Functional Ingredients: You have a background in GMOs. There is a lot of suspicion of GMOs in the natural food world. What do you see as the benefits of GMOs?
John Diehl: My enthusiasm for genetic engineering isn’t what is going on today, it’s what it could be down the road. If you look at nonhuman populations—bacteria and molds for example—they tend to outgrow their environment and their own wastes tend to destroy the population. This is a lot of what [18th century population theorist] Malthus wrote about and the Industrial Revolution bailed us out. Down the road Malthusian situations may still pop up. The world is getting more and more populated as we speak. I would guess there are about as many people in China and India today as there were in the whole world when I was a baby.
We’ve got to start looking at industries as they produce waste. The food industry can produce a fair amount of waste. One of the possibilities is to have the plant in the field do what the processing plant does today. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the next few years. We need this ability to harvest more finished products and do less downstream processing.
Fi: Can you give me an example?
JD: It’s not a food but it’s relevant. That’s cotton. Cotton is basically a white to off-white burr on a cotton plant that you pick and it goes off to be dyed and spun into fabrics. The people at Calgene, when it existed, were able to insert the various colors into the cotton plant so that you could harvest red cotton, blue cotton, what have you, and it was already dyed. And you didn’t then have the issue of a chemical company making all these toxic dyes.
Fi: How is the naturals world influencing the mainstream food world?
JD: The naturals world is doing a lot of good things for the mainstream food world and it is not necessarily the products. The naturals world has brought entrepreneurs back to the food industry. The big companies have just been buying up the medium and smaller companies as a growth mechanism. We don’t have a lot inventive, entrepreneurial food companies anymore in the traditional food industry. The functional food area has brought a lot of this back into play. That tends to be where the true growth and innovation comes from. The big companies tend to spend their time protecting market share and shielding themselves from competitors in terms of shelf space. Entrepreneurs take the basic risks. Entrepreneurs bring new technologies into the industry.
When you look at the food conventions out there, the most exciting one is [New Hope Natural Media’s] Natural Products Expo West because you can walk around and see all this stuff that has popped up in the last year or two. I go every year to see what the trend is going to be for the big companies because they have a tendency, once these entrepreneurs get going, to try to copy them.
Fi: I understand you were in New Zealand recently. Didn’t you love Auckland?
JD: New Zealand in general was basically like going back to California in the late 1940s and early 1950s. You went downtown to shop. It was two-lane roads. The stores opened at a set time in the morning and closed at a set time in the evening. It’s an amazing city. People have a great lifestyle there. People are on their bikes, they’re outside, they go for walks. They don’t overeat.