In various conversations with our member companies over the years, I learned that most of the ingredients used to produce plant-based foods are imported to the U.S. I would hear stories about companies having to import wheat for seitan from Canada, Australia or Europe, despite being grown in abundance here, due to very large food companies controlling the supply chain. Or how plant-based milk companies were importing organic almonds from Spain due to insufficient supply from California. Spain!

Even peas and oats, two of the most commonly used ingredients for plant-based foods and beverages these days, are mostly imported from Canada and elsewhere. Every time a member would tell me a story like this, I would hear their frustration that they could not source their preferred ingredients closer to home.

This all just seemed so crazy to me.

Meanwhile, PBFA continues to analyze and release data on the exponential growth of the plant-based foods industry. It seems like a real disconnect that this fast-growing sector of the food industry represents an economic opportunity for American farmers.

Moreover, since the early years of PBFA, our industry has found itself playing defense in the policy arena because of those in the meat and dairy industries who are threatened by the success and sharp increase in consumer demand. PBFA’s battles in state legislatures and courts over labeling restrictions are symptoms of an adversarial relationship with the meat and dairy industries. For too long “agriculture” has favored the conventional animal product sector over anything else. Sadly, most crops are grown as animal feed. (Think corn and soy.) 

But here’s the thing: Plant-based food companies are part of agriculture too. All real food starts with the ingredients that come from the ground. And farmers will grow whatever crops there is a market for. 

So, I began asking, Why don’t we stop fighting over the non-issue of how plant-based foods are labeled and instead start having constructive conversations about how to support American farmers? What if American farmers could benefit from this fast-growing industry? What if brands and ingredient manufacturers could significantly shorten their supply chains by sourcing domestically? Imagine the possibilities of the storytelling that would result from such partnerships between brands and farmers?

To address these questions, we hired a wonderful consultant, Carl Jorgensen, who became PBFA’s guide to the world of sustainable agriculture, to help us bridge this gap. 

Carl has built a network of relationships in the ag community of the upper Midwest during the 25 years living in Iowa. He has been an organic farm owner, certifier, retail food brand builder, and proponent of regenerative agriculture. With Carl’s help, PBFA launched an ambitious program to bring about systemic change in how the plant-based foods industry sources ingredients. 

Here is what Carl and I accomplished together in 2020:

Identifying and Mapping Key Ingredients

First, we identified the top ingredients used in plant-based foods, and where the crops used to make them are grown in the U.S. PBFA had conducted a comprehensive ingredient mapping project in 2019, which revealed that the top crops used to make plant-based ingredients are soybeans, dried peas, chickpeas, oats, and wheat. In the case of soybeans, ample domestic supplies indicate that imports are not a threat to American farmers. Like soybeans, the other key ingredients are best grown in the upper Midwest, from northeastern Colorado to Wyoming, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana.

Domestic Sourcing Pilot Projects

 

 

Then we began speaking with member companies to launch pilot projects to test the economic and logistical feasibility of domestic sourcing as an alternative to imports. 

Discussions currently underway include a potential wheat gluten pilot project with a manufacturer of plant-based meats. There are significant pricing issues to solve, which highlights one of the challenges of shifting away from imports to domestic sources. 

There are straightforward business reasons why companies import their ingredients, including price, availability, and specifications. The challenge is to solve those impediments in a way that benefits all parts of the supply chain.

A new brand of organic, gluten-free, oat-based desserts has expressed interest in a pilot sourcing project. Working with Artisan Grain Collaborative, we have identified an Illinois organic farmer who is scaled just right to work with them. The farmer is part of a group that has invested in an oat milling facility, an essential component of the supply chain. At present, the farmer is examining gluten-free certification requirements.

Engagement with the Agriculture Community

Carl has cultivated relationships with a range of people and organizations across the Midwest as we build a support network to help with the practical details of helping member companies transition from reliance on imported ingredients to sourcing domestically. A few of these organizations and individuals include: 

Thought Leadership at Agriculture Conferences

PBFA hosted two panel discussions at Grow North’s annual Food Ag Ideas Week in December. We were thrilled to have stellar participants.

Carl moderated a discussion on “Evolving Ag Infrastructure – Your Gateway to New Markets.” The panel, which featured Thom Petersen, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, along with Pipeline Foods’ Erin Heitkamp and Noreen Thomas. Noreen is a 6th-generation farmer, focused on redesigning the U.S. agriculture market to allow farmers to diversify their offerings and sell into new and growing markets, like plant-based foods. During the panel, Commissioner Petersen noted that plant-based foods are among the fastest growing sections of retail grocery stores.

I moderated a panel called “Sprouting Up Everywhere – Plant-Based Food and Its Continued Growth” with PBFA colleague Julie Emmett, Senior Director of Retail Partnerships, Kroger’s Marcellus Harris, and Greg Steltenpohl of Califia Farms. The panel discussed the growth of plant-based foods, with twenty-three different categories in retail stores. With this explosive growth, the panel noted, there is tremendous opportunity for sustainable farming to grow to meet the demands of the industry for domestically sourced ingredients, including peas, oats, and chickpeas, and more.

In November 2020, PBFA’s Maddie Segal and Carl hosted a booth at the annual PPIC Research Spotlight conference organized by the Plant Protein Innovation Center.

Carl and I attended Green America’s November conference, and delivered remarks on the growth of the plant-based foods industry. PBFA is now a member of Green America and their extensive network of relationships in the ag community. Previously at Green America’s June conference, I introduced PBFA to the attendees, and Carl and I hosted an exclusive breakout session.

In August, the PBFA Member Zoom Call was dedicated to discussing the domestic sourcing initiative. Our special guests were Steve Tucker, a grains and pulses farmer in SW Nebraska, and Alyssa Hartman, executive director of Artisan Grain Collaborative. They shared their perspectives on the feasibility of U.S. plant-based foods brands and ingredient companies shifting from imports to American-grown and processed.

Policy Initiatives to Amplify the Effort

Along with PBFA’s lobbyists, PBFA is currently identifying state and federal policy levers to support the American farmers in growing more input ingredients for plant-based foods. A critical angle is soil conservation and water quality: Crops such as oats, pulses, and wheat, improve soil health through more diversified crop rotations and cover crops. Healthy soils absorb more rainfall and erode less. Reduced runoff improves water quality in lakes, streams and rivers. These benefits fit into existing state legislative mandates to improve soil conservation and water quality. As a bonus, healthier soils require fewer applications of expensive nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, thereby improving farm profitability.

    Quantifying the Opportunity for American Farmers 

    In our initial discussions with members of the Midwest agriculture community, we were often asked, “What is the size of the opportunity?” PBFA has several years of data on retail sales of plant-based foods, but we needed information on what that represents in terms of farm-level demand. That’s when Carl engaged University of Illinois Professor Gary Schnitkey and Graduate Assistant Margaret Cornelius to translate retail sales into farm acres. Using PBFA’s data, as well as data from other sources and interviews with plant-based food manufacturers, they have developed a methodology for translating retail sales into farm-level demand expressed in acres. Based on where we see the largest opportunity from plant-based sales, they are focused on estimates of both present and future farm-level demand for oats, peas, chickpeas, and wheat.

     

    A Bright Future for Plant-based Foods and American Farmers

    As we look to a future of solid growth of the plant-based foods industry, building bridges to the U.S. agriculture community will become increasingly important. Plant-based foods present a tremendous opportunity for American farmers. It’s critical that we take a comprehensive approach to the entire value chain, from the farmer to the consumer.