Michael McCain on how to save the planet and feed nine billion humans
The billionaire CEO of Maple Leaf Foods wants you to eat less meat. The food industry is in crisis, he says, so he wants to build the most sustainable protein company on Earth—even if that means making meat out of plants
You grew up in the food industry. How have you seen it change in that time?
The most important thing is the simple idea that the food industry is pivoting toward a crisis. That crisis is rooted in the realization that the global population is drawing for its sustenance on a very limited resource pool, Planet Earth, and the dietary trends and growth in population over the next 20 or 30 years makes the food system we have today unsustainable. At the same time, there's a level of trust in the food industry that is not what it should be.
You've spoken before about what you see as the big trends shaping the future of food. Let's start with the idea that Big Food is coming under attack. Why is there this mistrust among the younger generation in particular?
The fundamental expectations of consumers have shifted to a higher standard, and the food industry perhaps hasn't fully adapted to all those. Start with the notion of transparency, for example—ingredient decks that are very difficult to read.
And in chemical compounds nobody could possibly unwind.
And all of which are—according to history and the government and science—perfectly safe, but you probably wouldn't find them in your kitchen. We don't believe there's good food and bad food, per se. There are good diets and bad diets, right? We need to advocate for better nutritional balance. And the food industry has probably not been as open and transparent and participative in that idea of balance and moderation as it could have been.
Why is nutritious food so expensive? Because you go into a grocery store, particularly in the United States, and a tomato is ludicrously expensive, but I can buy five bags of Oreos for $6.
Completely. Which goes to the paradox of access and affordability. It's not just having food available to you, but having food of the correct nutritional balance. It's a fundamental challenge in the plight of food security, which we've been trying to take a leadership position on.
So where does Maple Leaf come in to this?
We've declared a goal of becoming the most sustainable protein company on earth. That's a pretty audacious goal, but it's one that inspires the hell out of every soul in our organization. We're small enough in the global scheme of things to be rebellious, we're large enough to scale up these rebellious ideas to make them commercially practical.
Can you give me some examples?
Let's start with the idea that it means we are a supplier of better food. That means increasingly migrating to natural ingredients. Ingredients you can pronounce. It means being the largest supplier of meat raised without antibiotics in North America today, in pork. You know, 30% to 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the food chain. Meat is a primary protagonist. We've set an interim goal of a 50% reduction in our footprint—in energy, water and natural gas—by 2025.
How do you do that, considering raising animals boosts your footprint so much?
First, let's be clear—there's a massive, Grand Canyon difference between beef, pork and poultry. Beef has five to 10 times the footprint of pork and poultry. If people converted from beef to pork and poultry, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agrifood by 20% or 25%.
Animal welfare also obviously comes into this.
That's the third pillar—better care. Better food, better planet, better care. Consumers today are demanding that, as they should. The care of the animals in our stewardship comes in a number of different fashions. First, we're leaders in North America in gestation crate–free production in pork. We're investing tens of millions of dollars in that initiative.
So open pens?
It's open pens, but we actually take it all the way through. We have the longest period in open crates in the industry. We're investing millions of dollars in remote video auditing, to make sure the handling of the animals is fully aligned with best practices, through to temperature-controlled transportation and enrichment initiatives. Hogs are a very social animals, right? We're investing in ways to enrich their lives beyond just open housing and humane euthanasia techniques.
Maple Leaf recently invested $10 million to create the Centre for Action on Food Security. You personally put in another $2.5 million. Was there an epiphany around food security for you?
Well, it's the elephant in the room to a food industry leader. It's beyond epiphany—it's right in our face. Four million Canadians suffer from food insecurity—that's one in eight households. It's one in two people in the North. Our goal is a 50% reduction in food insecurity by 2030.
What are some of the barriers, when we've got this incredible bounty of food in this country? Is it logistics, affordability? Is it just geography?
Basic income-level contributors are, by any measure, the No. 1 driver. But it would be a mistake to assume that's the only factor. There are issues of distribution and access—there are places, particularly in urban centres, that are considered food deserts. There are issues of mobility. There are issues of food and nutritional literacyr. There are distribution issues, particularly in the North. Getting affordable food into the North is a perennial challenge.
What about food waste?
Globally, 30% to 40% of all the food produced in the world doesn't hit a human stomach.
Where does it go?
It depends. In the developing world, it's mostly waste in the distribution channel. In the developed world, most of the food waste occurs in the home or in food-service institutions. It's over-portioning. It's inappropriate "best before dates." It's all-you-can-eat buffets.
So put the food insecurity issue in context. What does it mean globally?
There's going to be nine billion people on Planet Earth by 2050. We can feed seven billion today. We don't know how to feed nine billion people, and if we don't figure it out in a hurry, there's going to be a lot of people starve.
I want to talk a little bit about the role of technology. How do we use technology to ultimately feed more people?
Technology is going to play a role in all aspects of this. We're using technology around precision agriculture that can radically improve the environmental footprint of livestock production and food production in general. That's the future of modern agriculture. Because part of the problem with food production around the world is not the arable land base—it's getting the arable land base to the same level of productivity that exists in North America. And not carpet-bombing with pesticides and herbicides.
So there's that idea, all the way through to technology in actual food production, whether it's animal proteins or plant proteins, including the production of animal-protein look-alikes—lab-based meats.
Do you think that's going to become a thing?
Who knows? It sort of belies the idea of natural food. Having said that, could it play a role? Yeah, it could. I think that's in the very distant future, but honestly, we'll be a participant in anything that makes a more sustainable diet.
What are some of the initiatives Maple Leaf has taken on?
Everything from high-tech lighting to the role of alternative energy sources to battery storage for better efficiency in our supply chain. We're looking at technologies like artificial intelligence, sensor technology, the Internet of Things, all the way through to the e-commerce component, which is really about how consumers are going to acquire food.
Maple Leaf recently bought a couple of grain-based meat companies. What was your thinking there?
Our beliefs are based on a few observations. The first is that consumers want to ingest more protein. They want less carbs and more protein. Two, they want more choice in the proteins they consume. Three, they probably won't consume a huge amount more animal protein in aggregate over the next 20 years. Don't see it going away, don't see it declining.
Globally, even with growing appetite for meat in China, for instance?
No, I'm saying in our markets here. There's definitely going to be more animal proteins consumed in parts of the world as their GDP grows.
Finally, in the pursuit of more protein consumption, the majority of that growth in North America will come from plant-based proteins, not animal proteins. We view ourselves as a protein company. We also think that contributes to our sustainability agenda, right? We're the only meat company in the world that is overtly expressing the objective for consumers to eat meat in moderation.
What's your own diet like?
I like to think I'm balanced nutritionally, although I have the same human frailties, where my nutritional balance is considerably better Monday to Friday than it is Saturday and Sunday.
Did what happened in 2008, with the listeriosis crisis, change your thinking in terms of how you view the future of food?
What happened in 2008 was a a complete and utter tragedy, a tragedy that we're embarrassed about and that scarred our psyche, because we took accountability for the loss of 23 lives on our watch, and we'll never forget that. It brings character and meaning to the responsibilities we have in the food industry, but no, it didn't change how we think about things.
What will the food system look in 25 years? Any predictions?
I would like to think we would be able to reliably feed 10 billion people in an ecosystem that's environmentally sustainable, respectful of the resource base that it was produced in, providing diets that are nutritionally balanced, that are ethnically aligned with people's needs, and affordable across all strata of society around the world. That's the dream, right?
This interview has been edited and condensed.