Perspective: Tara Medina of Discovered Wildfoods
Tara Medina is the unstoppable founder of Discovered Wildfoods. She speaks to us about how sustainability can be a dirty word, and why when things get hard, you should just keep going.
Nightjar had the pleasure of partnering with Tara on the launch of their new e-Comm site, rich in story and purpose, and not short on ambition. Discovered is changing the future of food, one sustainable plate at a time.
I spoke to Tara via video chat one morning mid-lockdown. We laughed about the craziness of it all, and then, as often happens with Tara, we turned to the business of the planet pretty swiftly. From our very first meeting 18 months ago, her passion was both apparent and inspiring, and we knew that Discovered was going to be a special project.
Tara, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I feel like there was this period where everyone my age just wanted to be a marine biologist. It was the ‘Free Willy’ and ‘Flipper’ era. And it was every kid's staple answer. So I think I used to say that.
So it sounds as though at the age of 12, you were already sowing the seeds of this path of a better future for our planet...
I think I spent a good amount of time skipping uni and going to raves, but it's kind of hard to ignore issues around sustainability if you're part of that generation. So whatever career path you've chosen, you're still aware of the issues, and it only becomes more profound as you get older. In particular, when you start thinking about having a family, you're like, what does the world look like for the next generation?
"The way we think about sustainability, is the best outcomes for the environment with the least amount of complication"
Having a family is a turning point for a lot of people, that desire to want to leave the planet in better shape than we found it. Thinking about the word ‘sustainable’, what does that word mean to you, and to Discovered Wildfoods?
It's a word that's unfortunately starting to get abused. The way we think about it, is the best outcomes for the environment, with the least amount of complication. There's a lot of businesses out there branding themselves as sustainable, but at the end of the day, a lot of the time what's being created is another consumer product and there's energy and transport miles and megabytes of data from the internet requiring huge amounts of cooling and warehouses to just deliver another product. Sometimes the answer is closer to home. And so for Discovered, it's about the simple solutions. With removal of invasives in Australia, whether it's wild deer or weeds, people often look to solutions that still have negative downstream effects. So they want to spray weeds with pesticides or they want to introduce poisons or culling programs that leave dead animals all over national parks. So a truly sustainable solution is a simple one, which is about eating the problem.
A sustainable solution needs to only have positive downstream effects - creating employment, assisting conservation, delivering healthy protein and avoiding people consuming other types of protein that can have a bigger footprint. I think if you're going to say something is sustainable, you need to be able to back it up rigorously. And you need to be able to be really transparent about what the failings are as well. For us, we still struggle with packaging because although there’s starting to be more solutions, they are still single use. And we can’t just push that into a quarter and ignore it. It's still part of our impact. So when I see things popping up in my Instagram feed all the time of ‘sustainable toothpaste’ and ‘sustainable this’ and ‘sustainable that’, sometimes you’ve really got to question what that means.
It is used quite freely, isn't it? And that's pretty irresponsible - I think there are a lot of people out there who want to do better but it can be confusing.
I'm interested when you're talking about ‘backing it up rigorously’. What’s your process for being able to back up Discovered’s business model?
So rather than just saying we’re sustainable, we've verified what our actual footprint is through an independent life cycle analysis, which is like a scientific supply chain analysis of your carbon footprint from the very beginning until you deliver to the customer. So it takes into account all the transport miles, all the materials, energy, water consumed, waste produced etc. We knew that we're a lot more sustainable than farmed protein, but we also had a suspicion we were more sustainable than heavily processed, mass-produced plant-based products like your ‘fake meat’ meat burgers. So we did the study and we've compared it to the same life cycle analysis that's been done by your Beyond burger type companies. And our data versus theirs is that we are more sustainable, so that’s interesting for us. It was about verifying it with science. Then once we'd done that study, we're now certified carbon neutral through the Carbon Reduction Institute, which is the longest running abatement scheme in Australia. Because we're certified, we get audited. So we actually have all of our plant records, sales records and volumes audited every quarter and we have to account for it.
Back on ‘fake meat’ - let’s talk about the huge growth in companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. They have marketing budgets to thank for part of their growth, partnerships with huge multinationals like Burger King and McDonalds. Through these alliances they’re getting exposure to an audience who might not necessarily be who you would think of as the target market for sustainable products.
