“Go a whole month buying nothing except food”
Top tip from the founder and editor-in-chief of Green Queen Media
Sonalie Figueiras credits Google Search, that now-ubiquitous web search engine launched just before the turn of the millennium, with changing her life.
It transformed her from a corporate executive suffering in pain from an undiagnosed illness into an entrepreneur, launching Green Queen Media, Asia’s first - and possibly only - news site specialising on food and climate change issues, with a particular focus on alternative proteins.
So of course, I had to interview her. Kindred spirits and all that.
Green Queen started out as a blog she set up but it has since grown to include a team of half a dozen around the world, with about half a million monthly unique visitors to the news site and over 30,000 subscribers to the newsletter.
Despite not having her own personal Twitter or Instagram account, Sonalie has made a name for herself as an influential voice on issues around how to decarbonise food and materials. She’s also the co-founder of sustainable packaging and plastic reduction marketplace Source Green.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Also, full disclosure - Sonalie very kindly republished last week’s issue of Thin Ink on Green Queen but this interview was arranged before that!
Q: Green Queen is fairly unique because there aren’t many others - if at all - doing what you’re doing in this space. A lot of news sites on food, climate and alternative proteins tend to be very much Western focused.
A: I'm half French and half Indian and I grew up in Hong Kong. When I started to understand the link between climate change and the food system, I felt food wasn't getting the same coverage, and it still doesn't when it comes to climate solutions.
I also happened to start going to all these food shows and thought alternative proteins seem like a new way to look at the problem. And I felt very, very strongly that it was absolutely key to have an Asian perspective and an Asian lens for which to tell the stories.
Q: Let's start from the beginning - the Green Queen origin story. A lot of people know about it, but I'm not sure my readers do. For their sake, could you recount how you started Green Queen in 2011?
A: So I originally was not in the field of media. I came from the world of finance and management consulting and my expertise was around due diligence and research.
I feel like my life really changed when Google Search came along because ever since I was pre-teen, I had been battling quite a few chronic health issues, mostly affecting women, and going to see doctors who just ignored me, my symptoms and my pain. I suffered through a lot of what I like to call medical misogyny, a term I've been hoping to have more people start using given what a problem it is.
My parents come from a generation where a typical white male English doctor was like a god, and you didn't question their judgement. I went to university in the US, and I also saw doctors there and nothing was solved.
Eventually, this Google tool comes along and suddenly you can kind of take things into your own hands. At university I did two different majors with lots of research, so I started to do my own health research. Long story short, I ended up figuring out that I had hormonal disorders and changing what I was eating could potentially alleviate some of the symptoms.
So I changed what I ate and I felt better. My health journey continued, but it really changed how I view the world. Why has no one said to me that food has such an important role to play in health? The more I got into it, the more it became about, “OK, it's not only the food, it's what food and where did it come from and how it was grown.” That's when I first really got into agriculture, food systems, soil health and water and air quality.
Eventually ended up understanding how the way we grow our food is problematic, that it comes from a place of exploitation and extraction, like the child labour in chocolate production, the exploitation of farmers, how we treat animals and the effect that has on us spiritually and psychologically. So there was this connection between ethics, health, neoliberal capitalism and this post-colonial legacy of imperialism.
We’re getting sicker and sicker and we're exporting that sickness across the world in the same way that we export everything from the global north to the global south.
So I changed my life, from what I ate to how I bought things and that is kind of how Green Queen eventually happened and in the manifestation that it is today. Over the last six, seven years, I've made an active choice to really be the media of record in Asia for food and climate but also to broaden the audience to tell the global story because I think it is important to have both. I’ve called Green Queen an impact media for maybe eight years now. I actively made that choice to put my agenda on the table, which is to create behavioural and societal change.
Q: It’s actually refreshing to hear you say that about impact and behavioural change because a lot of legacy media shy away from this and say they have to be neutral. But you’re upfront about it.
