To kick off the new year, Plant Futures launched into a weekend full of guest speakers from every corner of the world to unpack the plant-based industry. This symposium consisted of entrepreneurs, chefs, activists, academic scholars and doctors who all gave quick, engaging online presentations and panels to over 200 participants. This event was hosted in collaboration with UC Berkeley Haas, Public Health, Engineering, Public Policy, and the Berkeley Food Institute. Samantha Derrick, a Masters of Public Health student, invested in the success of this symposium for over a year with the vision to bring “an innovative, multidisciplinary course to Undergraduate and Graduate students across campus committed to transforming the food system.”

The first day of the symposium provided background information and context about the opportunities, threats and unintended consequences in the plant based movement. This included introductions to the medical, environmental, and public health concerns that surround transitioning to eating a plant-based diet. With inspiring guest speakers who told their story about how they came to eat plant-based, students were able to learn about Asian culture and how a Texas rancher became vegan and turned her cattle farm into an animal sanctuary. These personal stories then segued into a panel about nutrition and health with Dr. Milton Mills, one of my personal highlights from the day. The first day also allowed for necessary conversations surrounding access, affordability, and equity. Traditionally, the perception of this space is focused on white voices, but Day 1 had a strong sense of social justice tied to the food systems we were talking about thanks to Jasmine Leyva, Garrett Broad, and Lauren Ornelas. As a documentary filmmaker, Jasmine Leyva produced The Invisible Vegan and shared with us all that she learned about the unhealthy dietary patterns in the African-American community due to the lack of access to plant-based vegan diets and lifestyle choices. Their conversation as activists, filmmakers, and professors in academia provided additional insight on how communities of color experience the plant-based movement.

The second day had more of a business focus on innovation and entrepreneurship with guest speakers from Oatly, Beyond Meat, Veggie Grill, The Tofurky Company, and Miyoko’s Creamery. These conversations helped provide a behind the scenes look at the business side of the alternative protein space and all of the innovation that goes into creating more plant-based options. One important takeaway from Day 1 that stuck with me through Day 2 was that the climate crisis is not something that we can “innovate our way out of.” Rather, innovation plays a role within greater systems level change and individual action that are both needed to create a truly sustainable and equitable future.

Looking back on this weekend, my biggest takeaway is that if you are interested in tackling public health issues, combating climate change, or promoting healthy lifestyles, the plant based movement is a great place to start. Coming into this as a student from the College of Natural Resources and the Haas School of Business, the environmental impacts and entrepreneurial nature of the plant based industry were already on my radar. But the real takeaway for me were the strikingly clear health benefits that I have been missing out on. Dr. Milton Mills thoroughly convinced me that, through his research and professional insight, there should be no hesitation on the health side for going fully plant based. Over the next week I worked on eating more plants by incorporating green smoothies, tofu bowls, and soyrizo burritos into my weekly line up as a busy zoom student.

After the symposium weekend, there is also an additional Plant Futures Lab offered to students that will include forming interdisciplinary teams to “apply design thinking to solve plant-based food challenges related to business, policy, or behavioral economics.”

About the Author

Madeleine Wong – UGBA and Environmental Econ & Policy ‘22

Madeleine is a third year pursuing simultaneous degrees in Business Administration at Haas and Environmental Economics and Policy at the College of Natural Resources. She currently serves on the CRB Student Advisory Board and is interested in learning about how businesses can truly be sustainable in a capitalistic society by exploring system level change. Outside of her formal education, this 20 year old is continuing to work on her personal journey of understanding her individual impact and intersectional environmentalism.

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