The opening and keynote speakers at the 2019 North Coast Specialty Food and Beverage Industry Conference offered starkly different perspectives on the future of an industry both agreed was thriving but whose future remains an open question.

Rob Steele, managing director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and entrepreneur and the University of California Berkley professor William Rosenzweig agreed that the burgeoning market had huge potential for growth.

But Steele focused on the short term financial while Rosenzweig pled his case for an approach to food that minimizes environmental and societal impact.

The specialty food and beverage market — including companies like Healdsburg-based goat cheese purveyors CHEVOO and Hip Chick Farms organic chicken fingers — by some estimates could reach 22 percent of the national overall food market by 2022, Steele said, a trend driven by an increasingly educated consumer base interested in making healthier choices.

“Approximately two-thirds of all households have specialty foods in their cupboards,” Steele said at the Feb. 28 event, noting industry growth is driven by new trends every year like organic, whole, food, vegan, antioxidant and others.

He estimated that there was roughly $10 billion in equity capital invested in the industry but said larger corporate food companies had been slow to adapt to the growing market.

“The public companies…have been very challenged over the last couple of years,” Steele said, adding companies like Kraft Heinz had focused on cost instead of jumping into now familiar markets like organic foods.

Some corporations were beginning to adapt by investing in incubator funds however, with companies like Unilever and Nestle having done so several years ahead of the competition.

“An incubator fund is specifically designed to evaluate and invest as opposed to approaching the market on an ad hoc basis which is the way the corporates did it historically,” Steele said.

While the pace of initial public offerings in the specialty food space had slowed over the last two years, he expected multiple IPOs of familiar brands in 2019.

“Most of them are health and wellness [focused]” he said, adding the companies would be those that focus on the personalization and customization trends driving the industry in recent years.

If Steele’s focus was the next few years in the industry, the professor and entrepreneur Rosenzweig’s perspective was generational and global, challenging his audience to think “not necessarily about today’s market opportunity but perhaps what the world might look like in 20, 25 or 30 years.”

He asked attendees to broaden their perspective beyond interest rates and market opportunities and think about food as a larger system that went beyond a supplier and consumer relationship.

“We are the source of vitality, of nourishment, of energy of culture of connection,” Rosenzweig said of the food and beverage industry, adding the unique and intimate nature of the product offered a transformative vehicle that could even slow climate change.

“The food and agriculture sector is actually the greatest leverage point available to use in addressing climate change as a species, as a society, and as a global culture,” he said.

This transformation required producers and consumers, which he dubbed “eaters,” to identify the external costs and impacts of food, Rosenzweig said, an approach he said would include a “climiatarian” plant-forward diet that diminished the amount of animal-derived protein on the plates of future generations.

“The way industrial agriculture works, it’s contributing dramatically to climate impacts,” he said, noting that he did not envision meat going away so much as its sources becoming diversified, from labs to grazing lands, and ultimately being relegated to condiment or flavoring status.

He noted the sale of Oscar Meyer by Kraft Heinz foods and its subsequent 30 percent loss in stock valuation last month as proof that “big food is really on its heels right now,” and that an opportunity existed for specialty, environmentally conscious brands to gain market share.

He acknowledged that new solutions could be more expensive for companies and customers in the short term however. A representative of Clover Dairy said while they would like to make their packaging more environmentally friendly, short-term cost was a factor.

“Maybe you can use the package to tell the story,” Rosenzweig said. “This may appear more expensive but in the long term it’s going to be a lot less expensive for the cost to the environment.”

He closed by urging the audience to move away from a transactional mindset and recognize their role as businesses with an impact on the global food system.

With a smile, he said, “Rob from Bank of America is here to loan you the money.”