In 2011, Paul Lightfoot founded BrightFarms, an indoor hydroponic farm for growing leafy greens. BrightFarms is alive and well, and this past August, the company was acquired by one of its investors, Cox Enterprises. I had the opportunity to catch up with the serial entrepreneur to discuss his latest passion and project: advocating for carbon-neutral foods in his newsletter, called “Negative Foods Newsletter“. Here is our conversation:
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Ashlen: Do you want to start by discussing what you’ve been working on and what your newsletter is about?
Paul: The thesis for the newsletter, and for my future book, is that the food system is responsible for, depending on who you ask, about a third of global greenhouse gases. Food, however, is unique. It’s unique in the sense that we all have to eat constantly to survive, but it’s also unique that food can be grown regeneratively, crops can be grown in a way that doesn’t release carbon into the atmosphere, and can actually draw carbon down out of the atmosphere. So if, as a society, we continue to make changes so that we eat food that draws carbon on a net basis, the food system can actually be a lever to reverse climate change. Food is sort of different, and I would say it’s better than energy let’s say, or transportation. You can eliminate your emissions with energy, with things like wind or solar or hydro, but it doesn’t actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere and that’s what is sort of magical about food, that it can, I think, can be a lever to go backward on climate change. So that’s what I’m working on and that’s what I’m excited about.
Ashlen: Could you briefly describe the process of what it might look like to go carbon neutral? I know that’s going to look different for a lot of different crops and companies.
Paul: I’m going to answer your question two ways. The first part is, with respect to a particular category of food, and the second is with respect to society, our society in America, I’ll use, beef as an example, and I like to make this example because it’s pretty well studied and well known and because the stakes are so high. So industrial meat, in my opinion, although it’s, I would say it’s a fact, it’s true, but industrial meat is the worst actor in terms of climate in our food system.
It’s grown in a way, typically that releases incredible amounts of greenhouse gases. Part of it is that we’re generally feeding grains like corn and soy, to our cattle, and the fertilizer for those, those grains are generally made from natural gas. And often, a lot of those grains are grown in places that used to be carbon sinks and the worst parts of those stories are like the Amazon rainforest that’s burned down to grow corn and soy for cows in the United States.
It’s a disaster, not only did we burn down 1000s of years of stored carbon, but every year there’s not more carbon stored in that case. The cattle themselves, of course, release methane, because they’re eating the wrong food. And so you’ve got those three reasons why there’s an enormous amount of greenhouse gases released with industrial beef.
Now, on the other hand, there’s beef that can be grown regeneratively and people might think of words like grass-fed. This is truly having pastures, and a low enough density of animals per space and pastures, that the grass itself is the product, and the beef is sort of a byproduct. The grass itself is grown naturally in a way that on a net basis results in more carbon being taken from the atmosphere than released. So, if people convert their beef, eating away from distribution toward regenerative beef, they’re actually making climate change, better.
It’d be fine if you got rid of all beef compared to industrial beef as well but you can actually become a lever for good.
So that’s one example, and we could give examples for perennials, like olives and lots of different ways as well, and even examples in row crops like wheat, but I’ll move on now to think about how do we do this as a society, right. And, I think that consumers will be a big part of what changes things and I’m pretty optimistic. I think that when consumers have more understanding of the carbon footprints of their food choices, they will make choices, such that foods with a lower carbon footprint, which will have a competitive advantage.
I say this based on recognizing that over the last 20 years, consumer demand for organic skyrocketed. People paid more and people bought more organic foods, even though there wasn’t really clear data that organic was better for the environment, or for your health. And that gives me confidence that when they understand foods are better carbon footprints, they’ll be willing to pay more and choose those foods. I think when that happens, when consumers start choosing foods that are carbon negative or carbon-neutral, you’ll see this massive shift in consumer demand, and then you’ll have farms and food companies racing to meet that demand and that’ll result in changing the practices to more regenerative practices.
So I’m excited about that. The one thing that’s missing, by the way, is that knowledge for consumers, I do think we need to get a paradigm in a place where there’s some standardization, about what labels being what and where you can give consumers knowledge about their foods carbon footprints.
Ashlen: I think you make such a good point about the organic movement. I was in Whole Foods actually the other day and I saw a box of cereal that said it was made with regenerative grains, and thought whoa, I have not seen that yet.
