Transforming our Animal-based Food System: An Interview with Bruce Friedrich

Introduction: Bruce Friedrich is the Founder and CEO of the Good Food Institute (GFI). He is a TED Fellow, Y Combinator alum, 2021 “American Food Hero” (EatingWell Magazine), and popular speaker on food innovation. He has penned op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Wired, and many other publications. He has represented GFI on the TED Radio Hour, New Yorker Radio Hour, Ezra Klein Show, Making Sense (Sam Harris), ReCode Decode, and other programs and podcasts. Bruce’s 2019 TED talk has been viewed almost 2.5 million times and translated into dozens of languages. He graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law and also holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Economics. I count Bruce among my friends, and he is one of the people whose strategic thinking I regularly seek out.

Zoe Weil: Bruce, I consider you among the most effective solutionaries in the world. By that I mean that you have identified a pressing problem (our animal agriculture system); recognized the interconnected causes of that problem; developed leverage points and strategies for creating change; and done all this with the “most good, least harm” principle in mind so that your solutions have the fewest unintended negative consequences for people, animals, and the environment. Please tell us about GFI’s approach to solving the problems of animal agriculture and the progress you’ve witnessed since founding GFI.

Bruce: Zoe, thank you. You are among Alka’s and my favorite people on the planet, and as we challenge ourselves to consume less and really think about our footprint, it’s your example that we keep coming back to. 

Industrial animal agriculture exacerbates climate change and biodiversity loss, increases pandemic and antibiotic resistance risks, and harms animals in ways that shock the conscience of kind people. But meat consumption just keeps going up, and the UN says it will go up another 70-100 percent by 2050. So rather than continuing to put all our resources into convincing people to change, the brainstorm of GFI is: Let’s change the meat – let’s make meat from plants and cultivate animal meat directly from cells (what we call cultivated meat). 

Just like renewable energy can replace fossil fuels, and just like electric vehicles can replace conventional vehicles, plant-based and cultivated meat can replace industrial meat – if they give consumers the entire meat experience at an equal or lower cost. 

Since we started working on this endeavor, we’ve seen more and more scientists focused on alternative proteins, governments around the world funding science and incentivizing private sector activity, more and more private sector activity from startups to major food and meat companies, and so on. We’re very excited about all this movement. Just in 2021, we saw more government activity than in all of previous human history, and private sector activity is ramping up as well. A nice snapshot of GFI’s work in 2021 is available on our “top 21 of 2021” blog

All that said, we do have a long way to go. Plant-based meat is still less than 1 percent of the global meat industry, and cultivated meat is zero. These products need to cost the same or less and taste the same or better. We’re optimistic, but there is a lot of work to do! 

Zoe: You worked for PETA and Farm Sanctuary leading campaigns to transform people’s eating habits and inspire them to go vegan. Your approach is now very different. What changed and why?

Bruce: I should also note that I ran a shelter for homeless families in Washington, D.C. for more than six years, taught in inner city Baltimore through Teach for America for 2 years (I was teacher of the year for my school my second year), and adopted a vegan diet in 1987 out of concern for the global poor. So my concerns include animals but are also – and have always been – much broader. 

I also want to note that I’m still a huge fan of educating people about the harms of industrial animal agriculture. I wouldn’t be doing this if not for learning about those harms from Diet for a Small Planet and the writings of Victoria Moran back in 1987. So, too, most of the founders of plant-based and cultivated meat companies started these companies out of concern for the environment, or animals, or global health, or all three. But as a critical complement to education we need to create products that satisfy meat-eaters, because most people are not going to change their diets based on moral arguments. That’s why I started GFI. 

As noted, meat production is a massive contributor to climate change, a top cause of antibiotic resistance, and a top contributor to pandemic risk. Yet it receives vanishingly little attention in the climate and global health communities because, until now, there has been no solution to the problem of meat production that was analogous to renewable energy, electrification of transport, and drug development. In short, all solutions to the problems of meat’s adverse climate and global health impacts have required massive education campaigns or vast coordinated efforts on a country-by-country basis. No more. Alternative protein is probably the largest and most under-appreciated climate and global health solution. 

Zoe: Putting on your Nostradamus hat, how long do you think it will be until factory farming is a horror from our past?

Bruce: It’s really hard to come up with a precise time when there will be no more industrial animal agriculture, but I do think that if we can create products that taste the same or better and cost the same or less – and I do think we can – then we should be able to shift society away from industrial animal agriculture. This is why GFI is single-mindedly focused on getting the entire climate, biodiversity, and global health NGO and political communities to go all in on our theory of change.

I co-authored a piece for alongside Dr. Anand Gopal from Energy Innovation that makes this case, and this is GFI’s global battle cry: Governments need to fund this transition, and unless they do Paris agreement climate obligations will fail. The quicker we enlist government support, the quicker we can make this kind of progress.