There's obviously some very, very, well-educated intelligent people behind impossible. And they're certainly, well-intentioned - their goal is to have an impact on sustainability. But when you look at the approach, you can't ignore how resource heavy their solution is. It still involves mono crops, and mass industrialised agriculture. It still involves huge amounts of food miles, food processing, and R & D of some of the smartest people in the world, in a lab trying to make something that's not natural, like soy, feel like something else that's not natural, like feedlot beef. So while I appreciate that they are trying to address the lowest common denominator of consumer and saying ‘if we can't convert someone who eats at Hungry Jack’s into a more sustainable option, then we can't have an impact’.
I just think it's a little bit defeated because they've raised billions and billions of dollars in capital. And sometimes we just need to consider whether that is the most appropriate use of the brightest minds and our greatest capital. What if you invested the same amount of intelligence and capital in solutions that already exist, that don't require development, they just require scaling? And that's things like subsidisation or marketing support for regenerative farming, encouraging people to grow their own food, community gardens, permaculture projects. These are validated approaches that have no downstream negative consequences. They're just not easy to market because there isn't much of a business case there in traditional capitalism. There's a business case there from a total impact perspective, but they're often things that require government intervention or some kind of not-for-profit element to support them because they can't be turned into a glossy product with all these marketing claims on them.
"If half of Australians tomorrow wanted to start eating this product, they could, it's just about bringing awareness to the opportunity"
With Discovered, does it become harder as you scale, to maintain the footprint and hit the auditing checklist every time? What do you see the vision for Discovered being in terms of growth?
It's interesting because it actually gets easier. At the moment, we are very much a small business, which means we (the founders) have to do everything - from building relationships with chefs and customers, to doing photo shoots and recipe development, to working with our butchers, to figure out exactly how they want to present the product, to quality assurance, to doing our insurance. Scaling just means we're going to have more bandwidth to focus on strategy and messaging. And more of the nitty gritty will become automated. The thing is, the supply is there. If half of Australians tomorrow wanted to start eating this product, they could, it's just about bringing awareness to the opportunity.
So what are some of the key challenges in bringing awareness to the opportunity, and getting more people eating wild sambar venison?
When you think about the traditional food buying landscape in a Western country, it's all designed around convenience. Whether you’re a Woolworths shopper or you want to go out and buy the most artisanal small batch broccoli, you can just go out and buy it. The moment you make the decision, to when it's in your hand is very short. Even if you're buying online from a butcher in Melbourne or Sydney, you can often get stuff the next day. If you order from us, you probably won't get your box for about 10 days. And that's because we're getting orders, we're then going to hunters and coordinating with them in the field to then bring in the animals. We don't know what the weather is doing. We don't know if there's a full moon. From the moment you contact us, we then source it. And that's really against what most people expect, but because they see our mission and they see the principles that it's based on, they are willing to compromise.
"If you want to be a mission-based business, you can't really make decisions that compromise the mission. Otherwise you're not creating the same business that you thought you would"
Discovered is a startup and you are running the show. Do you find that it's really hard to separate, or do you even want to separate the rest of your life from Discovered?
I think if you run a small business in any field, your business and yourself, is never really that separate because people will associate you with that. And because they love you as a person, they will always be like, ‘oh, you should meet Bonnie. You know, she has this amazing studio.’ They will link it to you in some way. So I just think whether you want it to be, or not, it's, it's part of who you are and whether you are in work mode or leisure mode you should just be focusing on investing in relationships. Sometimes you meet someone new and they might become an awesome friend, but sometimes because your business is part of you, they can become a customer or a colleague. If you're just focused on attracting great people into your life it'll work well to have your business be a part of yourself.
That's so well said, Tara, because I think that that's something that we've discovered as well. These past four years at Nightjar, the best working relationships we have are the people who we also really gel with as humans and where you have the same values. When you do find that, they’re the projects that are the most fulfilling and the ones that have the most successful outcomes.
How do you stay clear and true to that vision when things get tough? Because inevitably they do, when you run your own business.
If you want to be a mission-based business, you can't really make decisions that compromise the mission. Otherwise you're not creating the same business that you thought you would.
And you won’t attract the people who were originally drawn to that mission, they’ll see the holes.
