We’re excited to kick off a new column on Wicked Healthy where we interview individuals who are making a big impact in the plant-based world and beyond. Today we’re featuring Chris Kerr, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Good Food Institute!
Ask either one of us and we’ll tell you: eat more friggin’ vegetables! It’s better for you, better for the planet, and the best way to be wicked healthy. We’ll also tell you that reducing or eliminating animal-based foods is now easier than ever. Just go to any grocery store, look in a food magazine or at a growing number of restaurant menus, and you’ll likely see a good alternative or two to a meat, dairy or egg product in there.
Due to this growing demand, more and more companies are finding innovative ways to create, produce and market plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs. But even the best ideas need exceptional support to make the leap to a successful reality. That’s where The Good Food Institute comes in.
By working with early-stage and established companies and everything in between, GFI is helping to create a better, safer, more sustainable food system for people, animals and our planet. With a focus on plant-based meat, dairy and eggs, they work with scientists, investors and entrepreneurs to not only bring great ideas to market, but also help them succeed once there.
As plant-pushers ourselves, we are huge advocates of what they are doing, and so we sat down with Chris Kerr, Entrepreneur in Residence at GFI, to ask him a few questions about plant-based and cultured meat, why our current food system needs to be disrupted and what role they help play in creating a healthier and more humane and sustainable food supply.
First off, can you explain to us the concept behind cultured meat and how it’s different from mock meats currently on the market, as well as why it’s needed?
Clean, cultured meat is meat that is grown through cellular division and does not require an animal. Think of the process like the conditions in a green house. If you want to grow a tomato in the winter, you create a perfect environment, with optimal heat, water, nutrients, soil and light. If you do that, the tomato plant knows exactly what to do – grow tomatoes. Similarly, if you take living cells – in this case animal cells for meat – and create the perfect environment, they do what they know best – grow and divide.
(Note that cultured dairy, eggs and gelatin are grown in a similar fashion to brewing beer, utilizing yeast as the host for specific proteins to grow and reproduce. Rennet and insulin have been produced this way for over a decade.)
Plant-based meats are created by isolating certain plant properties with a focus on function, to recreate texture, mouthfeel and ultimately taste, so that end product is as close to its meat counterpart as possible. It is interesting to note that rarely do meat eaters eat just plain meat. They use plants in some form or another to create the flavor – be that A-1 steak sauce (vegan), BBQ sauce (typically vegan), any myriad wonderful herbs and spices. Oddly, without plants, there would be a lot fewer people eating meat.
While clean cultured meat is in its infancy, plant-based meats have come quite a long way in the last decade – not just with taste and texture, but price and availability. Plant-based meats have proven to be commercially successful on every level – and this means capital is available for starting and building companies that can go to market quickly. Clean cultured meat is several years away from being commercially viable, and a great deal of science and engineering is in the works to assure we get there.
GFI is taking a parallel path to advance both concepts. Simply put, we need to meet consumers where they are, not where we want them to be. Plant-based meats get close in parity to their counterparts, but clean cultured meat is actually real meat. At the cellular level it is identical to the meat available today – but no animal is involved in growing it and bringing it to market. For those who like plant-based meats, we salute you. But those those who refuse to budge, we are working on a solution for you too – and we will come to you if we have to.
GFI talks about supporting the next generation of plant-based companies that aim to disrupt animal agriculture. Why does our current food system need to be disrupted?
Animal-based agriculture is very, very inefficient. And it seems to damage nearly everything and everyone who buys into it. From heart disease and diabetes, to environmental destruction, to immeasurable suffering – no one wins. To focus on just the inefficiency, the energy inputs do not come close to reconciling with the energy outputs. In the case of feed-lot beef, the ratio of kcal in to kcal out is around 40:1. You give me 40 gals of water and I will give you 1 gallon of lemonade – that’s not a great business. And, this doesn’t account for the off-balance-sheet collateral damages like health consequences, food scarcity, environmental damages, etc. all of which cost become the burden of our entire society.
Tell us what you do as Entrepreneur in Residence at GFI. (Also, how do you see Wicked Healthy playing into your vision as GFI advisory board members?)
The EIR role is traditionally one of a mentor and advisor. There is no such thing as being an entrepreneur with a specialty. Nearly by definition, entrepreneurs are CEOs, bookkeepers, fund raisers, paralegals, insurance brokers, realty agents, construction managers and myriad other things that have little to do with why they went into business. With some of the tasks or hurdles they face, they simply need an ally sitting on the same side of the table as they are. I, and our advisory board, plays the role of ally. And depending on the task or hurdle, we draw on our advisory members for their expertise. In the case of the good men at Wicked Healthy, your culinary skills, your knowledge of the grocery channels, and your experience with co-packers is simply invaluable. It does not go without notice that The Brothers Sarno have their fingerprints on myriad notable companies who owe their early success to your efforts. At GFI, we intend to full exploit these talents (and praise you along the way)!
Current and conventional animal agriculture practices often reveal a side of our humanity that is not very humane. If we are capable of creating this kind of system, are we equally capable of creating a kinder, more sustainable system for the future?
We oft say that if slaughter houses had glass walls, we’d all stop eating meat. Today, the Internet and social media are those glass walls. Yet, people are slow to change. Some people love animals, and others love only some animals. And sadly, some are completely indifferent. With this reality, while doubling-down on the efforts currently in place (education, regulation, advocacy), we also need to utilize another weapon at our disposal – innovation. The good news is that innovation is a bazooka. Nothing moves quicker and is more sustainable than innovation. By investing in and supporting innovation in the marketplace, and combining it with the efforts we are making with other channels, our belief is that we can reach our target without consumers feeling they need to compromise.
Will we see a significant—or even a complete shift—over to plant-based meat, dairy and egg alternatives in our lifetime?
Well, that depends on how old you are. In some parts of the world the trajectory of adoption is moving in the right direction; in places like China it is not, and is getting pretty horrendous. The better we utilize science, ingenuity and innovation, the faster we impact these trends on both sides of the equation. Our sincere belief is that in fifty years, people will look back on the idea of raising and killing animals for food as laughable. Just as the inventions of the plane and car have made the idea of traveling from state to state by horse and buggy absurd, innovations of plant-based and cultured meat, dairy, and egg products, will make raising animals to eat them a thing of the past.
What kinds of challenges and opportunities lie ahead for The Good Food Institute in the coming years?
We need scientists. And lots of them. Luckily, we’ve just added two brilliant scientists to our team—a mechanical engineer and a synthetic biologist—and we expect the addition to increase our effectiveness exponentially. We have many entrepreneurs looking to team up with the scientific community to tackle specific challenges head on, and having access to dedicated scientists is crucial for those efforts. The opportunity to create nearly immeasurable change to better our society is standing right in front of us. But real talent is required to advance the effort.
Finally, what is your favorite wicked healthy dish (either something you make for yourself or what you enjoy eating the most).
Good lord. Where do I start? You know I am not just a hyper-excitable foodie, but an aggressive eater (pretty sure I was raised by wolves). There is never one dish, but if I were to start with breakfast – French Toast probably takes the win. For dinner, Miyoko’s Mac n Cheese is my go-to when my beloved wife is away (I am a child at heart). Truly, any Wicked Health dish you put in front of me I will love…but for the evil weed. Cilantro is a problem.