#11 Meatless Momentum
Slowly but surely, meat and dairy are on the decline in some parts of Europe. Some of us have by now figured out we need to drastically reduce our consumption of foods that contribute considerably to the deterioration of the environment. And then there’s the animal suffering, not to mention the health issues. Whereas the world of plant-based products once used to be relegated to treehuggers and stuffy cornershops, now snazzy start-ups, big fast food chains, and the meat and dairy industry are jumping on board. Is the introduction of big money something we should be suspicious about, or is every step forward a good step?
When Swedish scientists were looking for an alternative to cow’s milk for people suffering from lactose intolerance in the early 90’s, they eventually stumbled upon oats. Oatly, the company they founded is still very much alive and kicking today, and a poster child for hip plant-based foods. We gave Anna a call, their sustainability specialist, to talk about their story, challenges and opportunities.
A man with quite a career in the plant-based world, Tobias first founded EVA, the Belgian vegetarian organisation many years ago. Nicknamed the Vegan Stragegist, he is now a meta-activist, coaching and training others on how to create a vegan world. That’s also the title to his book, but his pragmatic approach also has some opponents…
Kaline van Halder
Born in the Philippines, Kaline had a jackfruit tree in her backyard. Little did she know that she would one day run a company on the other side of the world, called Meet Jack, that makes meat alternatives based on the tropical fruit. Hear how that works, and how they’re building bridges between the plant-based world and the meat industry.
Additional notes & links
- If you want to read up on the EU’s crackdown on veggie food names like burger, milk and steak, here’s a good piece in The Guardian.
- How many of us are lactose intolerant? The hard facts and raw numbers in this scientific paper.
- Curious about the Great Oat Milk Shortage of 2018 in the US? Taste dives deeper into the improbable story, and Bloomberg has a report of their new production facility in New Jersey.
- Here’s that great article from Our World in Data about the carbon footprint of our food choices:
- Big Milk is in decline, here’s America’s largest milk producer filing for bankruptcy back in November 2019.
- Two great examples of meat companies investing in plant-based products: First there’s Vion, who are turning a beef processing facility into a dedicated vegan meat factory. And then there’s Bolscher, who have to admit they can’t see a future in meat alone, and who are now working with Meet Jack.
- Here’s what a ripe jackfruit looks like:
- A super interesting topic that we didn’t really have time to discuss, is cultured meat. Here’s two links to get you started, one from The Guardian, and one from Forbes.
🎵 All music by Lennart Schoors, except:
Lee Rosevere – Here’s Where Things Get Interesting
Lee Rosevere – Not Alone
Lee Rosevere – We’ll Figure it Out Together
Hey Lunar – Shroud
Lee Rosevere – Curiousity
Makeup and Vanity Set – Running
Lee Rosevere – Keeping Stuff Together
Laxcity – Your Own Company
Junior State – Paw Prints
Lennart: So, we’re in the supermarket here, looking at the aisle with all the vegetarian and vegan products. It seems to be growing year after year, I mean, we have bean burgers, tofu steaks, here’s some soy sausages, there’s even cheese made from cashews, … In another aisle there’s all the milks, like almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, … It’s a wonderful thing … except, the EU doesn’t think so. In April of 2019, the agriculture committee of the European parliament decided that we can no longer use these names, like burger, steak, milk, and cheese for plant-based products. Now, these rules still have to make their way into actual laws, but in the near future, these names might be exclusively reserved for edible parts and products of animals, that’s what the rule stipulates. With a handful of exceptions, which, of course, don’t make any sense. Like for example, why can we have coconut milk, but hazelnut milk is not permitted? I don’t get it.
Mei: The politicians in Brussels are claiming this is all just to avoid confusion, so people know what they buy and what they put in their mouths. But research suggests the vast majority of people are not confused at all whether almond milk contains actual cow’s milk for example. So, it’s hard to see this as anything other than big agriculture and the meat & dairy lobby fighting for the privileged position they were able to hold on to for so long.
