Discuss food waste early and often. Explore new solutions to this seemingly ubiquitous problem. This could make a huge difference in itself. In the United States alone, more than 400 billion dollars worth of food goes uneaten annually. That’s 35% of the total amount. And those figures understate the true opportunity of reducing the wastefulness of our food system.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Lightfoot.
Paul Lightfoot has been involved in food and agriculture for over 10 years as the founder of multiple companies in advisory and board capacities. Paul founded BrightFarms in 2010 with the goal of revolutionizing the U.S. produce supply chain through the creation of the first national, local produce brand.
Paul is a Member of the Board of Directors of the United Fresh Produce Association, Chairman of the USDA’s Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee. Recently, Paul launched Negative Foods Newsletter, a weekly dispatch that discusses how a food system based on carbon-negative foods can be a lever to reverse climate change.
Paul has been recognized as one of Fast Company’s “1000 Most Creative People in Business” and by Chain Store Age’s “Rising Stars in Retail”. He also has a TED Talk, which you can see here.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up eating unhealthy food in the 70s and 80s. But even during college, I could see that I had a greater interest in food than my peers. During college and graduate school, I worked in a lot of restaurants. Food is my thing!
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
During my thirties, I ran a software company that improved the supply chains of retailers. At the same time, on a personal basis, I became increasingly concerned with the U.S. food system. I became obsessed with foods that were better for the environment and human health. Starting BrightFarms was really a way to combine my career with my personal interests.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I’m a huge believer that people should combine their work with their personal interests. If a young person is interested in environmental matters, there are endless, fantastic career possibilities.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
My mission is to reverse climate change by disrupting the food system. I am on a personal quest to get the word out far and wide about the importance of “negative foods” — food brands that have a neutral or negative carbon footprint.
The food system is responsible for one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. But food is unique. It is unique in that we must eat to survive, of course. But it is also unique in that some foods can have negative carbon footprints. In other words, some food can be produced in a way that draws carbon from the atmosphere instead of emitting carbon. So if we eat food that draws down carbon on a net basis, our food system will be a lever to reverse climate change.
I am working to educate and inform through my new newsletter about this topic, Negative Foods Newsletter. I cover the foods that have carbon neutral or carbon negative footprints, and the technologies, people and companies that bring negative foods to market.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
- Wherever possible, turn yourself into a “negative foods” eater. I created this easily accessible guide — The List of Negative Foods for specific food choices.
- Never ever eat industrial beef, which is the worst climate offending food. But meat produced regeneratively can sequester carbon on a net basis, so enjoy beef that’s pasture-raised regeneratively. It’s all about education and knowing where your food comes from.
- Be mindful about what you are feeding your pets. U.S. dogs consume > 32 billion pounds of protein per year, and much of it is industrial meat. UCLA professor Gregory Okin: “U.S. cats and dogs cause 25–30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in this country. The nation’s 163 million cats and dogs eat as much food as all the people in France.” Consider a plant-based food for your dog, if possible. My dogs — Sadie and Carlie — love Petaluma plant-based dog food!
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Kids follow what you do, not what you say they should do. I don’t tell my kids (ages 16, 14 and 12) what to eat. Of course, I cook a lot more than they do, so they are often exposed to my food preferences at home. And they get brainwashed by being around me all the time. I try to be a negative foods eater to inspire their food choices.
- Educate and teach them to shop wisely. Carbon labeling, for example, is a great way to ensure you are participating constructively in climate change reversal with your choices. Show kids what labels mean and teach them to be mindful at the grocery store so they can learn early on to vote with their dollars.
- Use travel as an excuse to show your kids how other countries are handling environmental concerns. I learned PLENTY about this topic during a recent trip to Iceland, for example. Offset your flights’ emissions if you can afford it!
- Explain the value of research from multiple sources. For example, organic food is widely touted as a sustainability staple — but maybe it doesn’t go far enough. Teach kids to research with a discerning eye and not to believe every concept that hits the mainstream.
- Discuss food waste early and often. Explore new solutions to this seemingly ubiquitous problem. This could make a huge difference in itself. In the United States alone, more than 400 billion dollars worth of food goes uneaten annually. That’s 35% of the total amount. And those figures understate the true opportunity of reducing the wastefulness of our food system.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Consumer demand will rise — big time — for foods with carbon negative (or neutral) footprints (“Negative Foods”). And that growing demand for Negative Foods will help reverse climate change.
Why will consumers buy more Negative Foods?
- Good for a Warming Planet. Consumers will demand more, and pay more, for Negative Foods, because they reverse climate change and this is a topic of growing concern for everyone.
- Good for Human Health. Consumers will demand more, and pay more, for food that makes them healthier.
Consumers will increasingly perceive (correctly) that Negative Foods are better for the planet (they reverse climate change) and better for their health (they have more nutrition). Consumers will pay more for such food and will choose Negative Foods over other foods, and therefore Negative Foods will increasingly capture greater market share. The rise in market share of Negative Foods will draw down carbon from the atmosphere and will therefore help reverse climate change.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Brian Robertson believed in me before anyone else did. Twice. He took a risk on me, with his money and reputation, when I didn’t deserve it, with my first startup in my late 20s. He lost all his money in that deal. And then he did it again with BrightFarms when I was 40.
In addition, he inspired me with Sun Edison to go out and create BightFarms.
And like Brian did for me, I’m hopeful that I uncover food entrepreneurs that have ideas that might need help getting them off the ground.
They might need someone like me to believe in them before the rest of the world does. Like Brian did for me.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My ultimate goal is to increase the mindshare and marketshare for negative foods because THIS CAN reverse climate change.
Here is what we need to do:
- Entrepreneurs, this will be one of the greatest consumer demand trends in history. Do you like to sell products at premium prices? Do you like to sell products in markets where demand vastly outstrips capacity? Do you want to build companies that improve the world, that attract a caring workforce with a strong social mission? Yes! You do. Do it.
- Venture Capital and Private Equity Investors, this will be one of the greatest money-making opportunities in history! Build your theses, raise your funds, and enjoy the outsized returns. Do good and do well.
- Big Food! You are likely to get leapfrogged by startups. I recommend that you instead invest in your own Negative Food brands. If that fails, you can reward the entrepreneurs and venture investors by acquiring the food brands that beat you. Either way works, but please don’t dither.
- Farmers. There is plenty of research illustrating how Negative Foods will be better for farmers. I’d like to add to the canon that rising consumer demand, at strong price points, will motivate farmers to adopt regenerative practices. Farmers, please transition quickly and enjoy the benefits!
- Food Eaters (and you know who you are), you need to ask your food retailers and producers about agricultural practices. Please choose Negative Foods, and please be willing to pay a premium for the next several years. Of course consumers need to better understand all of this, and so I hope we can develop standards (that don’t yet exist), and clear and authentic labeling protocols.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
I’m not really a life lesson quote guy.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!