My Unplanned Career in Food Tech
When I entered college, I was hoping to work for a few years in some exciting industry before starting my own company. I investigated a wide variety of fields, technologies, and roles, but food was never part of my plan. I’d grown up working in a fried chicken restaurant, and while the experience was enjoyable, it never occurred to me that food would be a particularly interesting or fulfilling career.
That all changed after I graduated from college. Armed with a business degree, I became interested in food ethics through the Effective Altruism community and started becoming more aware of how the modern food system is contributing to some of the most pressing issues facing our world. In particular, I discovered that the industrialized animal agriculture industry was a top driver of problems such as:
- Food insecurity & land overuse – 77% of all agricultural land on Earth is used for animal agriculture, either for grazing or to grow feed. However, despite taking up such a giant percentage of agricultural land, meat and dairy only make up 17% of global caloric supply and 33% of global protein supply. Due to wealthier consumers’ insatiable demand for animal protein, land that could be used to efficiently grow plant protein is instead diverted to wasteful animal agriculture, creating food shortages in poorer countries.
- Greenhouse gas emissions – According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other economic sector, including notoriously dirty industries like transportation, energy production, and mining.
- Water overuse – It takes over 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. According to the Water Education Foundation, 477 gallons of water are required to produce 1 pound of eggs; almost 900 gallons of water are needed for 1 pound of cheese.
- Water & air pollution – The immense amount of excrement produced from farmed fish and land animals leads to massive amounts of waterborne and airborne pollution, which contribute to aquatic deadzones, the rise of zoonotic diseases, and many public health problems. According to the USDA, every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food, just in the US. A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people.
- Antibiotic resistance – According to the FDA, 80% of the antibiotics used in the US are given, often prophylactically, to animals. This is due to animals being bred unnaturally, kept in close confines, and constantly surrounded by their own manure. These antibiotics end up in the animal protein we eat, wreaking havoc on our microbiomes and providing the preconditions for antibiotic-resistant superbugs to arise.
- Deforestation – Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction due to demand for soy to feed cattle. 1-2 acres of rainforest are cleared every second.
The reason for these harms is simple: animals are inefficient processors of plant protein into products like meat, eggs, and dairy. It takes 9 calories fed to a chicken in the form of feed to get 1 calorie out in the form of meat, representing 800% food waste before even reaching the consumer! And chicken is one of the most feed-efficient meats, other animals such as cows and pigs are even more inefficient.
Reducing our use of animals as protein processors has many benefits, but almost no one wants to reduce their meat intake, and it’s easy to understand why. Meat, eggs, and dairy are inexpensive, widely available, convenient, energy-dense, embedded in identity and culture, and just plain delicious.
This need for alternative forms of protein production and consumption is why I am so excited to work at the non-profit think tank, The Good Food Institute (GFI). Rather than ask consumers to give up what they love, GFI works with food producers to make meat, eggs, and dairy in a more efficient way that eliminates unpredictable, inefficient, and unhealthy animals and replaces it with simpler, more efficient, and better processes. GFI supports companies who are using alternative protein sources such as plants, fermentation, and cellular agriculture to produce meat, eggs, and dairy products.
My role is to work with foodservice operators, food manufacturers, investors, and food industry suppliers to maximize their sales of plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy. Our research team conducts and aggregates market and consumer research that is shared with food industry leaders to ensure plant-based foods are marketed and positioned to appeal to mainstream consumers and sell successfully. My other colleagues at GFI work with scientists, regulators, legislators, researchers, public health groups, and other audiences to promote alternative proteins.
The interdisciplinary nature of the food industry is one of the best aspects of my work. Food is elemental — it’s a fundamental part of life and culture. Start studying food systems, and you’ll quickly find yourself thinking and reading about anthropology, biology, chemistry, ecology, nutrition, public health, physiology, zoology, agriculture, physics, engineering, computer and data science, religion, gender studies, art, politics, economics, philosophy, ethics, and other disciplines.
I love working in the food industry, building practical partnerships with some of the world’s largest food companies to make progress on goals that are incredibly important. Working on alternative proteins is a tractable (and highly profitable) solution with a high impact on some of the world’s most pressing problems. Together, we are harnessing the power of the free market and technology to create a more healthy, just, and sustainable food system.
Author: Zak Weston
Zak works with leading food brands, grocery stores, foodservice operators, and restaurants to help increase the quality and quantity of their plant-based product offerings. An active member of the Effective Altruism community, Zak holds a B.A. in Business Management from Cedarville University, and joined GFI after several years of experience in sales and working with startups.
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