Meat from plants is the future, revolution and politics, says the executive of the world's largest platform for vegan food

Jan Růžička

We are slowly getting used to meat free burgers, even though their prices are not low at all. This year, however, meat free chicken should be also available in the stores. “Let's start with the fact that we will produce more food in the next thirty years than we have produced in the last eight thousand years. Still, in light of the population growth, it's more and more challenging to feed people. So, there is urgent need for action,” says Anna Klara Lindskog, who is the executive of Livekindly Collective, which brings together brands involved in the production of vegan food, in an interview with INFO.CZ.

Today we will talk about food! About coffee, children's nutrition, veggies, plant-based food, whether it's cool to be vegan, how to cook well, what to buy. We also will be talking about the impossible burgers and all kinds of impossible foods. We will also talk about sustainability – sustainable farming, fair trade, and living well without killing our world. And especially we will be talking about how food has become political.

For all of that, we have a great expert here with us: Anna Klara Lindskog, originally from Sweden, who in the last twenty years, was running marketing, sales, and procurement of all kinds of food in Scandinavia, Romania, the Balkans and now in Switzerland and globally. She was working for Procter & Gamble, she was CEO at Nestlé in Balkans, and now she's running an extremely fast-growing plant-based food platform called Livekindly.

Super lovely being here. Thanks for having me.

I'm already hungry when I was talking about all the stuff you have been selling and buying. Btw why are you so passionate about the food industry?

My dad always said that the two industries that will never go out of business are funerals and food. As such, wise to pick one of them. And out of these two, I logically much preferred to pick food (laughter). Furthermore, just imagine how huge is food industry globally: 4,3 trillion dollars! It's massive, right? It's a vast space, plus it is fantastic in the sense that food has a tremendous influence on life quality.

Unfortunately, today's food industry is not much sustainable, and Covid has shown us that with instability of our supply chains. A few numbers here: The food industry nowadays is all about meat; one-third of the money goes there. And to grow animals to produce meat is not only expensive but it's also harming environment around us. Based on FAO data, 14,5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock. Plus, there is the packaging. There is now 360 billion metric tons of plastic waste a year and in Europe food packaging alone stood for 16 % of it. That's a massive space for improvement and change.

That's why I believe that the food business is not only awesome space as a business and for me personally, but you can also have techie and startup mentality there. Because it has been changing so much and it will continue. And the speed of change is impressive. Real disruption.

Let's start by telling us your personal “food” story.

Absolutely. I started my food career during my undergraduate years in University in Cambridge. I worked at Tesco. I did every low job there: I was stacking shelves during the night. Then, I got promoted and become a coffee shop girl. Then, I worked at the check-outs and then in consumer goods. I learnt fundamental basics at Tesco.

After Cambridge, I moved to France and worked at Procter & Gamble as a Global Assistant manager. Good learning about FMCG marketing. Then, Nestlé contacted me and offered me to join them. So, I left P&G and went to the Nordics and worked as the Nordic brand manager for Nestlé infant nutrition. I fell in love with children's food, and thus I stayed there for 14 years. I used to run marketing, category management, sales, and then the business in Romania and Bulgaria and finally Southeast Europe. I also got my experience with coffee, when for a year I was with Nescafé Dolce Gusto.

Let's start with coffee business. For me, Nescafé and not only Nescafé is doing real sales magic with machines and capsules. You buy a cheap device, you are hooked, and you are just buying more capsules. Real addiction.

What Nestlé did exceptionally well was understanding that consumers could not get a coffee shop experience at home. So, there was a considerable potential to deliver them a similar experience at home through simple machines and a huge variety of capsules. This variety really creates a deeply personal experience, its playful and a proper artisan category.

Yep, understood. But when we are talking about sustainability, can it be sustainable? It is quite a lot of aluminum capsules...

This is a super important question. Is it reasonable to drink aluminum capsules every day and then throw away the aluminum? Not so much. That's why suppliers such as Nestlé must take full responsibility for the value chain of their product and its lifecycle. And I think they've done tremendous initiatives on recycling as well. There is even gamification behind collecting used aluminum capsules in many countries in the world.

