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From marshes to meat: Reflections from a career in conservation

In recognition of the U.N.’s International Day of Biological Diversity, a GFI staffer shares her path to this moment and the people and places that have…

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“So why meat?”

“So why meat?” asked a colleague of mine from two jobs ago, when a group of us recently gathered in St. Louis.

He asked it with a lightly scrunched brow and squinted eyes. For years, he and others had worked alongside me at Anheuser-Busch (then parent company of Busch Entertainment Corporation, operators of SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Discovery Cove) to fund species research, produce wildlife documentaries, launch environmental awareness campaigns, and support community-based conservation around the world. He knew I had also spent the past decade steeped in plant science, sustainability, and biodiversity advocacy at Missouri Botanical Garden, among the top three research-driven botanic gardens in the world. And here he was, boggled by my current focus on making alternative proteins—specifically plant-based and cultivated meat—the default way meat is made.

And there I was, thinking to myself that of all the places I’ve worked, the roles I’ve fulfilled, and the missions I’ve advanced, this place—The Good Food Institute—has me bringing all of it to bear every day in service to a global theory of change that gives the world’s wildlife and wild places an actual fighting chance.

Flora, fauna, and food: the interconnectedness of ecosystems and agriculture

My path to this moment is dotted with the live oaks and mossy magnolias of my Florida youth, where my love of trees, shorebirds, snails, and shells first formed. That love grew throughout college and career, as I made a living shining a light on Earth’s diversity of life, from blue whales to bees. 

Throughout my 20+ years at zoos, aquaria, public gardens, and nature reserves, I worked alongside ecologists, advocates, educators, and some of the world’s leading environmental NGOs to help restore marshes and reefs and reduce human-wildlife conflict in some of the most biodiverse, at-risk regions of the world. I’ve channeled funds to researchers on every continent, rallied an entire region to remove invasive species, and nudged communities toward sustainability in big and small ways. (I also got to hold baby penguins. Just sayin.)       

I loved this work. I loved the people and places it introduced me to. I loved helping habitats, supporting field science, and learning what community-based conservation really looks like. This work will forever be a part of me. 

But as the world grew hotter, crowded, and stressed, I grew frustrated and impatient. Too often, in the projects I touched, the point-source of the problems—land and water use—wasn’t being addressed. Too often, the business-as-usual ways of feeding our families and fueling our lives were left as is, with little scrutiny or serious consideration for alternative solutions. With finite breaths in my lungs, I felt a pull—an obligation to shift into an altogether different gear. 

In 2020, that pull brought me to GFI, a nonprofit think tank and international network of organizations focused on alternatives to conventional meat—alternatives that, at scale, can benefit virtually every ecosystem on Earth. 

GFI practically had me at hello. They lead with science and innovation, advocate for fair policies and public sector investment, convene and catalyze the industry, and engage stakeholders around the world working at the intersection of climate, global health, food security, and biodiversity. Not a day goes by when some part of the world doesn’t tilt a bit toward a better food future due to the work of the good, smart people here.   

The scrunched brow of my colleague that night did not surprise me, and in fact represents the broader global scene we see today. Changing how we make meat is not yet prioritized on the agendas of those seeking to protect the world’s biological diversity. Understanding the interconnectedness and mutual reliances between agriculture and ecosystems is key.

It’s impossible to solve for climate and biodiversity without solving for agriculture

For half of life thus far, I’ve called the greater St. Louis region home. My spouse and I grabbed a few acres in Edwardsville, Illinois to build a life, grow food, plant trees, and see our two kids in muddy boots most days. I married into a farm family and farming community, with multi-generational roots in the floodplain fields and forests of the Kaskaskia River watershed. 

The farmers I’ve met are seventeen things at once—grower, gambler, buyer, broker, soil scientist, mechanic, engineer, carpenter, accountant, lobbyist, and more. Every single one knows their land in extraordinary and stunning detail. Every single one starts over every season with the long-odds job of feeding their family, community, and world, with the cards increasingly stacked against them. 

