
As a company, we’re completely focused on educating and supporting the food industry as it sort of embraces this tech, these technologies and new ways of making the eggs and dairy. We try to do that at every level, still politically, scientifically in the academic community with nonprofits, with for profit businesses, et cetera.
The majority of team members are based in the United States, but we have international affiliates that we work with very closely in Europe, India, Asia Pacific, Brazil and Israel.
The initiative feels very timely given everything going on. Can you speak to that?
This industry really came along at the right time. A lot of what’s driving this is an intersection of two major mega trends in this space. The first one is that consumers and eaters are becoming a lot more aware of where their food comes from.
I think a lot of people are more aware that, particularly the proteins that they eat from animal agriculture sources has this dirty supply chain that is very unsustainable and extremely inefficient.
With that, comes a lot of concerns for the workers that are part of that system, the amount of resources and waste that goes into that system as well as the treatment of animals that are part of that supply chain.
That awareness and a trend toward conscious eating that is more focused on health was a perfect match for this new set of technologies that are being leveraged to produce plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy.
On the plant based side, what we’ve seen is that this category or industry for many years was fairly boring and bland. It was very targeted at vegan and vegetarians. The food products were not all that exciting from a mainstream standpoint. Dishes like black bean burgers didn’t really resonate with that mainstream consumer.
When did you first start seeing a shift?
Five or six years ago, a lot of pioneering companies in the space, including companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods began introducing plant-based foods to the masses. They did that by making the products delicious and making them very familiar and comforting.
This is really a perfect match for a consumer audience that is really interested in eating more sustainably and healthy. There’s been an enormous amount of growth in the form of new companies entering the space; and a lot of existing new companies are really jumping into this as well, as are existing large food companies. The same with startups.
What has changed in terms of how people view plant-based food?
Previous iterations of plant-based food was targeted toward vegans and vegetarians; a niche audience. The new narration of plant-based meats and plant-based egg and dairy products is really targeted at omnivores. It’s targeted at the everyday consumer and it’s meeting them where they’re at.
It’s providing a taste experience and a health experience and a price experience that is very familiar and something they can totally get on board with. Because of movements like ‘flexitarianism’, these companies can reach a much wider market. There’s just a lot of consumers out there, who if given the right products can give the right foods, will absolutely respond very favorably.
How did you get into this line of work?
I graduated from college with a business degree and I’d always known that the kid that I really wanted to be an entrepreneur, and particularly in college got really interested in the idea of social enterprise.
After college, I worked for a variety of startups doing sales and marketing type activities, for digital marketing and such. It was a really fun experience and really valuable to me. I think sales is a really great experience because you fail all the time and you learn from those failures and you try to become better and become an effective communicator. So it was really useful.
What’s one thing about your industry that most people don’t know?
That animal meat is responsible for an enormous amount of antibiotic usage. An antibiotic overuse is a really scary thing because when things like coronavirus or other types of diseases come along, a world without antibiotics essentially means that we dial back the clock 200 years, in which people can die from massive plague or something like the common flu.
It’s a really scary world in the United States; 80% of all antibiotics used are given to farmed animals. Most of them are not even given to humans. It’s just given to farm animals prophylactically, because they are kept in such crowded, disease-ridden conditions.
That’s the only economic way that we can provide the cheap meat that we enjoy. That not only creates antibiotic overuse issues, but also, eating all those antibiotics in our meat really wrecks our gut microbiome and different things that contribute to gut health.
Does climate change also play a role?
Yes. There’s around an 800% food waste before food even reaches the consumer. That means that instead of just growing crops directly and feeding them directly to humans, we grow crops and we have to feed them to the animals.
Because of that, that waste, we’re literally growing in the case of chicken, using eight times as much acreage, herbicides, pesticides, water, fertilizer, all the different inputs for that. Then, we’ve got to transport all those crops, which requires an enormous amount of fossil fuels.
What can help resolve this?
Anytime we look at an industrial process and we see that level of inefficiency, there’s an opportunity to write it better. Animals are essentially mini factories that turn plant protein into animal proteins. They just do it extraordinarily inefficiently because that’s not what they were designed to do.
What we can do with plant-based meat or some of these other technologies is we can just take plants and turn them directly into meat. It’s vastly more efficient in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions and land usage, electricity usage, water usage. And then of course, all the things like fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Half of my time I basically wear an analyst hat. So I’m reading reports. I am keeping up to date on the news. I’m preparing presentations and writing, writing blogs, writing essays, writing white papers, doing a lot of just sort of understanding what the current state of research is on the market, on consumers, what’s happening with sales, these products.
Then, 50% of my time is really a direct promotion. So I’m traveling, I’m meeting with a food company or talking to a restaurant chain, and presenting about the business opportunity or the product attributes that consumers are looking for in plant-based foods.
I love it because I spend a lot of time working from my home office, about half of my time at my home office, doing a lot of deep work, a lot of writing and research.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I network at conferences and talk directly to executives at fortune 500 food companies about how they can integrate plant-based foods into their menu or into their product offering, or how ingredient suppliers can make their ingredients better suited for this industry.
It’s an incredibly fun job. There’s lots of travel, a lot of opportunities to see different cities across the country.
I’ve found that people in my industry are incredibly generous. They have similar motivations for why they got into this. They were motivated by public or animal welfare or the environment. They have very compassionate mission-minded passions but they also happen to be extraordinarily competent and very, very highly skilled.