Eat For The Planet with Nil Zacharias

November 3, 2020

Nil Zacharias is a leading expert in the growing plant-based food industry. He is an author, podcaster, entrepreneur, advisor, and sought-after international speaker who has spent over a decade focused on the intersection of food, health, and sustainability. Nil is founder of Eat For The Planet (an impact media and consulting firm), co-founder of Spire (an event production company) and 80/20 Plants (a health and wellness platform), and previously founded the media platform One Green Planet. Nil currently serves as a strategic advisor to the Plant Based Foods Association, Plant Based World Conference and Expo, Infinite Foods, and several other brands and organizations. Prior to embarking on his entrepreneurial journey, Nil worked in the technology and online advertising space as a lawyer, a management consultant, and in various operational roles.

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian, and I am so honored and excited to have my longtime friend with us today, Nil Zacharias. Welcome to The Impact Podcast, Nil.

Nil Zacharias: Thank you, John. Thanks for having me on. It is good to talk to you as always.

John: It is always, we used to have lunch together on the Upper West Side in New York, and today you are in Venice, California, beautiful Venice, California. I am actually in Fresno, California, and it is great to be here together. Even though we are both in California, we are not physically together, but whenever I speak with you, it is just always reconnecting with a longtime friend. It is just so wonderful to hear your voice.

Nil: Likewise, it is good to always talk to you. I look forward to it, and I am excited about this conversation today.

John: Nil, before we get talking about all the important and great things you are doing at Eat For The Planet, can you give us a little bit of your journey, the backstory because you do have a fascinating backstory leading up to this great platform you have created? Can you just share that with our listeners first?

Nil: Yes, how much time do you have?

John: [laughter]

Nil: How far back do you want to go? But I will try to keep it–

John: Yes.

Nil: I have had many twists and turns in my twenty-year work career, but it is been fun. It is all been me just following my passions, and it usually leads to interesting fun projects and jobs and opportunities. So, I started my– updated myself now, obviously, twenty years ago, I started my career, actually, as an attorney. I spent a few years in a law firm and realized that that was not the life I wanted to have. No offense to any attorneys out there. It is just I was more excited by the work my clients were doing than the work I had to do. So, it became obvious to me that I needed to get some experience in the corporate world, I really was fascinated by technology and innovation at that time, and the Internet, and everything that came along with it. So, I ended up spending, after two years in a law firm, ended up spending the next eight to twelve years working in the technology industry.

Nil: I worked at companies like Double Click, which were acquired by Google. I worked at a startup that was acquired by Yahoo, spent five years at Yahoo. I also did a little stint in management consulting at PWC. All largely focused on media, the intersection of technology and innovation and kind of started off initially doing risk management work because of my legal background and then eventually started getting more involved in the business side of things. So, it was an interesting evolution in that space. So, I feel like my career has had two chapters, I had that whole chapter that lasted about a decade, and then I got curious about the food I was eating, and then one thing led to another. This is really cutting a long story short, I realized that the food I was eating was contributing to some of the biggest threats this generation is facing, which is the climate change. That then began my new journey over the last, I would say, decade focusing on my passion now and my vocation, which is trying to do my part to transform our food system. This is why we are here today.

John: Yes, and for our listeners out there, to find Nil and his great work at Eat For The Planet, you can go to www.eftp.co, eftp.co. It is a beautiful website. I am on it now myself. Talk a little bit about– now, you are here and you have become Nil, and I have known you for a lot of those ten years, maybe all of them, and talk a little bit about the plant-based food industries and what inspires you every day now to be one of the great-fought leaders and messengers in that industry.

Nil: Thanks, John, I think I appreciate the kind words and the high praise. I do not think I deserve all of it.

John: No, you do, you do.

Nil: I do think that, as I said, my passion for the last decade or so has been transforming our food system or at least doing my part in helping in some way.

John: Right.

Nil: I do think that the plant-based food industry is a big key to this transformation, and kind of going back to why I shifted paths in my career and started focusing on food system, it was really learning about climate change and realizing that if you do not do something urgently we are going to have a significant problem. We are already starting to see the effects of it. So, climate change is going to, whether we like it or not, it is going to impact public health, it is going to impact our economy, it is going to impact our ecosystems. This might be a fact most people do not realize, and it does not get talked about often enough, although, I think, intelligence analysts have been saying it since the eighties but climate change is also a national security risk. I wish people brought this up more often. It is because maybe it will make more people pay attention, would think that climate change is a political issue or is polarizing in some way. It is just reality.