Painfully, their livelihoods are both a driver of climate change and a victim of it. Today, agriculture is responsible for roughly one-third of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Fully 20 percent of direct emissions are attributable to animal agriculture alone. Given the massive amounts of land required for pastures and feed crops, animal agriculture is also the leading driver of deforestation. (The pledge made by global governments last year to end deforestation by 2030 is impossible to meet with business-as-usual meat production. A recent study in the journal Nature documented how substituting just 20 percent of beef with microbial proteins from fermentation could cut deforestation in half by 2050.)

For farmers, all of it comes full circle. From climate-driven drought and deforestation-fueled flooding to devastating bird flus and crop blights, the challenges are real and mounting. But while agriculture today is the biggest driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss, it’s also our biggest opportunity. Agriculture can be regenerative. It can rebuild precious soil, soak up carbon, restore watersheds, revitalize rural communities, and infuse much-needed crop diversity and resilience into our global food system. Alongside other advances and innovations in food and farming policies and practices, alternative proteins—specifically plant-based and cultivated meat—can help write the next chapter for agriculture in the U.S. and around the world. 

Farmers can play a leading role in this next chapter, if the infrastructure and support system all around them evolves to incentivize and accelerate the transition from feed crops to food crops. The world’s largest biodiversity conservation NGOs can play a leading role, if they recognize and prioritize the enabling role that alt proteins play in freeing up massive amounts of land and waters for restoration and recovery. Companies can play a leading role if they seize the cost-saving efficiencies of alternative proteins and practice ESG-driven decision-making and bold corporate citizenship across their operations and supply chains. The world’s governments can play a leading role if they fund critical R&D to advance the science and scaling of alternative proteins and level the playing field to allow alternatives to compete on the table stakes of taste, price, and convenience.

The power of people who persist together

It will take all of this, and none of it will be easy or quick. But in each of the systems above—public sector, private sector, academia, and civil society—there are humans.  Institutions, agencies, and multinational corporations can be intimidating. Food system complexities can be overwhelming. But real people work on all of this. Fellow humans with hard jobs and pressures, areas of deep expertise and huge blindspots. Like you and me, these people have aspirations and fears, worries and dreams. The best of them work well with others, and seek out connectivity and collaboration to achieve global, one-planet goals. 

Throughout my life and career, reminding myself of this simple truth has always helped. At GFI, I find myself working alongside some of the most extraordinary, bright, and caring humans I’ve ever had the honor of calling colleagues. While they stay laser-focused on advancing the science, policy, and industry innovations behind these new ways of making meat, they know their work stands alongside other critically important food system solutions needed to right the ship—from circular economies and food justice to regenerative agriculture and carbon farming. They know that for alternative proteins to achieve their full potential, it will require far more of us in the work—students and scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs, policymakers and government agencies, food companies of all sizes, philanthropists and social-cause supporters around the world.    

Every day, I see my colleagues at GFI do their homework, challenge their own biases, and acknowledge the edges of their expertise. I watch them collaborate and problem-solve with ease and good humor. I see them scrutinize and study things deeply, learn from each other, and persist together in pursuit of a common goal. In meetings, they love to celebrate each others’ wins and ask really good and hard questions. They use lots of exclamation points and are easily distracted by cats.  

Outside of GFI, when I zoom way out and read the room—the big, wide room of food system stakeholders of all backgrounds—it’s these exact traits that I see getting the big, hard, worthy things done.

A keystone solution

In ecosystems, a keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. The existence of that keystone species helps the entire ecosystem function and thrive. 

Alternative proteins are a keystone of a future global food system defined by diversity and resilience. They are a keystone of a healthy ocean, healthy forests, healthy rivers, creeks, and streams. They are a keystone of a planet teeming with life. On this International Day of Biological Diversity, I could not be more proud of and energized by the work of GFI around the world to enable meat to be made in ways that not only do less harm but enable more good. GFI’s work with students, scientists, policymakers, and private sector innovators to advance alternative proteins is all about the path ahead, and widening the path along the way to welcome more and more of us to travel together toward a brighter and more biodiverse food future. 

Cheers to journey ahead. Together, we can tilt the world!

Author

Sheila Voss VICE PRESIDENT, COMMUNICATIONS

Sheila Voss oversees GFI’s strategic awareness and action campaigns, data-driven storytelling, and communications-related partnerships. Areas of expertise: plant science and sustainability, agricultural education, biodiversity and climate change messaging.

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