Plant-based meat will overcome political tribalism and move into mainstream acceptance as technology progresses and prices come down, believes Harvest B co-founder and CEO Kristi Riordan. By Brent Balinski.
There are plant-based meat companies, such as v2food, that make efforts to position themselves as a supplement rather than a competitor to conventional meat.
This is also the case with Harvest B, founded in 2020 and currently manufacturing plant protein ingredients that replicate the texture and form of regular meats such as lamb, beef and chicken.
Other fake meat makers, such as Impossible Foods, put themselves forward as anti-animal meat for humane or other reasons, though Harvest B co-founder Kristi Riordan sees the approach as a poor way to win people over.
“Animal meat tastes good. So I don’t have any business or desire to shame people. And I don’t think it’s going away, either,” she tells us during a visit to the company’s Surry Hills kitchen.
“But I simultaneously think that we have to have complementary proteins to meet the future needs of population growth and a sustainable food system.
“So we have to speak with a different tone. We have to connect and reach out to the mainstream, who actually like and will continue to consume animal proteins. And perhaps even equally or more importantly, we have to understand why those products taste good and how we can bring that into our formulations.”
Riordan is a serial entrepreneur who came to Australia in 2019 on a Global Talent Visa.
She describes her hunt for a new venture as motivated by wanting to do something “climate positive” as well as based on Australian competitive advantage.
Harvest B sources one of its main ingredients, wheat (a source of gluten) from Manildra in NSW.
“Australia actually has one of the most important gluten supplies in the world,” she explains.
“It’s one of really only three regions where gluten is developed, and it’s a very important protein source for this category.”
The company opened its Penrith factory late-last year (click here for our coverage of the launch and interviews with its team) with 1,000 tonne per annum capacity.
In the first episode of @AuManufacturing Conversations With Brent Balinski for the year, Riordan explains the sore lack of innovation she saw in ingredient manufacture, the importance of identifying consumer needs, and the tribalism that persists when it comes to fake meat.
Riordan compares it to electric vehicles, which were originally super-expensive as well as an expression of one’s environmental views.
They could be seen in a left versus right vein, but as prices dropped and technology improved, that’s wearing off.
“That’s when people change,” says Riordan, citing the Ford F-150 Lightning EV.
We ask about hostility towards the plant-based meat category in one online example, which featured commenters of a certain demographic.
“Let’s expand it from grumpy old men. It’s actually a broader tent than that particular category,” Riordan says, adding that it’s consistent with what we see in politics.
“We have to think about how we’re engaging and communicating with people like that, who see this as a tribal issue, who see this as something that is an ‘us versus them,’ and are being told that their habits and their heritage [are wrong.] They might have a family of livestock farmers. They might be a livestock farmer themselves.
“And if we have conversations where we say ‘we want to end livestock production,’ – that’s a way of living, that’s a way of life, it’s a heritage for people like that. We can’t shame a way of life… The way that we’ll change people and we’ll bring them into the tent, eventually, is by creating products that taste great and are cheaper.”
0:30 – What they do plus Riordan’s entrepreneurial background “in areas where categories were rapidly transforming.”
2:00 – Migrating to Australia and identifying a new venture aligned with Australia’s competitive advantage in agriculture.
4:10 – Identifying “a complete lack of innovation” in a particular part of the plant-based food value chain.
5:10 – Sites at Penrith, for R&D work and commercial production, and at Surry Hills, which tests for downstream applications of their ingredients.
6:08 – An appreciation for the view put forward by the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre: “It’s fundamentally a technology business. It might be a hardware business, but it also requires a lot of software.”
7:20 – Why they’re bringing data to the “black art” of extrusion in food manufacturing.
9:10 – Why consumer-oriented problems needed to be tackled first for the category, though there are currently opportunities beyond “formed meats.”
12:10 – Why what they’re doing is different from seitan, a centuries-old fake meat product. “But I think what we’ve learned from seitan is that there is this special ability of gluten to be able to create textures that are quite desirable to our palates.”
14:05 – Targeting a consumer need for simpler products with fewer ingredients without binders.
15:50 – Why language and attitude matter when trying to grow the category among mainstream consumers, rather than appeal to just the idealistic early adopters.
18:50 – Why arguments about plant-based meat look a little like arguments about politics.
22:20 – Near-term and five years ahead. Plus unexpected inbound requests for vegan pet food and what changing, more localised supply chains could mean for overseas markets.
25:35 – Riordan’s point of view on localising production within Australia.