Nil: When climate change takes effect, which is happening right now, we are going to see floods, we are going to see extreme weather events, we are going to see heat waves in higher frequency and higher intensity. When that happens, automatically, we are going to end up facing destruction to property. We are going to face an impact on human lives, and people are going to be forced into migrating away from areas where the sea level is rising, and where natural disasters are happening. And so, you follow the thread here and you see one thing will lead to another. We are going to end up facing a refugee crisis, and when that happens, we are going to see food and water shortages. Again, this is not something I have made up. You can read reports about this. Eventually, it leads us down the path where we are going to have conflict over resources, where there is going to be economic distress, social discontent. Basically, you end up creating the most fertile breeding ground for radical ideologies. That is what eventually leads to conflict and war. This is not a future, I think anyone of us– firstly, no one wants to live on a planet or have their kids grow up or their grandkids grow up on a planet that does not have clean air, clean water, but when you realize maybe that is not the only things at stake, maybe there are these downstream effects that impact us in ways that we do not clearly see, it makes the issue of climate change even more real.

Nil: So what does it have to do with food? I think, quite simply, I wrote a whole book about this so I am not going to bore you with all the science, but I do think that the reason food is important for me is because of the facts, right? Twenty-six percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to food production, processing, transportation, and about fourteen point five percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions is from the livestock sector. So, going back to your question about plant-based, I mean, it is pretty clear, by shifting our reliance on industrial animal agriculture and relying more on plant-based sources of food, plant-based products use far less resources and have far less of an impact. It gives us a fighting chance to mitigate, at least the food-related greenhouse gas emissions, and then it is not just greenhouse gas emissions, industrial livestock production contributes to soil erosion and land degradation uses of water, leads to biodiversity loss, the impacts are just– and pollution, it is just– and on the oceans, it creates dead zones. So, there is really no end to the problem with industrial farming or factory farming.

Nil: The simple solution is that if you could shift our protein consumption towards plants, we maybe have a fighting chance. Here is the sad reality, if we do not do it, right? Here are two reasons why we need to do it, and if you do not do it, we have no hope. Number one, our population is about seven point six billion today on the planet, and we are expected to be ten billion by the year 2050. At the current rate of production of meat, and the current demand for meat on this planet, there is no way we can feed that population of ten billion without destroying the life support systems that keep this planet as amazing as it is. So, firstly, it is unsustainable. We cannot sustain this level of consumption. We need to diversify our protein. Secondly, even if you get it completely right on clean energy, right? Even if you transition all energy from coal and natural gas to solar and wind and other renewable energy sources, we have absolutely no hope of preventing catastrophic climate change if we do not tackle the food problem. So, food is paramount. It does not come up often in conversations around climate change. That is why I think it is the most impactful area to focus on and I think plant-based is part of the solution, a big part of the solution.

John: I love that. Just the other night, I watched the new movie, “Kiss The Ground,” and I was amazed at how much I did not know about how our food is grown, how farming really is in America, and how we could really get it better from what it is, and go back to regenerative farming compared to the tilling farming that we have going on. There is so much to learn about that, and so much that we could still do to make the world a better place, so I am on board with you. We are living in this very strange and tragic time of COVID-19. From your lens, what has this weird period of 2020, this pandemic period, revealed with regards to flaws in our food system that we did not even see before?

Nil: That is a great question. I think this year has been– it has been a year that has revealed so much to us in so many ways.

John: Right.

Nil: One, of course, the pandemic, but then the downstream impacts of just having to lockdown cities and the impact on the economy. It is just been, it has been really fascinating, and I feel really grateful and lucky that I am safe and I have work, and I know a lot of people are not that lucky right now. So, I firstly want to acknowledge that. In terms of the impact on the food system, I think, kind of jumping off what I said earlier about climate change, I think there are some parallels to be drawn between this whole pandemic and what we are seeing and can expect to see with climate change. The difference is that climate change is a tricky enemy. It is because the effects of climate change unfold in slow motion and the effects of the pandemic unfolded in warp speed. It all happened really quickly, and we felt the impact right away. So, everyone, whether we, as– we try to avoid it in the beginning, our government tried to avoid it in the beginning, pretend it could hopefully go away, but eventually, it was just moving so fast and things were changing so quickly, and the science was changing so quickly that we needed to act and we started to feel the effects.

