What good food experts say we can expect in 2019
This coming year will see the first sale of clean meat, more plant-based food in fast food venues, animal welfare issues being discussed in schools, and growing support for an agricultural movement that reverses global warming.
These are among the predictions made by leaders and innovators in the good food movement. The regenerative farmers, clean meat entrepreneurs and investors, nonprofit leaders, and academics we interviewed shared reasons to be hopeful about what the coming year might bring. Of course the move toward a cooler, healthier, more humane world can’t come quickly enough—and our experts remarked on that, as well. But they preferred to focus on what could be.
Regenerative agriculture to get a boost from Big Ag
David Montgomery is an author, professor, and regenerative agriculture pioneer whose optimism about the future of regenerative agriculture has risen considerably over recent years. He told us that when he wrote Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations a decade ago, he struggled to find an optimistic way to end the book. Today, he said, things have taken a turn in the right direction. “Talk of soil health seems to be everywhere!” says Montgomery, who recently published Growing A Revolution and is Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington in Seattle. “Studies focusing on the effects of cultivating beneficial soil life are shining light on the power of combining modern methods of no-till farming with the ancient wisdom of cover crops, complex crop rotations, and integrating cropping and animal husbandry.”
Looking forward, Montgomery has high hopes. “Over the coming year I expect to see growing adoption of regenerative practices as farmers share their positive experiences—and greater profits—from adopting them. I’ve also been heartened by the growing interest of large companies, like General Mills, in integrating regenerative practices into their supply chains,” he said. As part of an agreement entered into last March, General Mills is partnering with Midwestern BioAg to mentor farm operators in regenerative soil management practices, such as no till, crop rotation and cover cropping.
Montgomery also expects to see growth in consumer demand for healthful, regeneratively grown food. In one notable instance of this consumer transparency, a coalition spearheaded by The Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s, and Patagonia launched the Regenerative Organic Certification last March, which establishes food labeling for regeneratively grown crops.
“We are starting to recognize, and document, that how the way we grow our food affects its nutrient density,” says Montgomery. He and Tim LaSalle, cofounder of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at CSU Chico, are seeking funding for research that evaluates the connection between soil health and good nutrition. “We have enough preliminary evidence and enough common sense to believe that food nutrient density will be maximized in truly regenerative farming systems,” says LaSalle.
Regenerative farmer Gabe Brown, author of Dirt to Soil, predicts that growing awareness of the benefits of regenerative farming will help it become more mainstream this year. Noting a cultural shift away from emphasizing “sustainable” farming and toward more regenerative farming, he asks, “Why would we want to ‘sustain’ a degraded resource? We need to be regenerative.”
For LaSalle, regenerative farming looks to be the definitive issue of this year in food. “Regenerative agriculture is not only the good news and major food trend of 2019,” he says, “it is the most promising strategy to turn around the planet and atmosphere’s degradation as well as our own health.”
Plant food becomes fast food, and dairy continues its decline
This past year saw a continued rush to market for delicious and affordable plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy. In a long-growing trend, plant-based milks continued to elbow dairy products off the shelves. Milk made of nuts, oats, pea protein, and more now makes up 13 percent of all milk products sold. What’s more, recent market data indicates that the meat market could now be embarking on the same path. Though it currently makes up only 1 percent of the market, plant-based meat’s growth trajectory looks similar to that of dairy-free milk ten years ago, with 23 percent growth in sales last year up from only 6 percent in the previous year.
This exponential growth was capped off by recent product launches and announcements from prominent manufacturers eager to enter the plant-based market. Nestlé has announced plans to launch the plant-based Incredible Burger this spring, and Unilever’s recent acquisition of Dutch meat-substitute company The Vegetarian Butcher will expand its plant-based portfolio.
Perhaps most significant, several fast food empires notorious for meat-heavy menus are now making major strides in the meat-free market. McDonald’s has introduced a plant-based Happy Meal and wrap in the UK, a McVegan burger in Finland and Sweden, and a vegan McAloo Tikki burger that originated in India and has just arrived at its headquarters restaurant in Chicago. Recent statements from the company suggest there may be more North American launches to come. And with White Castle’s new Impossible Slider and Carl’s Jr’s recent partnership with Beyond Burger, the winds are changing fast in fast food.
Naijha Wright-Brown, executive director of the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland, has been particularly struck by the entry of fast food retailers into the plant-based market. “The latest McDonald's vegan burger offering at its Chicago-based franchises is incredible, and White Castle with its Impossible Burger slider offering is good,” she said. In general, she feels encouraged by the increase in vegan restaurant openings, product offerings, and vegetarian events, and she expects these trends to continue in 2019.
Brian Kateman, co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, which aims to protect the environment by consuming fewer animal products, also applauds the growth. He predicts we will see more plant-based alternatives on the market, a larger proportion of young people who identify as vegan, and an even greater number of people who simply cut back on animal products.
