Time to overhaul the global food system

Hampton Creek is one of the World Economic Forum’s 2015 class of Technology Pioneers. The company’s first two products, Just Mayo and Just Cookies, are the start of plans to overhaul the global food system. Founder and CEO Josh Tetrick explains what the company is out to achieve. 

Your website talks about “starting over” in the global food system. How are you doing that?

By looking at the molecular properties of different plants to see what uses they could have that nobody has considered before. For our product Just Mayo, for example, we discovered we could use a protein from the Canadian yellow split pea to achieve the same emulsifying effect that traditional mayonnaise gets from chicken eggs.

We’re not altering genes or playing with chemicals, we’re looking at naturally occurring properties. There are 400,000 plant species around this world, and 92% of them have never even been studied with a view to using them in food. So we’ve brought in leading data scientists, plant biochemists, molecular biologists and culinary scientists to look at all these plants, categorize their molecular properties and connect them to functionalities, both in terms of current food categories and entirely new food categories that have never existed before.

How did you come up with this idea?

I spent about seven years of my life working in sub-Saharan Africa, doing things like working with kids in South Africa, working with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on investment law reform in Liberia, and working with the United Nations in northern Kenya. And I found myself getting increasingly frustrated at how time-consuming and difficult it was to achieve any meaningful change.

In 2007, I snuck into the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, and that’s where I first came across the idea of the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” – the case for businesses to look seriously at the problems of the poorest people. I’d never before considered that capitalism could be a real force for good, and I started to get obsessed by it. I’d experienced the frustration of trying to achieve change by appealing to people’s better natures, and I started to think instead about how much faster change would happen if you could make the right choice the easy choice – including for the majority of people who aren’t necessarily very motivated by doing the right thing.

I focused on the food system in part because it’s at the centre of so many other issues, like energy, water, land, drought, micronutrient deficiencies; and partly because of my father, in Birmingham, Alabama. Like so many people, he simply buys food that’s cheap and tastes good. He doesn’t really care about his health, or environmental sustainability, or whether animals suffer in industrial farms. I never could persuade him to make better choices about what he eats. But if someone could make the good choices cheaper and tastier than the bad ones, then of course he would.

In that sense, the challenge is similar to clean energy: for as long as it’s more expensive or not as good, it’s not going to change the world because it depends on people caring enough to make sacrifices. But once it’s cheaper and better than the alternatives, watch out.

Why did you choose to start with the chicken egg?

We had to start somewhere, like Amazon started with selling books, and chicken egg production felt like an especially inefficient part of the food system – it uses a lot of land and water, mainly for the feed. So we started screening plants to see if we could find things that could serve the same functions. But the aim is not to eliminate the chicken egg, it’s to make the whole food system ten times better, less degrading, less abusive.

You’re now marketing Just Mayo, which is like mayonnaise but uses no eggs, and Just Cookies, which have no eggs or dairy. What else is in the pipeline?

We’re looking at a whole range of things – sauces, dressings, baked goods, protein snacks, scrambled eggs, yoghurt, custard. And we’re not only looking at better ways of making familiar foods, we’re working on creating things you’ve never heard of before.

Thinking of other examples like the Sergey Brin-funded lab burger, how crowded is this space of using new technology to fundamentally reimagine food?

Not very. You do have some attempts to do things differently in the labs of some of the larger food companies, but for companies that have been working in the food system for ages, it’s difficult to take a step back and ask what would that system look like if we could completely start over.

That’s a good thing for us as a company, because there’s not a whole lot of competition and it creates an incredible opportunity to have a real impact. But from the perspective of changing the food system, I’m hoping our success will prompt others to think about what they do. It’s a big world out there and there’s not just going to be one company that helps solve these things.

You had to fight off a lawsuit from Unilever over the use of “mayo” for a product with no eggs. How have established players in the food system reacted to you?

In varied ways, but in many cases with enthusiasm. The largest food company on the planet, Compass Group, is a partner. So are General Mills, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Target, Costco, Tesco – we’re already working with some of the icons of the food industry globally. We’re in 4,100 public schools in the United States, and 93% of Fortune 500 companies have us in their cafés. The scale and speed of progress has been much greater than I expected.

I’ve learned that when you have an approach that makes it easier rather than more difficult for good people at big companies to do the right thing, they’ll do it. It’s not difficult. And there are a lot of good people working in these companies. You have to connect with people as human beings and keep being honest with them. We don’t start from the assumption that anybody is a bad person – that’s not how we look at the world.

Although we did previously face a lawsuit from Unilever, recently I had the opportunity to spend several hours with their CEO, Paul Polman, and I was impressed by his thoughtfulness on making the food system healthier and more sustainable. It’s awesome to have these conversations with leaders who are open to what we’re trying to do.

What are the biggest challenges you foresee in having the kind of impact you want?

At the moment it’s a question of how quickly we can scale. We also need to see whether our approach resonates as well in places like India, China and Latin America as in the United States, because we want to have a global impact. But we have 13 billionaires invested in the company, and we constantly get messages from kids and parents saying they’re inspired by what we’re trying to do. When you get support that bridges society like that, you have to be optimistic.

Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here

Author: Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO, Hampton Creek

Image: Students eat lunch at Salusbury Primary School in northwest London June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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