Beyond Cheerleading: Why Funding and Hype Alone Won't Transform Our Food System


I’m an optimist; I always look for a silver lining in the worst circumstances, and I typically highlight solutions, over problems. But it’s time to take a big picture view of where things stand and where they are possibly headed. I’m exploring this idea, not because I believe there are reasons to be pessimistic or fearful about the strides we’re making in the plant-based and cell-based food space, but because it’s important to have the clearest view of the future, so we can anticipate obstacles, and work to address them strategically.

First, the good news.

  • Investors have funneled more than $17 billion into U.S. plant-based and cell-based meat companies in the past 10 years — $13 billion of that in 2017 and 2018, according to The Good Food Institute

  • Investments in plant-based dairy and alternative proteins (plant and cell-based meat) represented one-third of the overall investments in 2018, according to a new report by Food + Tech Connect

  • The plant-based food industry saw a 20 percent growth in dollar sales since 2017, with plant-based foods dollar sales outpacing dollar sales of all retail foods by 10X, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.

  • And of course, the Beyond Meat IPO was massive.

All reasons to be overjoyed? Undoubtedly! The funding is flowing like beer at a keg party and sales are growing year over year. The icing on the cake is obviously the Beyond Meat IPO.

All this positive momentum not only paves the way for further growth in the industry, but also puts a lot of pressure on companies in the plant-based meat and dairy categories to live up to the hype. If we’re all hoping that other food startups will just ride in the slipstream of Beyond Meat’s success and grow even faster in the years ahead, I think we’re in for a rude shock. Hope alone isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We also better be prepared to tackle some of the following challenges first:

  1. Labeling: Legislative efforts to restrict the use of terms like “meat,” “milk,” and “cheese” on plant-based and cell-based foods aren’t going away.

  2. Agricultural policy: The FARM bill is a long way from leveling the playing field and supporting high-growth startups looking to compete with big meat and dairy.

  3. Retail availability and visibility: Retailers have limited shelf space and if we want plant-based foods to continue skyrocketing in sales, more work needs to be done to improve placement and increase visibility of products across all categories.

  4. Food service adoption: Barriers to entry into food service (restaurants, cafeterias in schools, offices, hospitals, and beyond) need to be broken down and menus everywhere people eat need to start incorporating more plant-based foods.

  5. Scaling: Early stage startups need capital, but also real mentors and partners that can help them manufacture, market, and distribute their products at scale.

We’ve got to start thinking about how we can foster an ecosystem to meet the needs of all the stakeholders in the industry.

That’s why I was excited to put together the Eat For The Future Business Forum in partnership with Plant Based World Conference and Expo as a first step towards creating such an ecosystem. The fact that the inaugural conference and expo that recently concluded in New York City was a success and far exceeded anyone’s expectations, is definitely a good start.

But we have a long way to go, and the only way we can face some of the obstacles to growth is if we as an industry decide to come together and focus on it. This includes startups, established brands, as well as mission-aligned non-profits and investors. It’s going to take strategic coordination and collaboration so we’re all playing to our strengths and collectively doing our best to accelerate the transformation in our food system.

We’ve gotten this far because we’ve been passionate, creative, and resourceful, but if we are serious about going further, faster, we have to get more organized to meet the challenges (and opportunities) that lie ahead.

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Nil Zacharias: Founder, Eat For The Planet

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