Unfortunately, today's food industry is not much sustainable

Let's go from coffee to babies and baby food. Honestly, I don't know much about them because I'm not a father. I just know it's a huge business, with the high push for quality and customers who love to pay for this quality. Also, I know that there is an ongoing debate whether breastfeeding shall be supported more or whether artificial milk, such as Nestlé, is good enough to replace mother milk.

I love babies, had two of them, and I also loved running the infant nutrition at Nestlé. Nestlé is a super credible company not only through its products but also with its honest messaging. There is no doubt that breastfeeding is the best thing for babies, and Nestlé is also very clear about that. The company invests millions every year into promoting it more. Sadly, some women can't breastfeed, and some also choose not to breastfeed because they for example have to return to work. And what Nestlé is providing is an excellent alternative to those babies that can't be breastfed.

And why is the quality so important? In the first thousand days from conception to the second birthday, you can switch off genes simply with the proper nutrition. It's incredible what impact food has in the first two years of life.

Maybe a silly question from myself – what's inside this artificial milk? Is it powdered cow's milk?

Haha, actually, an excellent question. You cannot use cow's milk at all because protein components and amino acids are quite different. What infant formula strives to do is to get as close as possible to breast milk and contain an adapted protein mix similar to the protein mix of breast milk.

You spent quite some time in the Balkans as a CEO. How was it there? Any trick you learn?

Lot of. What has eastern Europe done for me was not only going out of my boundaries but also respecting the culture, adapting, and not losing my authenticity.

Very different cultures indeed, Balkans and Sweden. How did the people in the Balkans react to you being their leader?

There is a massive difference in the understanding hierarchy and much larger distance between leaders and employees in the Balkans than in Scandinavia.  If we take Romania as an example, post-communism is still recent history, and you can see some of the cultural traits that come from that time. Hierarchical distance is higher and ability to take responsibility for a project and really make decisions and stand for them even if they're not popular is lower.

But for me, it was a tremendous adventure. I remember the first time I came to Kosovo, and I went from the airport in a taxi, and I didn't see any city, just some fields. Nothing else. I was a bit scared where I was. So, I asked the driver where we were going, and he replied: “Lady, this is Kosovo. You are in it.” And that was it.

Now you have moved again: from Balkans to Switzerland and from Forbes 500 company to a startup. What's the story behind this?

Problem with Forbes 500 companies is that you can get promoted again and again and stay there forever. Like really for life. But I guess we all come to that place in our lives where we just ask ourselves if there's anything else, what do I burn for? And that was a reason why I moved to the LIVEKINDLY Collective. Just image food business, which is also innovation, tech, and startup atmosphere altogether. And sustainable. It's truly pumped up.

It sounds fantastic, but I am still a bit perplexed: what does the company do? What's the product?

We are running a Collective of plant-based food brands and a media house focused on two primary purposes: to shift the paradigm from animal to plant-based food and from processed to kitchen-recognizable ingredients. We already have four leading brands and preparing more.

LIVEKINDLY, which is the world’s #1media platform, is helping us to inspire change. We work with aligned strategic partners across the value chain to drive this @speed @scale.

And finally, we support the Collective by integrating vertically with shared services and from supply chain, including carbon-positive agriculture to marketing across the globe. That allows us to give a different proposition to our consumers, rooted in impact and sustainability, with TPG Rise as lead investor.

If I understand it correctly – with a connection to agriculture, you are buying ingredients directly from farms, processing them, writing about it online, and then selling it?

Absolutely correct. It reminds me Uber and Airbnb. Similar to them, we are also platform businesses. Therefore, we can do something we are super good at and - using Newtonian quote - stand on the shoulders of others, use their innovation and support them at the same time. Here I am talking about our brands, farmers, people, customers, innovators.

So, if I would own a small boutique factory making, let's say vegan chocolate cookies, very fair trade, very niche... it would be possible to call you to Zurich and say that I want to be a part of your collective?

Absolutely! I mean, I do this all the time as a part of my role, looking for M&As. We are in touch with the plant-based world globally. In the end, the plant world is very small, and we're not truly competitors; we all grow the category as a team.