A: Absolutely. I believe it is my duty to be honest about my bias. And I do believe that mainstream media is actually biased, they're just not honest about it. I'm very happy to tell you that I'm biased, that I want you to eat less meat, and I want you to think about the climate. I'm not going to yell at you, I'm not going to shame you, and I'm not going to attack your culture and your identity. But I am gonna give you all this information and hope you think about it.
Q: To go back to you changing the diet, can you tell us what you did?
A: It’s a typical story. I cut out all processed food and changed my animal proteins to be sustainably sourced. I tried raw vegan for six months and I quite liked it but I was not very popular in my household. Cutting out dairy was a really big one. That's also where I started looking at things like organic agriculture, which is now not cool enough because it's not regenerative. It's so funny to look back.
I eat whole grains and mostly plants. Eating more at home. Little by little, more and more animal foods went out. Giving up seafood was another big one. The Guardian did some reporting about slavery and shrimps. That woke me up.
Q: Despite your vegan diet, the one thing your Green Queen articles or LinkedIn posts aren’t is being preachy.
A: That really makes me happy because the last thing in the world I want to do is be preachy. I've never felt like the way to get people involved is to try and convert them. I've always felt it made a lot more sense to just welcome and share information, stories, and inspiration. It's possible that there is a way to (be preachy) as well, but I’m not comfortable doing it that way. I don't feel that I have all the answers and even my own story changed little by little.
I have this essay I’ve been writing for years and I've never finished. It’s about the privilege of a single identity and I've never had that because I've always been a half French-Italian, half Punjabi-Indian who grew up in Hong Kong. When I went to a French school, I was the only brown person.
So I've never felt like I could hang my hat on this one identity or language. Being in Hong Kong where I'm kind of an expat but not really. I'm actually an immigrant although nobody calls me that. So I've always felt that the one answer method doesn't work for me and that informs a lot of my work.
Q: Do you feel you were ahead of the curve? And it would be interesting to hear some of your reflections on whether things have changed and how.
A: Looking back I can definitely say I was ahead of my time and was having conversations that felt very, very forward thinking and I was very, very alone, especially in Asia. To this day, even some people in my family don’t really understand what I'm doing.
When I started Green Queen, the idea that I was leaving a career in finance to do something in the green space… I felt like people thought of me as making a mistake. It was kind of like, “So you don't like money?” I remember going to a recruiter and they said I should take Green Queen out of my CV. So I definitely didn't have a lot of confidence around what I was doing, but I had a lot of conviction. I know I'm right intellectually. So it was very lonely.
Obviously we're in a completely different landscape now. It all changed a few years ago. We were one of the first in Asia to write about Beyond Meat and suddenly, what I did went from being probably thought of as a failure in a typical Asian sense to a winner, something opposite! Everyone wanted me at their event.
Climate is now a big topic. Do I think it’s at the top of our minds as it should be? No, but it's like leaps and bounds ahead of where it was even five years ago. Most newsrooms have climate reporters. Young people are super up-to-date on climate.
For me, there's a big difference between Millennials and Gen Z on climate. I feel like every Gen Z I've ever met across the world is clued up on the fact that there's a climate crisis, whereas I feel like Millennials opt in or opt out and as they get older, they tend to opt out more. They're much more into sustainability, and Gen Z is much more into climate.
Q: That’s really interesting. What about this thinking or idea that Asia is lagging behind innovations in food and agricultural space - has that changed?
A: That’s a difficult question. It’s the right question to ask though. Asia has plenty of innovation, and plenty of alternative protein companies, but just as a whole is not in the same position as the United States, which kind of invented the startup playbook. So once again, we're living within a Global North construct.
But if you look harder, they're not called startups and they don't describe themselves as innovative, but there are plenty of ideas and hope and initiatives. It's just they're not marketed as such. So I struggle to answer this question, but if I were to look at funding amounts and number of companies and how many products there are on the shelves, Asia is not in the same place as the United States.