Mei: Yet, at the same time it seems the industry is finally realising what the future will bring, and they want a piece of that pie. Just look at their climate impact – it is simply unsustainable, and they know it. The world of plant-based products once used to be relegated to treehuggers and stuffy cornershops, but now hip start-ups, big fast food chains, and the meat and dairy industry are jumping on board. So is that a time to celebrate, or should we be more wary?
This is Tomorrow People, a show about building a better tomorrow, today. I’m Lennart, and I am Mei
Lennart: There are many reasons why people turn to plant-based products. The three main ones are animal welfare, health reasons, and concerns about the environment. Now, let’s focus on one of those health reasons: lactose intolerance. That’s a condition where you have a decreased ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Studies estimate that in Europe, about 25% of people are lactose intolerant, but globally, it’s about two thirds of the population. About 25 years ago, in the early 1990s, Swedish scientist Rickard Öste was looking for a solution to lactose intolerance.
Anna Åhnberg (Oatly)
Anna Åhnberg: So can we find another way to have this delicious, nutritious drink, but for lactose intolerant people, or people who don’t want to drink cow’s milk.
Lennart: You’re listening to Anna.
Anna: My name is Anna Åhnberg, and I’m a sustainability specialist at Oatly.
Lennart: Oatly, the company that was founded by that Swedish scientist Rickard Öste and his colleagues at Lund University in Sweden, turned to oats as an alternative to cows. You know, plant milks made from crops like soy, rice or almonds have been around as early as the 13th century, and they each have their benefits and drawbacks. But oat milk is a modern invention however.
Anna: It’s a way of copying those natural enzymes that we have in our stomach when we break down food, so we still keep all the nutrients and fibers.
Lennart: So it’s not just blending oats with water, like you can do at home, no, they invented and patented a production process to keep the fibers intact. For years, Oatly was a relatively small company, trying to find a market, and selling their product to other brands. But in recent years they have been successfully riding the wave of the huge boost in popularity for vegan foods, reaching way beyond that initial lactose intolerance market.
Anna: So we had a big, big year last year, expanding and going global. And a lot of companies then get sold to bigger brands. But we really didn’t want to do that, so we were very lucky to find investors.
Lennart: Today, Oatly is still proudly affirming their status as an independent company. They’re headquartered in Malmö, and they now offer a whole range of oat-based products in more than 20 countries.
Anna: So we do drinks, ice cream, spreads, yoghurts, …
Lennart: But this explosive expansion brought about some growing pains. Especially in the US. While America’s largest producer of cow’s milk, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy back in November, baristas and grocery stores are still talking about Great Oat Milk Shortage of 2018.
Anna: The demand was so much higher than we could anticipate. It’s a very fun challenge to have though. So now we have built our first production site in the US. And we’re actually building a second one on the West Coast.
Lennart: That success came at a cost: they had to resort to some temporary measures in order to keep up with demand.
Anna: By growing, our climate impact is also growing. We try to be very transparent and open about our discussions that we have internally.
Lennart: You can see that desire for transparency in their 2018 sustainability report, a surprisingly readable 90-page examination of their results. The summary is just there on the front page. “Slightly worse than last year!” it says – with an exclamation point. As Oatly grows into different markets, they have to build factories in places with different rules and regulations.
Anna: We had it easy before because we were just producing in Sweden.
Lennart: But as they add ingredients and expand their networks of suppliers, they have to adapt and compromise. Sustainability is a constant, ongoing effort. For things like good workers’ conditions, scaling back pesticides, a green energy supply, …
Anna: It’s good to be a player that is asking for these things in other countries. But it’s a challenge that we cannot get exactly what we want from day one. It’s really hard to be perfect from the beginning, you know.
Lennart: A big challenge for the food industry is climate change. Because it is one of the big pollutors.
Anna: It’s about 25% of the green house gas emissions. And meat and dairy, actually, they stand for more than half of total of the food industry. So if we gonna keep global warming to one and a half degrees, we need to address food. And I think it’s impossible right now for consumers to make good choices, because the knowledge isn’t out there.
Mei: About that, I have an interesting article here. It’s from Our World in Data and it shows that what we eat has a way bigger impact than where our food comes from or how it is packaged. If you want to reduce your footprint, the only conclusion I can draw from this graph is to simply ditch meat and dairy. We’ll link it on our website, so you can see for yourself. So there is a lot of knowledge available, you just need to find it.
