Good Food Institute rankles cattle ranchers and vegans alike
|Toronto Star 14 Mar 2019 at 20:46|
SAN FRANCISCOâBruce Friedrich used to be the guy who broke into fashion shows to splatter fake blood on the models wearing fur coats. That was when he wasnât handing out pamphlets on campuses or creating videos to expose the grisly reality of meat production.
But he realized at a certain point that his activism wasnât achieving his goal â getting fewer people to kill, eat and wear animals.
The Good Food Institute believes capitalism might work where activism fell short when it comes to getting people to eat less meat. And sales of meat alternatives rose 22 per cent last year, and 18 per cent the year before, according to Euromonitor International.Â Â (JASON HENRY / The New York Times)
âWeâve tried to convince the world to go vegan, and it has not worked,â Friedrich said in a recent interview.
These days, he is hoping capitalism might work where activism and persuasion fell short.
The organization Friedrich founded in 2015, the Good Food Institute, is at the centre of a new industry searching for alternatives to meat that make no sacrifices on taste or price. His organization, which is based in Washington, does everything from starting venture capital funds to making matches between investors and startups.
The work has turned Friedrich, 49, into a spokesperson of sorts for people who came to realize that making others feel bad about eating meat does not make them consume less of it.
âYou can turn blue in the face talking to people about how animals suffer,â said Suzy Welch, an animal activist and an author. âThen Bruce came and said, âThere might be this alternative.ââ
Suzy Welch and her husband, Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, met Friedrich in 2015. Since then, the couple have become funders of the Good Food Institute, and they have relied on it to vet the half-dozen or so companies they have put money into.
There are early signs that Friedrichâs strategy is making headway. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are becoming brand names. Sales of meat alternatives rose 22 per cent last year, and 18 per cent the year before, according to Euromonitor International.
But it is also making Friedrichâs organization into a punching bag. The Good Food Institute has faced off against cattle ranchers, who have been promoting state-level legislation that would make it harder for startups to market their alternative proteins to meat eaters.
When Friedrich wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal, praising food conglomerate Tyson for its embrace of plant-based proteins, he was denounced by meat lovers for peddling âself-righteous claptrapâ and was hit by vegans for promoting processed foods from a company that still kills animals.
âDonât congratulate them!â one commenter chastised Friedrich.
Now he spends more time thinking about the comments from meat eaters than about his longtime allies, the vegans.
âI donât care much if vegetarians or vegans are supportive,â he said. âWe donât want people to think differently about their food. We want to change the food.â
Friedrich was raised in Norman, Okla., where his father was a university professor. He didnât have much interaction with animals or agriculture, other than the occasional fishing trip with his grandfathers, which he looks back on with some regret.
He was an activist from a young age, but his issue of choice was initially poverty. At Grinnell College, in Iowa, he ran the local branch of an organization focused on global poverty. After graduating, he moved to Washington, D.C., and spent six years living in and running the Catholic Worker homeless shelter, where he took a salary of $5 a week and wore the donated clothes other residents didnât want.
He became a vegan after reading the book Diet for a Small Planet, and he decided to dedicate his life to the cause while he was living in the shelter and read the book Christianity and the Right of Animals.
âI didnât have a particular affinity for animals,â he said. âI have a very German, logic-based temperament, for better and worse.â
Friedrich got a job at People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals and married another leader in the organization. They had one son, who is now grown up.
During his nearly 15 years at PETA, he rose to be the head of public campaigns. He was responsible for some of the organizationâs highest-profile campaigns, including Kentucky Fried Cruelty, Wicked Wendyâs and Murder King, which put a spotlight on the treatment of animals served by fast-food chains.
During the so-called McCruelty campaign, Friedrich went from demonstrating outside McDonaldâs restaurants (with fake Unhappy Meals, filled with bloodied plastic chickens) to negotiating with the company and praising it when it improved the living conditions of its egg-laying hens.
âHe always had this ability to see potential friends and allies where others would only see enemies,â said Milo Runkle, who began as a volunteer at PETA under Friedrich and went on to found Mercy for Animals.
Friedrich always thought the battle would be won by persuading people to stop eating meat. Many of the videos and documentaries he made were focused on winning over consumers, like the short documentary Meet Your Meat, narrated by Alec Baldwin.
âI really thought we just needed to educate people about the fact that there is no moral difference between eating a pet and eating a farm animal,â he said. âFor quite a while, I was talking about the inevitability of our victory, purely through education.â
But the per capita consumption of meat in the United States kept going up. In faster-growing parts of the world like China and Brazil, the increase was even steeper.
Friedrich took a break from PETA in 2009 and spent two years teaching English and civics at a high school in Baltimore.
Those years coincided with the creation of startups looking to take on the meat industry. Beyond Meat was founded in 2009, and Impossible Foods began in 2011. There had been veggie burgers before, but the new companies focused on creating products that would taste enough like meat to appeal to carnivores.
Almost all of the founders of these companies talk â like Friedrich â about coming to the business after realizing that the existing efforts to move people away from animal-based agriculture were not working.
Pat Brown, founder of Impossible Foods and a former professor at Stanford University, decided to form his company after organizing a conference about the problems created by animal agriculture and realizing how little impact the conference had.
âAll the education and all the awareness of the problem, and concern about the problem, doesnât solve the problem,â he said. âWe just need to deliver the same value to consumers but use better technology to produce it.â
Friedrich considered founding his own food startup. But he decided he could make more of a difference by creating a non-profit to provide a set of shared resources for all the companies in the industry.
The Good Food Institute, which Friedrich founded with $540,000 from Mercy for Animals, has 65 employees and separate departments for lobbying, scientific research and corporate engagement.
So far, plant-based meat companies have had the most success, but the Good Food Institute is also putting significant resources into helping companies that want to grow meat cells in labs.
The idea is to create as many alternatives to meat as is possible, and Friedrich is using every tool at his disposal, from incubating new companies to starting venture capital funds, two of which have been spun out of the Good Food Institute.
One of the grand pooh-bahs of Silicon Valley, Paul Graham, who founded Y Combinator, recently wrote on Twitter that he believed the startups would lead âa rapid switch away from meat at some point.â
But Graham said he anticipated that one side effect would be a big hit to family farms, and more economic inequality.
âThe replacements for meat will be created by startups, which means more Bezoses,â he said, referring to Amazonâs founder, Jeff Bezos.
Friedrich disagrees. He believes a move toward a more plant-based diet would help smaller farms at the expense of big meat conglomerates. But the shift âhas to happen,â he said.
âWe need to change the meat, because we arenât going to change human nature,â he said.