So, I'm in touch with founders of businesses all the time. You want to scale and want to become a part of a larger collective. Ok, we help because it's possible to grow the business to a certain extent, but then to scale it is difficult, and you need different resources. And that's why many smaller companies come: they have a brilliant product, brilliant capacities, passion, and knowledge, but they cannot scale. And that's why we partner up and join forces in the collective and take their brands global.

Our mission is to make plant-based nutrition the new norm

To see it from a different perspective, you are sort of like a startup incubator. Bringing together the plant-based food, innovations, media, partners and founders and you give them advice, scalability, and investments and then shipping it globally as a category. Am I right?

Yes, it is a cool way to look at it as a startup incubator. The businesses are integrated within the collective and fully acquired from operations to quality to research and development. But this is what it's about – scaling them globally and giving them access to things they wouldn't typically have.

Now we focus mainly on the pivot from animal to plant-based in the field of chicken. On the global food market, this is a category worth 1,5 trillion dollars. It is the largest category in animal volume as well. So, as much as I would love to sell your vegan chocolate cookies, it would not be our core business now.

Is it possible for me here in Hongkong to buy your, let's call it “impossible chicken”?

It will be possible very shortly, because China is one of the new core markets. So, there will be a product available this year, and I will have some shipped to you as well.

Ok, so when I get my hands on your impossible chicken, I will write you an honest review. That’s a promise. Btw tell me, how global food system does look like. Because you know, we as consumers go to a supermarket, buy our stuff and go home. But I am not sure how much of us know what's behind.

I already said that the global system is not very sustainable. Let's start with the fact that we will produce more food in the next thirty years than we have produced in the last eight thousand years. Still, in light of the population growth, it's more and more challenging to feed people. So there is urgent need for action.

What are the market trends? The plant-based food category is growing yes, we can read it everywhere. But how does it look like from the business and marketing perspective?

When you look at some of our businesses in countries that started a bit earlier, like Germany, the growth rate is very very comfortably double digit if not even triple-digit. It's exponential growth. Plus, there broader studies supporting it. Not only our sales numbers. For example, the Oxford University did a study recently that showed that 29 % of the global population believes that it's time to shift from animal to plant-based food.

And why is it so a growing area? On the one hand, there have been concerns about food safety: there was SARS, the mad cow disease and all different diseases that come from animals, Covid included. So, there's a growing mistrust whether the food industry with animals as a cornerstone is healthy.

Furthermore, more people look at that and say: Is it OK to farm an animal? The conditions at factory farms are horrendous. Once you've been in there, it isn't easy to enjoy an animal-based burger. Because you've seen at a scale what's done there.

Finally, people are shifting their consumption for the sake of an environment. If you look at the environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat, let’s say a cow, and compare to a plant diet, a cow's greenhouse gas emissions are twelve times higher than for a plant-based alternative. The, you look at land usage, and you see that it's 43 square meters per kilogram for a cow and 2,3 for a plant-based alternative. And the water usage in liters per kilogram – 190, yes, 190 liters, could you imagine, liters per kilogram of a cow eaten and 70 for an alternative.

So, I think these are things that groom the consumer's interest in plant based.

The science might be clear. But actually – who is your customer? Is it generation Z? The vegans? Who is driving the market now and who believes in your change?

We see most of our customers are millennials and generation Z, but there is a significant shift towards plant-based nutrition beyond Gen Z and millennials. Funny is that one word that has not helped too much, is the word “vegan”. You know, it is a very exclusive term – once you put milk in your coffee, you're not vegan. And I think consumers care less about these extremes and care more about changing the beliefs and understanding the animal-based food industry step by step. Mass market consumer doesn’t like extremes, but gradual improvement.

So, for many, their motivation is quite simple: Hey, I don't want to farm a pig that is living in terrible conditions and then eat it. I would instead like to explore the alternatives.

I might sound like a pariah and I don’t know much about these things. But, well, I'm originally a farm boy. So, in my defense, I'm pretty connected to the meat category. Anyway, and when we are talking about Europe, how many vegans there are in society?