Paul: That’s interesting, I wonder what brand it was. Maybe General Mills. It’s such early days for that, and if you stop 100 People walking through that aisle in Whole Foods, I think 90 of them won’t really understand what your regenerative is, which is part of the challenge today. I think there’s a risk that if we don’t define it, it could get sort of watered down in a way like the word “natural” is now, which would be a real shame. But it’s great to see that big food companies are not in, you know, in my pattern recognition famous for innovation, or for cannibalizing their existing portfolios of brands, but there have been some massive investments and announcements made by big food companies. Maybe my favorite is that Unilever intends to roll out carbon labeling voluntarily, pretty soon on 1000s and 1000s of products. I’m hoping that is the rest of the industry.
Ashlen: Many companies are making claims and pledges to go carbon neutral. What should look for, and should we trust all of them? How do we avoid greenwashing as consumers?
Paul: I don’t judge companies or people by their motives, so I don’t think to myself, this company is bad because of what they’ve done in the past, I judge them by their actions. I do think that there are good people working at Unilever and General Mills that want to do the right thing. It’s hard to change big companies. It’s hard to cannibalize your revenue stream, it’s hard to innovate. PepsiCo was, I remember famously, would say, we’re making our food so much healthier, “Look at the reduced calories” when they were just changing the unit sizes and their products. That’s one of these cases where I think that’s B.S. that’s not making food healthier.
So I do think we need to worry. I do think that the consumer demand for regenerative food and carbon-friendly food is so strong, that there will almost certainly be claims made that don’t bear out. So I think we should judge people less than what they say and what they’ve done in the past and more on what they do. I’m pushing the world to get good labeling and pushing the world to get good definitions and standardization. In the meantime, we probably have to be a little bit circumspect and really analyze what companies are doing and say.
Ashlen: Are there certain foods and beverages that are easier to make carbon-neutral? I’m thinking along the lines are animal-based products more difficult to make carbon-neutral than say cereal or something.
Paul: Yeah. Oh, such an interesting question. I think the starting point by the way is that eating whole and unprocessed plants is almost certainly way better on a Planet basis. Right, so the carrot is not screaming for attention on the shelf, but if you’re eating a carrot, that was, you know produced thoughtfully, especially if it was produced without synthetic fertilizers which generally would be if it was organic. You likely have a very small carbon footprint, certainly, relative to processed food like cereals or relative to meat that’s grown in CAFOs, or in any sort of an industrial system.
There are some rules of thumb that you can follow, you can go back to Michael Pollan’s old “how to eat” phrase, which is “eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much”, that probably goes a long way and of course, when he said food he was implying that it was real food and not processed. With that being said, this is a nuanced topic. Like I said with beef, it can be produced in a way that’s climate positive, what I would call it negative food. It’s just not what you generally find in supermarkets today, so it’s unfortunately, a little bit complex for consumers right now.
Ashlen: As you said, this is still very new, we’re still figuring out a lot and it’s exciting to see it unfold.
Paul: It’s new, but it’s pretty urgent, so I feel like there’s a little bit of a race on, and we got to get people thinking about it, talking about it more.
Okay, so I’m thinking of a Pennsylvania grocer called Giant, it’s like the supermarket in Pennsylvania, they have a big push for regenerative sourcing. I hope that retailers have an important role to play in this. I think we all need to be out there, getting people to understand this, and holding them accountable for any greenwashing as well.
Ashlen: Do you want to just briefly discuss some brands and companies that you like to support?
Paul: I’d love to. Yeah. So, one that I just learned about was at the regenerative food systems, investment forum in Oakland last week, which was fun, and there was a beer brand at a cocktail party from Patagonia Provisions, Patagonia’s food investment group. Basically, they’re sourcing the main ingredients like wheat that were grown regeneratively to get a regenerative beer. And I thought that’s awesome. I don’t know that I can buy it here in New York yet but I’m going to have someone, you know, drive a truck across the country for me so that’s one of my favorites.
There’s a beef company near Asheville North Carolina called hickory nut gap. And that’s a multi-generation family-owned business that buys regenerative animal products from farms that are following certain practices, run by a guy I trust and with a good brand and I think that’s an example of one of my favorites.
I do like the olive oil story, that’s Corto, that is the company that I covered in my newsletter. I actually made one of my kids a fried egg, in their olive oil this morning. Maybe another company is not a food brand itself but it is sort of a platform is in Northern Virginia. There’s a company called for 4P Foods, and it’s this digital platform that’s connecting the buyers that care about this stuff so the universities, the corporate campuses, the school districts that have these mandates to source regenerative food, and it’s connecting them with the farmers that are growing regenerative food because those farmers are having a hard time getting through the bigger national distribution networks. And so far 4P Foods is creating a new network essentially because there’s demand out there, and they’re bringing the farms to these buyers. It’s not just online, they have warehouses and trucks so they’re really trying to be everything. And I think that’s a pretty exciting business as well.