Lennart: And that is why Oatly started to put the actual numbers on their packaging.
Anna: Yes, we do! So we calculate the climate impact for each and every one of our products by a lifecycle assessment kind of way. So we look at all the impact from the oat field, to transportation, packaging, factory, … everything that creates emissions, from cradle to grave. I think, where a lot of people would be like “it’s too much work”, we just do it anyway. Because we’re crazy, but that’s fun!
Lennart: They hope that other companies will follow suit, and that it may even become mandatory to print your carbon footprint on the box, just like the nutrition facts labels. Perhaps then there will be more of an incentive for the food industry to actively lower their numbers.
Lennart: Another big issue for Oatly revolved around the oat fiber residue. At the end of their production process, they end up with some sort of thick, wet goo from the oats. It’s unusable for their dairy products, but it still has some nutritional value. So they went looking for a buyer.
Anna: Our solution was that we gave those residues to pig farms. To use for feed, and then biogas.
Lennart: But that sparked a big controversy. Within the vegan community, there was a small but very vocal group that claimed it was unacceptable that Oatly, a plant-based pioneer, was working with the meat industry – you know, their enemy. Now, simply throwing away the leftovers would be a big waste of course, and by serving the residue to the meat industry, they’re actually replacing crops that would have otherwise had to be grown only to feed animals. But still, customers had questions.
Anna: We had a good discussion, and they really challenged us, like “is that good enough?”. And we were like “okay, no, it’s not good enough”. So, it was hard, but we really do appreciate, you know, engaged consumers challenging us, because that is the way to move forward.
Lennart: A couple of initiatives sprang from this debate. Oatly applied for and received a research grant to study the possibility of turning the fiber residue into new products for human consumption, like cookies perhaps. And they also conducted a feasability study on building their own on-site biogas plant, using the residue as fuel. In the meantime though, they keep feeding it to pigs, because the alternative is worse. And I just love this as an example of how these things are never purely black and white, and a pragmatic approach is often the best option. Anna Åhnberg agrees.
Anna: The most important thing is the result. If companies want to get into plant-based just to make money, and the result is that we have more products, and there’s a lower climate impact, I’m still happy with that. Of course the best thing would be like living in a world where everybody had really good intentions. But I mean of course we will see some plant-based products that are not perfect, but hardly anything is from the beginning. And we can evolve from that.
Mei: If we’re talking about a pragmatic approach to plant-based products, we inevitably end up at the doorstep of Tobias Leenaert.
Tobias Leenart: Hello.
Mei: Nicknamed the “vegan strategist”, he travels the world teaching people about vegan advocacy, and he’s the author of the book “How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach”. His personal motivation stems from a deep care for all animals, that started at a very young age.
Tobias: I started to think about animals when I was about, maybe 10 years old, when I was thinking about the dog that was near the fireplace, and the cow that was in the meadow in the rain. And I was wondering, what is the difference, the morally relevant difference, that justifies for me that I pet the one and eat the other.
Mei: Still, actually making the jump was easier said than done.
Tobias: I continued to eat meat for about ten years, everyday saying “I’ll stop tomorrow”. And I couldn’t stop, just like a smoker can’t stop, because I loved the taste of meat. And finally at university, somebody gave me Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.
Mei: This 1975 book on the ethics of how we treat animals was hugely influential in the burgeoning animal rights movement, and also for Tobias.
Tobias: It was still a gradual process, but two years after that, I finally was a vegan. And that was about 20 years ago.
Mei: With a few fellow students, he became active in a local action group, promoting vegetarianism and animal welfare. At the turn of the millenium, they decided to kick things up a notch and go national, and they founded EVA, which stands for Ethical Vegetarian Alternative. In 2005 EVA became the first vegetarian organisation in the world to receive structural funding from its government. Tobias was at the head of EVA for 15 years, growing it step by step into an organisation with about a dozen employees. Professionally, it was a big success, but …
Tobias: For me personally though, it was, I could say almost continuously a struggle. To lead an organization, to develop it, to manage, to … Yeah, I have a bit of a … maybe perfectionism, also a lot of doubting, a lot of indecisiveness, … And doubting makes one a good philosopher maybe, but doesn’t make one a good leader. You have to take decisions, you have to be sure of your decisions, or at least pretend you’re sure of your decisions towards other people. That’s not something that comes easy to me.