Nil: When it comes to food, it has been very real, I mean, whether it is the meat processing plants that had to shut down because of rising rates of infection just because of the way meat processing plants are structured and the lack of distance between people who work on the floor. So, there was an impact on food production. There were talks about a meat shortage in the beginning of the pandemic. On the farming side, they had their own challenges because when we shut down cities, and we shut down businesses, including restaurants and food services and universities and places that basically farmers rely on to supply food, so farmers who were dependent on restaurants and food service were suddenly faced with a few months ahead that were completely uncertain. So, we noticed that there were farmers who had crops that were wasted, some had to dump excess milk. There had to be a mass slaughter of animals in farms because there was just no market for it. So, there was like an entire breakdown, a disruption in the way we traditionally produce and distribute and consume food, and then consumers– you might not know anything about the food system, but I am sure if you tried walking into a grocery store in the early days of the pandemic you saw empty shelves.

John: Right.

Nil: It was the most bizarre feeling I walked under the Whole Foods here in Venice, and there was nothing. I felt like I was in a disaster movie, right?

John: Right.

Nil: Then you add the additional layer of rising unemployment and economic hardship being faced by people. It basically ended up magnifying this food access problem that we have in this country. So, people who are food insecure have even bigger pressure on them right now because either they do not have employment, they are struggling to eat healthy, they have kids who are now at home, they have to balance working multiple jobs if they are lucky enough to have jobs and tutor the kids. So, it is a really rough diamond, but people have realized that. I think the pandemic has started as in a nutshell that our food system has a lot of vulnerabilities and needs to be– the word I use is resilient. It needs to be resilient. If what I talked about climate change was about we need to make sure it is sustainable, that it lasts, and it can feed us, and that it can preserve the planet, it also has to be resilient enough to face the consequences of bad things happening, whether it is viruses, whether it is food shortages or natural disasters, either caused by climate change or otherwise.

Nil: So, much like what has happened with a pandemic, we are going to see similar impacts, not exactly the same but similar impacts as climate change unfolds. Even if we do our best to mitigate the damage of climate change to transform our food system, the reality is that we are in a race against time, so we are going to have to build resiliency in our food system as we try to make sure it is also sustainable and capable of feeding the planet in a way that is not going to destroy our natural resources in the long run. So, I think the big lesson, at least food-related from the pandemic, I mean there are many other lessons about eating healthy and immunity and all of that stuff, but just from a systems perspective, I think is that we need to be more resilient, we need to plan for disasters, and we need to make sure that the decisions we make around our food system today will be the right ones when we look back thirty, forty, fifty years down the line. I mean, that is the reason we are in the spot where we are, because we made this decision sixty, seventy years ago, without thinking about the long-term consequences.

John: For our listeners who just joined us I have my good friend, Nil Zacharias, with us today. He is the founder of Eat For The Planet. You can find Nil and his great work and important work at eftp.co. His podcasts are there. His books are there, and that is what I want to talk about next, Nil. You mentioned earlier your book, Eat For The Planet. I read it. I loved it. What can our listeners expect to learn from your book if they go online and buy it today?

Nil: Yes, I mean, if you are even remotely intrigued by anything I have said so far, and you feel like when you hear the words “climate change” and “sustainability”, your eyes glaze over because it just sounds so boring and scientific, and kind of abstract. My goal with that book, the Eat For The Planet book, and then we released a cookbook, following that as well–

John: Yes.

Nil: The goal with the book was really to try to distill this complicated science, and present it in a really easy to digest package. Everything from the size of the book, which is pretty small, to the fact that most of the statistics and the science is presented in the form of infographics, were all designed to make the book accessible and easily consumed by someone who probably does not like books or definitely does not like books about science and climate change and sustainability. So, it really delivers the facts, and that was the whole idea behind the book, to deliver this important knowledge and the science that has been around now for long enough but still seems to be largely ignored in the mainstream conversation. Not just in the mainstream media about food but also in terms of the environmental movement, food has largely been ignored until very recently. So, I do think if you are curious about this, and you want a quick book that you can reference and get some interesting facts to see how you can do your part in avoiding this crisis and helping to transform our food system, I think that is a great book. Obviously, I am biased.

