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Bonus Insights: Renee Smith Nickelson – Policy & Food Systems Associate, Plant Based Foods Institute and Plant Based Foods Association

Bonus Insights: Renee Smith Nickelson – Policy & Food Systems Associate, Plant Based Foods Institute and Plant Based Foods Association

Renee Smith Nickelson is Policy & Food Systems Associate at the Plant Based Foods Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association.

The PBFA is the first and only U.S. trade organization representing the plant-based foods sector, founded on the mission to champion, strengthen, and elevate its members and the plant-based foods industry.

The PBFI, its sister non-profit organization, is focused on driving transformation to a plant-based food system that benefits people, the planet, and animals.

WATCH her DELIVER America 2023 Keynote: Unlocking the Power of Plant-Based: How Sustainable Sourcing & Partnership Can Drive Food Systems Change


What are some differences across the USA in terms of plant-based foods perspectives, and which states / cities are at the forefront of these discussions?


There are a few key differences in different states, such as their approaches to labeling policy, inclusion of plant-based foods products in public sectors, and state-level investment in plant-based foods research and development.

Where gaps exist on the federal level for defining standards for plant-based food products, states have responded with policies that either expand or inhibit plant-based foods options, in most cases based on labeling claims. PBFA works actively with brands and other organizations to defend plant-based foods labeling issues across the country, as well as advocating on Capitol Hill to advance clear and consistent policies on plant-based foods that are informed by research and industry insights. And we want this to be a bipartisan issue. It's an opportunity for farmers, it's an opportunity for small business growth. And as this industry continues to grow and show its viability, there's a huge opportunity for the American government to invest in it.

Some states have approached inclusion of plant-based foods in public sectors to meet dietary diversity and nutrition goals. For example, in recent years California included significant allocation to purchasing cafeteria equipment and training to prepare plant-based foods in schools. The City of New York instituted meatless days and added more plant-based meal options in schools, hospitals, and other public facilities. There are many other examples across the country of greater plant-based foods inclusion at a macro and micro level - but it's really local communities that are driving action on these issues and solutions.

And also in public sectors, particularly around facilities like schools, and other state-run facilities like hospitals. And it's been really unique. That change has been driven by local communities that want more options, whether it be options that are sensitive to allergens, but also just sensitive to their own cultural background that may not have a primary meat or dairy-based diet. And they want to be able to see that in schools. They want to see that in state facilities. But whether it be at the macro or micro example, communities are leading the charge when it comes to inclusion. Especially as we see the rise of dairy intolerance. That's particularly impacting communities of color in the US. So having access to those alternatives is absolutely a health need.

The Plant Based Food Association sees its consumers as reducetarians or flexitarians. So these often aren't really folks that are looking to go completely vegan or completely remove meat or dairy, but are seeking to replace that product with at least one plant-based food alternative. And I think that's really a clear distinction, because it makes room for choice, it makes room for variety.

In states where plant-based foods production is seen as an economic driver for business, there is some investment in research and development of plant-based foods through academic and research institutions. Minnesota and North Carolina are two states that enacted policies to fund plant-based research at a state level.


What are some challenges that are unique to the plant-based food supply chain?


Dependence on specific plant ingredients, like soy, peas, and wheat for protein, can lead to supply chain bottlenecks when there are crop failures or adverse weather conditions. Ensuring a consistent and sustainable supply of these ingredients can be challenging, especially as demand for plant-based products grows.

The Plant Based Food Institute and Association have been advocating for opportunities for American farmers in plant-based. It's a matter of identifying those key ingredients, creating the distribution and supply channels, and being partners, so that we can now have a robust new market for farmers in the US.

Developing plant-based food products that deliver on taste and texture also requires advanced food processing technologies and expertise, so specialized equipment and facilities are needed for processing and manufacturing plant-based ingredients into desirable products.

And I think that on the supply side, we need to really think about how retailers are approaching how to have the most available products. The fight for shelf space forever will be a problem, as we consider how we get products and how they're distributed.


What are the opportunities for sustainable (and plant-based) packaging (and other revenue streams)? Where in the States does the accountability lie for sustainable packaging, especially for supermarkets?


Sustainable and plant-based packaging can provide benefits in the reduction of environmental impact through use of recycled materials, recyclable materials, biodegradable or compostable materials, and reusable formats. At present, all of these approaches are difficult, as the availability of recycling and composting varies widely from place to place, and implementation of reusable container programs requires the coordination of brands, retailers, venues and foodservice operators. In the U.S. we are in the early days of developing viable sustainable packaging materials, formats, programs and recycling/composting/disposal infrastructure.

Accountability rests collectively with all stakeholders in the food system. While brands and retailers may seem to have the largest role to play, without the cooperation of federal, state and local policymakers, brands and retailers are limited in the potential impacts of their sustainable packaging initiatives. Policymakers must provide the incentives and funds for creation of standardized recycling and composting facilities across all jurisdictions. In addition, policymakers must set clear standards for sustainable packaging claims that are aligned with the recycling and composting technologies they mandate. For example, is a PET clamshell package with adhesive paper labels really recyclable? At present, most jurisdictions' recycling systems cannot handle this format, and it goes into landfills. The package may bear the recyclable symbol, but it cannot be recycled in the majority of systems.


Could you talk about the ‘intersection of market demands and values-based business initiatives’? How does / can the latter drive the former?


A market-based approach can play a significant role in addressing some of the issues within our food systems, but it is unlikely to be a silver bullet that solves all of them on its own. Innovation across sectors is driving consumer interest and expanding their choices to everyday staples - mostly recently, creamer products saw high market value as an increase in options and flavors brought in more ‘fancy coffee’ drinkers. When it comes to pricing, gaps do exist between plant-based and animal-based food products, though with so many innovative products in the market, the goals of price parity is more commonly reflected in dairy and meat categories where consumers may seek plant-based alternatives to their meals. In the realm of sustainability, certification programs and concise labeling help consumers make informed choices about the environmental and ethical impacts of their food purchases. Consumer education in-store and on packaging empowers customers to prioritize sustainable practices and justifies the premium for these programs to exist.

There are several limitations to relying solely on a market-based approach, however. Markets can exacerbate inequalities, both in terms of access to food and economic disparities within the food system. Some people may not be able to afford access to plant-based food products for nutrition, or for cultural reasons, contributing to food insecurity in communities. As businesses grow to seek to gain viability and satisfy investors, a short-term focus on profit maximization can sacrifice long-term sustainability and resilience. While a market-based approach has its strengths and can be a valuable tool in addressing certain aspects of our food system issues, a holistic systems approach that considers social, economic, and environmental dimensions is likely to be more effective in creating a sustainable and equitable food system while creating long-term business sustainability.

It's also important to recognize that when making food choices, consumers don’t just make decisions based on price, taste, and convenience. Those are all critical pillars to address, but not the full story. Food is deeply personal, and we must also tap into what emotionally drives people toward certain food choices.

At the PBFI, we're working to create an ecosystem of brands and retailers focused heavily on the industry side, to create mechanisms that support their business case, for sustainability, for equity, for regenerative business thinking.

In essence, a systems-based approach in the food industry moves away from a siloed and linear view of food production and consumption. Instead, it embraces a more holistic and dynamic perspective that seeks to create food systems that are not only economically viable but also socially equitable and environmentally sustainable. This approach is increasingly important in addressing the complex challenges facing the global food system, including issues like food security, nutrition, climate change, and food waste.

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