Mei: Those 15 years took their toll.
Tobias: And then, all of a sudden, I was out with a burnout, with a depression.
Tobias: I was not really able to imagine anything that I could do at that point. Nothing that could still give me the feeling of contribution. I felt I had lost my whole identity because I was that organization almost.
Tobias: And then slowly but surely, the clouds cleared, and I discovered, like, okay I can be … still be useful. And I found out I could be useful as what I call a meta-activist.
Mei: A meta-activist. In the last few years, Tobias has been coaching and training other activists and companies on how to achieve the goal of a vegan world. His real-world experience of dealing with authorities and large groups of people made him turn to a very practical and functional approach.
Tobias: What I talk about in terms of veganism is a pragmatic approach, and, well, that’s not an idealistic approach. That means that you’re going for what works. You’re going to try to do what is actually achievable.
Mei: So rather than constantly preaching the total elimination of animal-based products, perhaps we can better talk about reducing, and simply praising and promoting the alternatives. Maybe this is a good time to talk about our personal history, no?
Lennart: Yeah, good idea. I’ll let you go first.
Mei: Well, for me, it was a health journey that brought me to vegetarianism first and ultimately a whole plant based diet for the last 5 years or so. Now it’s the other factors like environmentalism and ethics that make me stick to it. So it was a very personal evolution for me, not really a cause I necessarily identify myself with. What about you?
Lennart: Well, I’ve been a vegetarian for, I think, more than 25 years. It started at home when I was still a teenager. My mom just started preparing less and less meat, until one day we were vegetarians. And in recent years, I’ve also been basically a vegan, but, you know, people often ask me: Can you eat this? Can you eat that? And I always reply “I can eat anything I want, I just choose not to”. I mean, it’s just a matter of putting some rules down for yourself, and trying to stick to it. But it’s not a competition – you can’t win this.
Mei: For some people though, it does seem like a competition, and Tobias was met with a lot of backlash for his methods. Some, let’s say, hardcore vegans are actively campaigning against his books and trainings.
Tobias: I have to defend my choices more among the vegans than I used to do among the meat eaters. And I get more criticisms from vegans than I got, ever, from meat eaters.
Mei: So although he promotes this whole pragmatic approach, he is still very strict in his personal life.
Tobias: Some people think that I make exceptions all the time, because I talk about how being consistent is not all that important. But in my consumption, I’m still quite black and white. I don’t make a lot of exceptions.
Mei: In the end, what you eat should be a personal preference, and not a measure to judge the rest of the world. But he can see where the critics are coming from.
Tobias: I can understand where that comes from, because I have been exactly the same. It is very tempting to see the world in black and white. I think that’s also the attraction of religions. That religions give an answer to what is right and what is wrong, what is black and what is white. And veganism somehow does the same. It says this is wrong, this is right, it creates clarity for people. People find it very comfortable. And when you break through that clarity, when you break through that binary situation, people get uncomfortable.
Mei: The problem is that if you draw lines and maintain strict definitions, you’re always dividing people into separate in- and out-groups.
Tobias: Instead of, like, wanting to join the in-group and the out-group, you’re going to make the distinction sharper – by your behavior, by your ideology, etcetera. And I think that’s never a good thing.
Mei: So by all means, go for perfect in your own kitchen, but promoting perfectionism to others can be a distraction, it might turn people off, or worse, turn them against you. A pragmatic, inclusive approach on the other hand has the potential to reach a much larger audience.
Tobias: If many people reduce, then you would have an additional increase in demand, and thus an increase in supply of alternatives. It is mainly for the reducers that the vegan companies produce food, because they’re the much bigger group.
Mei: And this is exactly the trend we’re seeing more and more in recent years. The percentage of vegetarians and vegans is growing steadily, but the number of omnivores who want to reduce the amount of animals in their diet is so much bigger.