But my gut and my understanding is that the bulk of the change around protein production will actually happen here because we have 60% of the world's population, hundreds of millions of people being lifted into the middle classes and wanting more animal protein, and a land crunch. All the polling also shows that Asian consumers tend to be more open to technologies like precision fermentation or cellular agriculture.
I wrote a piece for Louisa (at AgFunder) about the Happy Cow Myth, that basically Asians don't grow up with it. We don't have huge sprawling lands with black and white spotted cows around us. We don't have the same imagery that informs our views about foods the same way (as the West). There's still an element across the continent or the regions that food is still very much linked to survival.
Q: You’re also really, really big on finding alternatives to plastics, right? Tell us a bit more about that.
A: Absolutely. A wonderful human called Luc, and I co-founded a social impact climate startup called Source Green. We do a number of things including consulting around removing plastic from your packaging supply chain, and helping you find completely plastic-free solutions.
We've also developed this plastic audit tool that calculates the cost of plastic waste from extraction all the way to end of life. Most Life Cycle Analysis focuses too much on carbon, which is not a good indicator of the damage that plastic does to us and to our environment.
Most people don't realise this but the UN actually called the plastic waste crisis as on par with the climate crisis. Plastic is such a dangerous and misunderstood problem. Most people have managed to inure themselves to plastic waste. Sure, we stop using plastic straws and some of us bring a reusable cup, but overall we haven't reduced our dependency on plastic packaging.
But what most people don't realise is how toxic it is. And in the same way that the connection between food systems and climate is still completely off, the connection between plastic and oil is off too. Most people do not think of plastic as solid oil.
So the same person who will buy an EV will still have plastic all over their lives. The same person who is into health and wellness and buying organic food will be wearing plastic. It's nobody's fault. Plastic is just such a cheap, ubiquitous, useful material, but we have forgotten where it comes from.
It is Big oil’s Plan B. When they move away from energy, they are going to turn to plastics. We are on track for quadrupling or quintupling our plastic production and I cannot tell you the damage that it has done to the world.
And honestly, the whole recycling thing? We all talk about recycled plastic as if we're all recycling all the time. The latest Greenpeace report in the U.S. said under 5% is recycled and yet we consume plastic as if we are recycling!
Q: What advice do you have for people who care and want to change?
A: Well, on a very personal, day-to-day level, my first advice to people is always the same - go a whole month buying nothing except food. Just stop consuming. Get out of the addictive, pervasive and obsessive cycle of consumption. Of course you need medication and essential things. It’s just that most people are in a vicious cycle of capitalist consumption and we don’t realise how addicted we are to it.
Two, spend more time in nature. There is nothing bad that can happen from doing that. No one ever regrets appreciating the natural world more to develop a love for it and want to preserve it.
Three, do something once a week or once a day around reducing your part in livestock agriculture.
Three Good Reads
EU firms accused of ‘abhorrent’ export of banned pesticides to Brazil - The Guardian
This investigation by Lighthouse Reports and Repórter Brasil, part of our pesticide series, found that substances banned in the EU because of their potential risks to human health are being exported and used on farms in Brazil supplying Nestlé.
These are products made by some of the world’s biggest and most profitable chemical companies such as the Swiss-based Syngenta and the German multinationals BASF and Bayer.
The Njahi Wars: Behind Kenya's Controversial Black Bean - Serious Eats
Carey Baraka’s fascinating piece traces how this indigenous bean, which was once a staple, particularly for the Gikuyu people, disappeared following colonisation by the British who imposed their agriculture on Kenyans.
Thanks Michael for forwarding the article to me!
Human-induced climate change increased drought severity in Horn of Africa - World Weather Attribution
You’ve probably seen news headlines on this but here is the original scientific report which said, “Climate change has made events like the current drought much stronger and more likely; a conservative estimate is that such droughts have become about 100 times more likely.”
Background - the Horn of Africa is undergoing its worst drought in at least 40 years and tens of millions of people are in urgent need of food assistance.
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Really enjoyed this interview. Thanks!