Yeah, exactly. We had someone really early on that was quite senior in the meat industry, tell us that the best way for Discovered to grow quickly would be for us to partner with McDonald's to get scale. I think it's easy to be like, ‘Well, that is the quickest way to reach the largest number of people’. But you're also being absorbed into a business model that fundamentally has so many issues you don't agree with around nutrition, quality, and sustainability. And they wouldn't really be pushing your message.
"We're making a market from zero. It's not like we've got a new kind of beer and we're just trying to be a better beer than all the other beers. We're actually trying to get people to drink beer. We're trying to get people to drink beer for the very first time."
What were some of the biggest challenges when you were starting out with Discovered?
The biggest challenge is still the same challenge and it's really just awareness. Lots of people we speak to are either unaware of venison as a meat, and they just don't understand what to expect. Or, they're completely unaware of the ecological context and the fact that there's over a million feral deer in Australia.
It was a surprise to us!
Exactly. There's starting to be a lot more articles in the news. Even during the most recent Melbourne lockdown, a Sambar deer, which is the type of deer we have, and is really only found in the high country of Victoria, was walking around the main streets of Melbourne because the streets were so dead. I think a lot of people were like, ‘What? There’s deer in Australia? Since when?!’
Once we start telling people the story and the mission, whether they're vegan or carnivore, they are interested. But the base level of awareness about eating wild game is quite low.
We're making a market from zero. It's not like we've got a new kind of beer and we're just trying to be a better beer than all the other beers. We're actually trying to get people to drink beer. We're trying to get people to drink beer for the very first time.
"If you think that buying regenerative farmed, or organic, or carbon neutral meat is too expensive, maybe you should eat less meat"
You’re eating wild Sambar venison exclusively as your red meat - have you got a secret recipe you're holding out on us that we haven't put on the website just yet?
I actually do! Using the venison shanks in a massaman curry. We’re hopefully going to do a photoshoot for that one soon.
We spoke earlier about everybody and anybody trying to label their products ‘sustainable’. What are some of the positive trends you're seeing in your space?
The fact that everyone is trying to label their products ‘sustainable’ speaks to a positive trend in itself, which is consumer demand and consumer awareness of the problem. I think we need to shift from consumerism in general to a more holistic understanding of what sustainability means. Part of that involves some really serious truth-telling about what living a sustainable life actually means. Because sometimes it will make more sense for people to just eat seasonally, rather than buy a hundred percent of their produce at the organic food store where everything is organic, but not everything is grown nearby because it's not in season. You might be buying papayas from Queensland in the middle of winter, just because they're organic, it doesn't mean it's the best choice. It’s hard, and it can feel intimidating and exhausting sometimes to consider all this stuff, but I think a lot of the solutions are intuitive. If you think that buying regenerative farmed, or organic, or carbon neutral meat is too expensive, maybe you should eat less meat.
This is a nice tie-in to the beginning of our conversation, where you said it should be a simple solution. ‘Intuitive’ is such a great word in this situation - if we’re being told to buy more things in order to affect the planet in a positive way, it just doesn’t make sense.
Totally - and it should be affordable. The cost of a seed packet versus what you get out of it is nothing. It’s about delving deeper, do a little bit more investigation into how you can impact things. The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else is going to fix it. You just need to be aware of the real cost of things - there is no such thing as ‘cheap food’.
What’s your one tip to individuals for reducing climate change?
I think most people have come up with the answers well before me, and it sounds so cliche, but reduce, reuse, recycle. It's a really, really simple mantra, but you're meant to do them in that order. We focus on consuming the same amount but recycling, and you’re really just buying more things you don’t need. The mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is so rich with solutions.
How does Australia fare compared to other markets, who do you look to as the beacon?
Every nation has its challenges, but I think Australia has to balance the fact that we're so resource rich with the responsibility of how we use those resources. We could be a world leader in sustainable energy, but we're not. And the question is, why is that? The problem in Australia is we have so much, life is so good here that it's really easy to be complacent. You go to the beach and it's clean. You go to a national park and it's clean. The problem only really comes to light when you have the worst bushfire season in Australia's history, or floods that wipe out people's homes. And then you're like, ‘oh, there's something going on here’.
"If you accept that it's going to be hard, the only real trick is to start, and to keep going."
And finally, what’s the best piece of advice that you were given on your startup journey?
If you want to do something hard, nine times out of ten, the path is going to be hard. So you just have to accept that as part of what you've signed up for. And if you accept that it's going to be hard, the only real trick is to start, and to keep going.
- END -