Tobias: People are also understanding that the way we’re eating is not sustainable. And they are the ones who are driving the market. And now it has kind of reached a critical mass.
Mei: Of course the food industry has noticed this.
Tobias: Business people, investors are starting to understand that – are seeing a business opportunity there. Are seeing that in the future we can’t have a meat-heavy diet like we have today. So alternatives will be financially interesting, will be a good investment.
Mei: Like we said in our introduction, the days of treehuggers and stuffy cornershops are mostly gone, and a lot of players in the plant-based space are now flashy start-ups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. While trying to approximate the taste and texture of meat, they raise a lot of capital from tech investors. There’s also the big fast food chains, who are racing to introduce and expand their vegan options.
Tobias: These products may not always be ideal for vegans. And you sometimes see vegans complain “oh I don’t want my substitute to look like meat, or to taste like meat, or to be bloody or whatever, or to be available at KFC or Burger King, …” And then of course, I’d say, well, they’re not made for you. If you don’t want to eat them, don’t eat them. We want the products to be created that reach everybody. Not just a small minority of innovators and low-hanging fruit. We want everybody to be on board.
Mei: Finally there’s the meat and dairy industry, who have to admit that their future may not only lie in animal foods.
Kaline van Halder (Meet Jack)
Lennart: Our final guest has some experience on that matter. Her name is Kaline van Halder, but let’s first go back to how it all started for her and for the company she co-founded in Haarlem, in the Netherlands, called Meet Jack.
Kaline: For the past fifteen years I have been coaching and advising other social entrepreneurs or impact makers, to set up a business in emerging markets, and actually create impact locally. So I had this urge of doing something on my own, like create my own tangible product, instead of advising others.
Lennart: So when Kaline bumped into a particular meat alternative at an industry event, she was intrigued, and she decided to build a company around it with a longtime friend. Now, you probably know the traditional alternatives, like tofu, seitan, beans, chickpeas, stuff like that. But her company Meet Jack – well, it’s in the title, isn’t it?
Kaline: We’re working with a fruit called jackfruit.
Lennart: Jackfruit, it’s the largest tree fruit in the world.
Kaline: And it’s a fruit that grows along the equator. It’s considered a jungle crop.
Lennart: Jackfruits are these huge, green, spiky, oval bags hanging from the tree trunk, and they can weigh up to 55 kilo’s, according to Wikipedia.
Kaline: When it ripens, it becomes very sweet.
Lennart: And the taste can be described as a combination of apple, pineapple, mango, and banana. But that’s too fruity to be a meat alternative, so…
Kaline: So what we do is we use the unripe meat of the fruit. The meat has no flavour, and no colour, but it already has very long fibres. And those fibres, if you season it with the right flavours, and of course the right cooking preparations, …
Lennart: You get a very versatile, very flexible substitute. If you go to your asian supermarket, you can probably find cans of young jackfruit in brine. Still, using jackfruit as a meat substitute is often not that widely known in the places where it is grown, like where Kaline is from.
Kaline: I was born in the Philippines, and I actually had a jackfruit tree in my backyard. But I had no idea the fruit could be used as a savoury option.
Lennart: Jackfruit is pretty sustainable crop. A mature jack tree can produce about one hundred to two hundred fruits a year. It is harvested, frozen, and then shipped by sea.
Kaline: We source it from Thailand, at the moment. In a frozen way where we keep all the nutrients and all the vitamins of the fruit itself. It doesn’t need any preservatives, doesn’t need any chemicals, hardly uses any water.
Lennart: So it doesn’t exactly come from around the corner, but compared to meat, it’s got a much smaller carbon footprint. A big question for Meet Jack was what their business approach would be. Initially they thought about selling readymade products straight to the vegan target group. But retail is a tough world, especially for a small newcomer.
Kaline: Here in the Netherlands, the vegans have already found their way into jackfruit, so we moved away from the supermarket, and we thought about where do we create the most impact. And the biggest impact is with either the meat eater, or with the flexitarian.
Lennart: And what better way to reach that broad market, than with a typical local snack?