Vegans make 2 % of the population, max. And I think our business is not about the hardcore vegans. Vegetarians have a varying number that depends on the country, but it can go up to 20, 25, even 30 %.

But the point is that we are not only targeting vegans and vegetarians but also meat lovers. This is what our brand “Oumph!” is all about: about the mindful meat lovers, people who really enjoy their meat and who are not ready to swap it but simply want an alternative that tastes just as good.

I have to tell you that next to my office here in Hongkong, there is a shop selling plant-based burgers…

And how are they?

Well, I really tried to see the difference, but I cannot. So yes, it tastes like meat, and I can't tell the difference. Pretty good.

You know, it's all about the quality. I also tried some plant-based products from the supermarket that tasted horrible. Junk. So, what it's about in this category is that we ensure that we only bring excellent products on the table. And ideally at an affordable price. That’s current challenge: you still need to be relatively affluent to sustain a plant-based diet. It is not cheap. So, I think that we have a way to go to make sure that the customers are not discouraged when they taste their first plant-based and see the price tag. We need to ensure that more people could join in.

Do you think it's possible to make it a mass market? From the perspective of the price attractivity for the customer and being sold at every supermarket?

I totally believe that. Absolutely. Our mission is to make plant-based nutrition the new norm.

It is not only about pricing, but it’s also politics. Especially here in Europe and in the US, farming and agriculture are a huge political thing. It is an important power machine. And then, on the other side of the barricade, there is Generation Z with its focus on sustainability. Do you think your plant-based food will become political?

Absolutely it will become political. We've seen agro-holdings in the EU and the US with low salaries, poor labor rights, and with grim conditions at the meat farms, and still, they are politically super protected. Plus, meat farms are well subsidized and thus meat in supermarkets is much cheaper than it should be. Also, agro trade unions are enormous, and therefore, the more the plant-based category grows, the more the meat industry awakens and realizes we won't disappear shortly.

We know that currently, in Denmark or Hungary, sugary drinks are taxed more. Because they are unhealthy. Targeted taxation connected to healthcare on tobacco and fats is also norm in many countries. Do you think that also meat will be taxed more in the future and there will be some regulatory action against for example meat in future, driven by Gen Z?

Ah, that's a beautiful possibility; that almost makes me want to go into politics. But the point is more we know that meat consumption is not healthy and causes problems in the value chain, more politics will come on the table logically. But now we focus on simply ensuring that the plant-based alternative is as healthy as possible, it's high quality, sustainable, affordable and doesn't contain too much sugar or salt.

I understand it might feel like a distant future, but future can be here faster than we think. Look what e-commerce did to retail; look what covid did to travel. So, very shortly, there can be some disruption followed by regulatory action. Do you think we will be taxed for eating “bad meat”?

This is an interesting choice. Is there bad meat and good meat? In agriculture, not every meat is factory farmed. But a lot is.

I don't even think you can call it evolution; it is undoubtedly to be a revolution. And that always has some bloody fights

How does that would affect our freedoms? This ongoing inflow of new regulations? You can’t do this; you have to do that...

I think it is connected to culture: In China, it is OK to eat dogs, but if you try to eat a dog or a cat in Europe it would be big no no. So, it is about cultural, societal and regulatory context. And it is also about conversation within the society.

Let me give you an example. I just read through the new South African Animal Rights Act, and it actually doesn't give animals farmed for food any rights, like zero. As if they were not even living beings. The idea of freedom is a tricky one because, in this case, your freedom to eat meat constitutes the right to say you are superior to another living being. Which I might question.

It is definitely becoming quite political and ideological. It is no distant future, but I see it already coming. For example, in a newspaper yesterday, I read that Nebraska's governor declared a pro-meat day to rival the now so popular meat-free days. So, I see, it is becoming good politics not only to run for sustainability and be pro-Green, but also to run against it. And it is visible that part of the electorate simply doesn't like this, let's use a pejorative term, wokism. I am also bit reserved and skeptical.

