Veggie burgers used to be a peace offering for vegans at backyard barbecues. But then companies like Impossible Foods debuted meat alternatives that even carnivores gobbled up with enthusiasm, launching a global race to make plant-based products that taste and chew and bleed like the real thing.
In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, Pat Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, spoke about his company’s pledge to eliminate animal agriculture in the next 15 years — “put it on your calendar, because Impossible Foods is going to do it.”
Although alt-meat still only accounts for about 1 percent of the total meat market, Brown said, “food is the single biggest lever we can use to drastically change the trajectory of climate change.” He spoke about how to incentivize ranchers and farmers to capture greenhouse gases, how traditional animal agriculture threatens biodiversity, when Impossible Foods will likely have steaks and chops on the market and why he doesn’t like the term “plant-based meat.”
“There’s a long historical legacy of products that no meat-eater would touch with a 10-foot pole,” Brown said by video conference from California. “When I founded the company [10 years ago this week], my premise was we can’t rely on the political landscape changing, so irrespective of how you feel about climate change, animal welfare and the public health impact of animals in the food system, we wanted to make products that consumers will buy because they’re more delicious, more nutritious and, eventually, more affordable than the ones made from animals.”
Here is a lightly edited transcript of the rest of the interview.
There’s a lot of talk in Washington about how agriculture can be part of the solution for climate change. What should that system look like?
There’s a simple way to have a very big impact, which is just to pay a price for carbon capture, just like we pay teachers to teach our kids — it’s a public service. Government pays for a lot of public services. Suppose you were to offer farmers and ranchers payment for carbon capture on their land, and maybe pay a premium for biodiversity recovery. You’re not telling them to do it. You’re just saying this would help solve a lot of problems. If you were to say, “You know what, we’re going to create a budget that’s, say, $40 billion.” That’s not chump change but it’s a rounding error relative to the infrastructure bill or how much we pay for police and prisons and all that stuff in the federal budget.
It would be more lucrative for most of these farmers and ranchers to get paid to manage the land for carbon capture than chasing cows around. We’d be giving farmers and ranchers another potential source of income and effectively adding stability to rural economies.
You talk a lot about the threats of climate change, but also of loss of biodiversity. Can you unpack that connection between animal agriculture and biodiversity?
We are in the very late stages of an absolute catastrophic collapse of global biodiversity. The total number of living wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish on Earth today is less than a third of what it was 50 years ago. And it’s almost entirely due to our use of animals as a food technology. The overwhelming driver of the collapse of terrestrial species is habitat destruction and degradation. More than 80 percent of the land footprint of humanity is land used for animal agriculture. Every city on Earth sits on less than 1 percent of the planet’s land. The land footprint of animal agriculture, when you count feed crops, permanent pastures and temporary grazing on pasture is 45 percent of Earth’s land area. And you can see that the demand for meat and dairy foods is not going down, it’s going up faster than population growth. Therefore, the only way you can expand production is by deforestation, and 95 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon is clearing of land for animal agriculture.
It’s going to be a terrible thing for humanity, not just because we love nature and the creatures that are being wiped out. It’s because they’re absolutely essential to the function of ecosystems that keep our planet viable. Wild animals that live in diverse ecosystems are responsible for pollination, for turnover of dead biomass, for spreading seeds, or all these sorts of things that you don’t notice the importance of until you take it away.
For carbon capture people talk about, “Oh, we should plant trees, that will solve the problem.” The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough shovels and seeds. The problem is that there’s not enough land.
Do you think of Tesla and the rise of electric vehicles as a friend or foe to your efforts? If 40 percent of corn all of a sudden has nowhere to go because there’s no call for ethanol, would growers rethink what they’re growing? Would it change the incentive to rethink our animal agriculture system?
Absolutely. If no one’s buying your end product, you stop doing it. Growing corn is not a hobby. If no one is buying that corn to feed their cows and pigs and chickens, or to put in their car, then it’s not going to happen.
I consider Tesla an ally, as kindred spirits on a mission to reduce the climate impact of the transportation system. But they are doing something that’s much less impactful, not even a fraction of a percent as impactful as what we’re trying to accomplish.
When you first launched, the meat industry cast doubt about your use of genetically modified soy and the ingredient called heme, made by fermenting genetically engineered yeast. Is there less fearmongering now?
The meat industry was coming after us before we had a product on the market. I’m not kidding. They’ve tried a number of disinformation strategies, the go-to move of doomed industries. There were attempts to force us to use disparaging terms on our labels that in general didn’t succeed legislatively — people who are on the very far-right regarded that as interfering with the free market and people who are defenders of the First Amendment regarded it as a violation of freedom of speech. So, in general, those have not succeeded, but the efforts are still ongoing.
Do you think these nomenclature and labeling battles will pop back up as meat grown from animal cells in a lab, a new category called “cultivated meat,” reaches the market?
Cultivated meat is complete vaporware. Don’t hold your breath. The fact is that the economics of animal cell cultures as a food production system in no conceivable way can compete with the current industry. If you could use cultured cells to make any reasonable replica of an animal tissue, which would you do: Sell it for $5 a pound as meat, or sell it for $1 million a pound to treat people with muscle-wasting diseases?
It’s actually hard to make a reasonable facsimile of an animal tissue from cultured cells. Theoretically it’s doable, and there’s no question that it will be done at some point. But it will never be done with anything remotely like the economics you need for food.
The analogous fallacy would be if 200 years ago, when people came up with mechanized transportation that eventually replaced the horse, if instead of basically saying, “Well, we’ll just figure out how to make this thing move in the way that is most efficient and scalable,” they said, “No, we’re going to take horse muscle cells and grow them in culture and hook them up to gears and pulleys. And that’s the power system of the future.” You’ve totally missed the point and you’re stuck with the limitations of the animal. We can make a product that’s vastly better nutritionally and we can make it more delicious than the animal. We’re not stuck with making cows and pigs and chickens. We control the knobs.
To date Impossible products have been iterations of ground meat. How close are you to making a steak or other fillet-like cut? Can you give us a ballpark?
It’s something we’re working on. I’m not trying to be opaque here. I’ve seen and tasted some prototypes that would amaze you. But we’re not going to launch a product on the market until we feel like it’s something that a hardcore meat lover would say, “This is awesome, I would definitely choose this.” And we’re on a very good trajectory to that. My guess is it will be well under two years until we have an amazing product or products on the market. But that’s not a promise, that’s an honest guess.