The Perils of Focusing on the Environmental Story

I’m excited about Kernza, in part, because of the possible environmental impact it offers. It’s what usually brings media attention, and is why many people cook with our ingredients.

However, sustainability is not a top reason why people buy food. It’s usually health, taste, and price.

So, if we care about the environmental impact of Kernza, how do we help create demand for Kernza, so that it can be planted on millions of acres?

We don’t think the environmental story is the best path, and that instead it really needs to be delicious, healthy, accessible food, which happens to be made with Kernza.

One company we’ve been watching to see how the environmentally focused sales pitch works is Beyond Meat. Unfortunately, it’s not really working out. Beyond Meat raised a lot of money, pushed their products out into many stores, and got a lot of people to try their products. But, they seem to be reaching the point where those who were going to try it have tried it, and now their sales are falling. People don’t love their food, and they aren’t continuing to eat it.

What does this look like?

What’s the lesson? Missions looking for business models are hard. You need to have an incredible product, which happens to meet a mission, to get to a larger scale and impact.

Beyond has tried influencer marketing to get over their sales problem.

The commenter above is the former CEO of Annie’s, and is pointing to the same problem: repeat purchase, meaning customers who love eating the product.

So, what does this mean for Kernza? We need to figure out incredible, delicious, healthy foods made with Kernza, and not focus on the environmental marketing story. We need to make food that people love to eat, want to share, and eat regularly as a food. Trying to use small percentages of Kernza as a magical environmental marketing dust is unlikely to develop wonderful, beloved foods that can scale the impact of perennial agriculture, and create sustained markets for growers.

Here are some articles that have covered this in recent months:

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I don’t have a good suggestion, only thoughts of how the challenge is big. My vague sense is that gluten-free has not played out in full yet, which is a headwind for kernza, and that baked goods in general are ever increasingly oriented toward sweets, which I think is a headwind to kerza as well. For myself, I came here for the environment and I’m staying because I love the taste of the foods I make with kernza. They make my favorite pancakes and my wife and I love whole grain kernza as a substitute for rice or other grain.

In terms of boosting kernza, I keep hoping to see King Arthur Flour start using it. I don’t know how big their market reach is, but they seem to have a solid toehold in the baking community. (I live near their headquarters which is why I think of them.)

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This also reminds me of the problem of insect protein, which was hailed with a lot of promise but didn’t totally pan out for some producers. I wonder if there is a slow-burn effect here, because it seems that people are catching on more and more to Beyond products and insect ag.

Personally, a big draw for me is the high protein, insoluble fiber, and antioxidants. My partner routinely stalks the cereal aisle to find the product with the highest fiber and protein possible. And yet I am getting tired of bean pastas. I think kernza will be a good compromise for our family :wink:

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Glad to hear it, thanks for sharing!

I have been thinking about the wider viability of kernza. As with the fake meat industry, the message of environmental sustainability doesn’t really sell beyond niche crowds. Consumers care about price; will kernza ever be as cheap as store brands? They also look at nutrition --is kernza healthier than other grains?

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Hi @SamMazumder,

Kernza has more protein per calorie than any other small grain. It has a lot of fiber as well, in addition to its great flavor. We think it can be adopted from a health and taste perspective, without the environmental story. We see many customers who fall in this camp. When we sample our crackers at events, few people have ever heard of Kernza, and most stick around to learn more after they’ve tried a cracker.

Will it be price competitive one day? We think so. Kernza breeders think they need something like 17 years to surpass wheat yields, based on current breeding rates of the 2 crops.

The Kernza pricing world is dynamic right now. There are some trying to price it as a food, while paying farmers and adjusting for low yields and risk. We fall in this camp. There are others pricing it much higher than we buy it at, and targeting large corporations with a marketing product used at low inclusions.

There’s still more grain than market, so I think we’ll continue seeing prices shift over the coming years, and the breeding gains will be very actively happening.

Thanks for your thoughts!