Yes, this will be a fight, and it's going to be a fight we must be ready for. You can also see it from the perspective “of future” and look at the world population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. And then look at the meat, dairy, egg, and fish farms, which use 83 % of total farmland. That brings us to the argument that there is just not enough food to feed the world. And it affects everybody, not only underprivileged countries somewhere comfortably far away in the world; this is a reality, there will be so many people will not get the calories they need and protein they need.

So, you think that our future is seaweed and cockroaches as a source of protein?

Well, seaweed and cockroach...I honestly think it is not something very appealing to eat a cockroach. Seaweed is a super food, definitely a space to watch. Have you seen Seaspiracy on Netflix? Seaweed rocks!! Haha. I love food, and I love good food, so why not eat yellow peas and soy and enjoy that? It is not about the imperative of having to eat plant-based; it is about enjoying ridiculously delicious food that happens to be plant-based rather than animal-based. Plus, there are a million good reasons to do that; to eat better, healthier, more sustainable, more helping the planet.

One more number here: cattle, if they were a country, they would rank as the third largest producers of greenhouse gas emission. China is first, with 10,2 gigatons. Then the US with 5,3. But cattle is 5, and it's the third nation! See? This is a no-brainer.

Plus, let's also not forget that clean, freshwater will be one of the resources that will be among the scarcest in the world. And animal agriculture uses 23 % of it.

One thing will happen for sure: whether we like it or not, we are coming to an era of a much more complicated world than we lived in in the last thirty years. Will there be fights over water? Will there be fights over supply chains and access to resources, including food? Probably yes, yes, and yes. And even though my political beliefs are slightly different from yours, I see your point from the perspective that a lot of these choices will become necessary. We will have to make them. There are just not enough resources for everyone in every part of the world, so changes will have to be made, and these kinds of changes are always volatile, and they hurt.  Finally, your aim to revolutionize a multi-trillion food industry will create additionally volatility because revolutions are not easily digestible for many people in the world. This is just what it is.

Absolutely, I could not say it better. So, we all need to learn: the plant-based industry needs to learn. Governments need to learn how to use better the resources currently used by animal agriculture. And so on. I think we will soon see a lot in the regulatory and legislation, and yes, it will be a revolution indeed. I don't even think you can call it evolution; it is undoubtedly to be a revolution. And that always has some bloody fights. But I believe that we should take on these fights for the future of this humanity, our home and those who share it with us.

Well, good luck with the European Council and agricultural directorate. Plus, with plenty of voters, farmers and consumers in the countries... Let's finish with a final question. How do you see the future, not only for you, but also for your business and overall food industry?

I think the future will be digital by essence. And it's going to take tremendous adaptation and reevaluation of everything we know. You know, for many decades it has been possible to keep going with our personal consumption choices and how we do business. Now things have changed, and we will have to be a lot more clever in how we want to stay appealing to consumers – as a food industry - and how to have a sustainable impact. This is something consumers themselves demand from us already. It's going to be a very interesting decade ahead, and I am really looking forward to learning and making a positive contribution. Be part of the solution, not a problem.

Thank you very much, Anna for the great conversation! 

Thank you very much for having me. Let me know what you think of the samples, when you have tasted them, please.

Anna-Klara Lindskog

Anna-Klara Lindskog is Global Chief of Staff and Sustainability at the LIVEKINDLY Collective, one of the largest global plant-based food platforms. In her role for the LIVEKINDLY Collective Anna is responsible for Corporate strategy including M&A strategy, Strategic Platform Partnerships and Sustainability. She also serves on the Board of Agrimetrics UK, big data in agriculture. Her previous experience includes P&G EMENA as well as 14 years with Nestlé, including Business Executive Officer for Nestlé Infant Nutrition for South East Europe based in Romania.

Jan Růžička

is Chief External Affairs Officer at the Home Credit Group, the world’s leading consumer finance provider. He now works and lives in Hong Kong from where he is running company networks in the US, Asia and Europe. Before that he lived in Beijing, Cambridge and Prague and for ten years he worked for the Czech government, advocating and shaping the health reform as Director-General at the Ministry of Health. At universities in Asia and Europe Jan teaches Behavioral Economy and the Disruption of Finance and Healthcare. He is especially interested in how innovation can create financial inclusion and health equality.