Kaline: You know when you’re in a bar and you’re having a couple of drinks, basically the first thing you order, when you have these cravings, is bitterballen.
Lennart: Bitterballen. These fried balls filled with beef, flour and butter are a very popular Dutch tradition. So if you can make a vegan bitterbal with jackfruit, that tastes just as good, or where people don’t even notice the difference, that’s a big deal. Similarly, they made jackfruit variations of other local dishes, along with the more conventional burgers. They sell these products to a whole bunch of restaurants and caterers. To produce them, they’re working together with meat producers.
Lennart: You see, meat producers are getting more and more demand for alternatives, so if you can diversify your portfolio of products, you’re a more valuable supplier.
Kaline: It increases the sales, from a commercial point of view, and you also have something new to offer, you have a new story. Plus you are one of the front runners, so…
Lennart: So you could argue it just makes sense. I asked Kaline how willing those meat companies are to go along with this line of thinking.
Kaline: The younger generations, they have a different opinion than I guess their ancestors at the moment. And I don’t think can not change a bit of your direction. Because you will lose customers, you will lose image. You have to move along, you know, the trends that are currently happening, and the reduction of meat consumption.
Lennart: And that is how Meet Jack is now successfully selling meat alternatives to butchers all around the country. So collaborating with the meat industry proved to be quite fruitful for them, although Kaline is careful not to lose their spirit of positive impact.
Kaline: So we have lots of other ideas of what to use with the jackfruit. Not only with the meat that we use, but also with the seeds, which contain a lot of proteins. We actually want to look into the skin, which is a wasted good at the moment. You can make fibres, sustainable fibres for clothing. Also, we want to create more impact, locally, on the ground, with the local communities.
Lennart: By maintaining a sustainable and fair supply chain, but also by offering the products themselves. You know, in a lot of regions that are growing economically, the demand for meat is also booming. By raising awareness for meat substitutes that are just as nutritious and savoury, we can perhaps prevent putting the planet and the animals under even more stress.
Mei: Pat Brown, who is the chief executive of Impossible Foods, a US based producer of meat alternatives, has set a deadline for himself. He wants to eliminate animal products from the global food supply by 2035. Now, that’s a very ambitious goal of course, and vegan activist Tobias Leenaert thinks it will take a little longer than that, but still…
Tobias: In spite of everything I trust empathy and rationality among people enough to get us there, but especially in combination with really good alternatives. And my idea has always been that once the alternatives are there, and once the behavior change comes easy, we will have a lot less reasons to be defensive against the arguments from the animal people. And we will have a lot easier time to open our minds towards their arguments.
Mei: In Oatly and Meet Jack we had two great examples of combining laudable ideals with a traditional business approach. But when mainstream multinationals jump on the plant-based train, should we be suspicious?
Tobias: I don’t think it’s ideal. I’m an idealist myself at heart, and I would like people to do the right thing for the right reasons. Not for money, not for profit. But the reasons, or the motivations, they don’t matter. Some problems in the world, like animal suffering, or like the sustainability problems, are so huge that we can’t wait for the fall of capitalism to start working on them. You will slow yourself down, and I don’t want to slow this thing down.
Mei: Ideally everything would be for the “right” reasons, but if the end result is better health, a drastically lower climate impact, and less animal suffering, let’s take the pragmatic approach and embrace every step towards those goals.
This episode of Tomorrow People was produced, hosted, edited and scored by Mei Van Walleghem and Lennart Schoors. Additional music by Lee Rosevere and Musicbed. Thanks to our guests Anna Åhnberg, Tobias Leenaert and Kaline van Halder. Additional thanks to Linda Nordgren, Anneke Postema, Maarten Witte, and Nancy Ashman.
As always, more information and pictures are to be found on our website and social media accounts. We’ll post some pictures of jackfruit. And there’s also the interesting topic of cultured meat we want to point you to. We haven’t covered it in this episode, because that would have lead us too far, but do check it out. So head over to tomorrowpeople.today and look us up on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. We’d love to hear from you. Also, please subscribe to the feed and tell your friends. Thanks!
Our next episode, which is in two weeks, will be all about inclusive design. And if you want to know more, there’s only one way to find out – just tune in.