John: Yes, but no, it is a great book. I have read it myself. I love your book. You have been so kind to host me on your podcast before. I love your podcast, Eat For The Planet. Talk a little bit. It is on your website. Talk a little bit about Eat For The Planet podcast and some of the thought leaders you have had on and how you have been curating that podcast over the past few years.

Nil: Yes, thank you. I have definitely, firstly, as you said, I have had you on as a guest. I really enjoyed the process of putting together that podcast. I have been doing it now for three years. I will tell you why I started the podcast. When I first started working on issues related to the food system, as you know, I first launched a media platform back in 2013. I was originally on your earlier podcast talking about that years ago.

John: Yes.

Nil: In fact, I think that was the first podcast I was ever on. So, this is funny that I am here years later.

John: Yes.

Nil: So, I first launched a media platform and as I was doing that, I ran it for a few years, and I have exited that business since, but one of the things that I realized is that the food system and this problem that I was trying to tackle was this really complicated web of interconnected issues. On one hand, you have consumer behavior, and initially, I was very focused on inspiring and educating people, and so I launched that media platform. I eventually wrote the books because I felt if people had the information, if they were presented the knowledge in a simple clear way, they would act on it. I do not necessarily not think that now, I just think that that is maybe not enough. You have to educate people but you also have to change the market conditions. So, on one hand, you need to do behavior change, make sure people do their best but sometimes people might want to do their best but the system is just designed in a way where they are just not able to afford the food that they want to buy that is good for them and the planet, or they have no access to it. I started to, I think over around the year 2015, 2016, I started to also think about how I could use my voice, my background, my skills, my connections to impact market-based solutions around changing the food system. So, my first attempt to do that was how can I help this growing plant-based food industry that was– now, people seem to be familiar with it, but back in 2014, 2015, it was just starting to break out with brands like Beyond Meat and others that had just launched. So, I launched the podcast as a way to highlight these fascinating entrepreneurs who were doing these groundbreaking things, who– so, using the platform of the podcast to really highlight the innovation that was happening, the smart and talented entrepreneurs that were leading these companies, the investors were focusing on it, the change makers who were out there thinking of interesting solutions to basically transform this entire web that is our food system into something more sustainable in the long haul. So I have had the pleasure and honor to sit down and pick the brain of some of the smartest people in the food industry, from the founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, to John Shegerian.

John: Oh, I remember.

Nil: And many others who each have approached this with their own– who have all arrived at the same problem that I am trying to tackle and find solutions for, but are doing it in their own unique way. I think together we form, we kind of make up this really interesting ecosystem of people and companies that are all mission-driven to make sure that we can have a food system that we can be proud of fifty years down the line.

John: I love it. Again, I just had the greatest time coming on your podcasts, and I love listening to episodes, and I love the episode with John Mackey. He really is sort of the godfather of the industry, and it is just wonderful to hear, always hear his thoughts or read his thoughts. Nil, one of my favorite things about getting together with you in person or like this, telephonically, is hearing your vision for the future, and science is going to win, we are going to get through this COVID thing and get to the other side, hopefully not a new normal, hopefully, a new better. What exciting projects are you working on now that you want to share with our listeners?

Nil: Yes. Wait, where do I begin? Again, with this one too but, as I said, I am really fortunate, I get to do really fun, exciting things, and just to kind of jump off the whole market solutions thing I was just talking of, I really think of like my approach to helping transform the food system, at least doing my little part in helping transform the food system, whether it is highlighting the work other people are doing or doing some of it myself. It really, you can put it into like three big buckets. One is the behavior change bucket focused on consumers. As I said earlier, I launched a media platform, I co-founded another company called 80/20 Plants that is focused on habit change and inspiring people to eat more plants, I wrote the Eat For The Planet books, that is all been driven and targeted towards consumers. On the market side, I have been advising companies in the plant-based food space around strategy about how to streamline their internal operations, how to redo their brand, and how to position themselves and create opportunities in the marketplace to make sure that more people get access to plant-based products in this industry, which is now, in the last year, had about five billion dollars in retail sales, continues to grow.