At the same time, he noted there is a chance we could still see higher meat consumption averages overall. “There are many reasons why some people may eat more meat in 2019—wealth is one factor, but so is a potential increase in fast food outlets (which are usually meat-heavy), a decrease in the cost of producing meat, and so on,” he said. “We are only at the start of a much larger transformation, one that will extend well beyond 2019. Of course, we must celebrate incremental progress and find comfort in knowing the moral arc will bend in our favor in 2019 and beyond.”
Animal welfare will become a mainstay in curricula and student activism
The fight for animal welfare has seen an upswell in support over the past year, with landmark clean meat regulation, an increase in plant-based food options, and the passage in California of the world’s strongest animal welfare law. Katie Cantrell, executive director at Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, feels heartened by these developments and expects 2019 to bring increased activism and greater public awareness about our farming system and its impact on animals, health, and the climate, particularly among students.
More teachers are including the food system in their curricula, screening movies like Food, Inc. and adding The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation to reading plans., she says. Additionally, students are seeing videos and memes on social media about factory farming and animal cruelty.
“They're better primed than ever before when we go in to give presentations,” Cantrell says. “Rather than having to start from scratch with students who never considered where their food comes from, we can further the discussion, answer questions, and help students address perceived barriers to behavior change. And as vegan food continues to become more delicious, more affordable, and more accessible, it is easier than ever before for people to choose plant-based options.”
Looking ahead at the state of the planet and politics, Cantrell also found reasons for optimism amid a dire situation. “We are seeing less apathy and more anger and determination on the part of students who are realizing they will have to take matters into their own hands if their generation is going to inhabit a livable planet.”
Clean meat will make its first sale
Clean meat, a product biologically identical to animal meat but grown in a lab, has been generating excitement and hope ever since the first animal-free burger was rolled out of the lab in 2013. But that burger cost more than $330,000. This year may be the first time it’s affordable enough for regular people to try it out themselves—a little bit anyway.
The first clean meat purchase will probably take place at a single restaurant in very limited amounts, says Mary Allen, a content specialist at the Good Food Institute. “This will get a lot of press but will be more of a ‘proof of concept’ than the actual entry of clean meat into the market,” she says. A large-scale roll out of clean meat may not happen for another couple of years, but it will happen.
The optimism about prospects for clean meat stems in part from the regulatory progress made last year. In November, the FDA and USDA announced they would oversee clean meat production and sales, thus laying out a path for bringing it to the marketplace. According to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the formal rules for oversight will be released this year.
Paul Shapiro, the CEO of The Better Meat Co. and author of Clean Meat, expects the regulations to lead to greater consumer trust and increased investment in clean meat worldwide. “The USDA’s regulatory framework will cement clean meat’s legitimacy and enable a pathway to commercialization,” he said. Both Allen and Shapiro hope this milestone will spur other countries to begin work this year on their own regulatory pathways for clean meat. Shapiro notes the increased investor interest in countries such as Poland, Japan, Korea, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Weighing in with an investor’s perspective, Laura Zaim from New Crop Capital told us that she hopes 2019 will see progress in not only clean meat tech, but also successful branding and commercialization. “One thing I’d really like is for the industry to coalesce around the terminology it wants to use and the way it wants to position itself to general consumers,” she says, noting clean meat is also called lab-grown, cell-based, slaughter-free, and cultured meat. She’s not even sure it needs to be branded as something different given how politicized anything involving meat can be. Indeed, Shapiro pointed out that some organizations, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, are already lobbying against clean meat being called “meat” at all.
On the other hand, one notable development last year was the interest in clean meat by existing meat producers like Tyson and Cargill, which both invested in clean meat startups. This trend might continue in 2019, but Ricardo San Martin, a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a course on clean meat, says that in addition to meat producers, we should hope for upcoming investments by companies that already have research capacity in adjacent biotech fields. “Big pharmaceutical companies that are used to scaling and working with similar materials - having them in play is different than Tyson buying a share where it has an economic interest,” he said.
Overall, though, San Martin agrees with Zaim that the most pressing challenge for clean meat in 2019 might just be its market viability. He offered a word of caution for the optimistic Silicon Valley biotech crowd, many of whom are supporting startups for clean fish, chicken, and beef. “Silicon Valley itself is a bubble, and clean meat is a bubble within that bubble,” he sys. “In 2019, I would love to see more studies by independent researchers asking what conditions are necessary for people to make a shift to eating clean meat. Changing behaviors is hard. Changing eating behaviors is even harder.” It’s not a prediction, but it’s a hope, and a good one to lead us into the new year.
News Fellows Ezra Sassaman and Greg Veitch contributed reporting for this article.