Nil: How do we continue to outpace the growth of all other food in the retail sector? How do we keep this momentum going? And so, recently, in fact, a lot of my time has been spent launching projects that are focused on unlocking opportunities in the market. So, last year, I started an event production company called Spire, and the goal was to– initially, we launched a couple of events. One in L.A. last year that was to connect entrepreneurs, professionals, investors that were working in the plant-based food industry in the Southern California region, especially, L.A. is such a big hub for companies in the plant-based and natural food space, but really wanted to create that sense of community and connection so people can exchange ideas and learn from each other. So, that was one new project I launched, and we did a couple of other events and started producing events. And, of course, you know where this is going, then COVID hit.

John: Right.

Nil: No events are happening for the foreseeable future. It will come back, as you said. This is not going to be the permanent normal. That is one way. It is like real-world events that connect people together and speaking of events, I also partnered with a new trade show that launched in 2019, called Plant-based World Conference & Expo. I actually produced the entire conference for plant-based world. The first expo happened last year at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. It was supposed to happen again this year, but as you can imagine, has not because of the pandemic, but we will, of course, return next year. Again, back to this idea of making connections, unlocking opportunities, what can happen when you create a trade show dedicated to plant-based companies and because this industry is growing so fast, and so big– it is so big now that we actually need our own trade show. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago, people would have laughed at us to think of that idea, but right now, we cannot keep up with the demand for that trade show. So, it is coming back next year. That is been one big project, and I have a new project launching that actually was inspired because of some of the things that happened during the time of the pandemic, and recently that have been happening in America that has impacted a lot of people, is this whole issue that I mentioned earlier about food access.

Nil: The plant-based food industry is growing really fast. As I said, it has witnessed about eleven point four percent growth in the past year, but the issue and the problem and the challenge really is that the people who need access to the food, this food the most, the people who are hungry for plant-based foods do not have access to it or just cannot afford it because it is only available in specialty stores. It is not everywhere. I started brainstorming ideas with a couple of friends around what kind of project could be launched to tackle that problem. So I am very excited to say that we have a new project launching in November of 2020, where we are actually– it is called Plantaga. We are bringing plant-based products. I am running a prototype in three bodegas or independent corner stores. I know, John, you are very familiar with the term bodega.

John: Yes.

Nil: Some of our listeners might not be. It is a classic New York City corner store, and typically full of unhealthy grab and go products. They tend to be the lifeblood of communities, and they are all around the city. They are even in Manhattan, but in the heart of places like the Bronx or parts of Brooklyn, they are the only place where you can get food. There are no supermarkets in walking distance, and most people do not own cars throughout the city. So, the bodega has become a big hub for where people buy food because it is also affordable but, unfortunately, largely unhealthy, but the people in these neighborhoods do want plant-based food. So we have developed this whole idea of introducing plant-based options in three specific bodegas. We are launching this whole concept.

Nil: We are bringing in a branded cooler called the Plantaga cooler. We are also going to transform the deli menu, the food service menu at these bodegas to include classic New York City items like a breakfast sausage, an egg sandwich, or bagel and cream cheese, but just entirely plant-based. What is even more interesting about the project is not only are we bringing access to some of the biggest brands in the plant-based space, we are also offering at a cost that you cannot find anywhere else. That is because we are basically acquiring the products directly from the brands, and we are kind of in some ways disrupting the existing distribution system for the purposes of this pilot, and then running a socialist experiment meets a research project. Of course, you show people who have never tried plant-based foods, how delicious, and how familiar they can be, what can happen? So, I am very excited about that project. It is going to launch in November and run for three months in New York City, called Plantaga. You can learn more at eatplantaga.com or definitely come to my website and sign up for my newsletter, and I will be promoting it on the podcast as well, so you can learn all about it there.

John: I cannot wait to have you back on, Nil, to talk about the success of Plantaga. Everything I have seen you do over the last ten years has become a massive success, and that is why going back to the top of the program, you become one of the most important thought leaders in the whole plant-based industry. That is why I am so grateful, not only for our friendship but also for all you do. For all listeners out there today that enjoyed today’s show with Nil Zacharias, please go to www.eftp.co to find these two great books, his podcasts, and all the other important and impactful work that Nil is doing at Eat For The Planet. Nil, I just want to thank you again, for being my good friend, for all the impactful work you are doing, and for making the world a greener and better place every day.

Nil: Thank you so much, John. Thanks for having me on today and for giving me a chance to share some of my story and the work I am doing, and I cannot wait to meet up with you in person once the world gets back to normal.

John: It will be soon. Thank you so much.