What’s the world’s most important scientific problem?
To Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O. Brown, it’s decoding the chemistry behind what makes meat delicious, and then replicating those flavors in sustainable plant-based food products that outcompete the meat industry.
Solving this problem isn’t only about boosting profits for Impossible Foods, which is already valued at an estimated $4 billion. Brown said it’s about protecting the world against two of the “biggest environmental threats that humanity has ever faced”: rapidly progressing climate change and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
“By far, the biggest factor in both [of those problems] is the use of animals as a food technology, globally. It’s by far the most destructive technology in human history,” Brown said at Web Summit 2020, adding that the animal food-product industry is more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels.
So far, international efforts to curb climate change have been only marginally effective. The U.N. Environment Programme reported that even if the signatories of the Paris Agreement meet their stated goals, global temperatures are still projected to rise throughout this century, “bringing even wider-ranging and more destructive climate impacts.”
On the national level, getting governments to set and stick to climate policies is obviously difficult. And on the individual level, it might be even harder to get people to change their behavior in the name of environmentalism; think how difficult it’d be to influence people to stop flying, use less electricity or switch to an electric vehicle. Now imagine asking your average American restaurant patron to give up meat forever.
That’s why Impossible Foods’ strategy is to appeal primarily to consumers’ taste buds, not their inner environmentalist. The company is aiming to make its meat alternatives more delicious, healthier, and cheaper than the real thing.
“By , I think our mainstream product will actually, if we do a side-by-side comparison with nothing by meat eaters, will be preferred by a majority of them,” Brown said.
The ultimate goal is to phase out the meat industry.
“Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035,” Brown said. “We’re dead serious about it. We totally believe it’s doable.”
That may seem like a quixotic goal. After all, meat alternative companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have been around for about a decade. And while both have been undeniably successful, meat consumption in North America hasn’t changed much in recent years (although people are eating slightly less beef).
Still, mainstream meat-alternative options — like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, added to menus in 2019 — are a relatively new phenomenon to most consumers. And as people become increasingly familiar with these products, and as meat-alternative companies scale up to make plant-based products cheaper than meat, preferences could start to tilt.
One industry that’s betting on that happening: big meat. In 2019, leading meat companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and Perdue all began rolling out their own alternative meat products.
“There is a growing demand out there,” John Pauley, the chief commercial officer for Smithfield, told The New York Times. “We’d be foolish not to pay attention.”
Brown might advise these companies to invest even more heavily in plant-based foods.
“It’s game over for the incumbent industry, they just don’t realize it yet,” he said.
If Brown’s right, phasing out the meat industry could measurably reduce climate change, considering livestock currently contribute about 14.5 percent of global emissions.
“By replacing animals as our technology for making meat, we can turn back the clock on global warming and restore native ecosystems,” Impossible Foods wrote in a blog post. “The recovery of biomass on land currently devoted to livestock would remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to offset 20 years of emissions at current levels, and once livestock methane emissions stop, rapid decay of atmospheric methane would effectively negate another 10 years of total GHG emissions at current rate.”
Still, even if alternative-meat companies destroy the beef industry by 2035, that wouldn’t solve the problem of climate change. It’s also worth mentioning that some methods of raising livestock and producing meat are worse than others.
A 2020 study published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems notes that the “carbon footprint of meat alternatives is likely lower than the majority of beef consumed” in the U.S., but that the:
“…ecological impacts of human diets are not as simple as plant vs. meat discussions might suggest. The global food system is far too diverse and contingent on unique environmental and socioeconomic circumstances to allow for one-size-fits-all policy recommendations.”
The future of plant-based foods
For Impossible Foods, the main goal has always been to keep tweaking their plant-based meat alternatives until they taste better than the real thing. So, assuming the company succeeds and displaces the meat industry, what’s next?
Big Think asked Brown whether Impossible Foods would ever consider developing entirely new forms of plant-based foods, instead of products that mimic familiar meat flavors.
“Oh absolutely, and this is something internally, and in our [research and development] team, we love to think about,” Brown said. “Once we’ve completely replaced animals as a food technology, then the gloves come off. There’s all sorts of novel meat flavors and textures we could create and we’re super eager to do it.”
Traci Des Jardins, a chef and restaurateur in the San Francisco area who also participated in the 2020 Web Summit presentation, said creating new types of plant-based “meats” might not be as strange as it sounds.
After all, we already have strange foods that have “become their own thing” simply because we give names to them. Case in point: the hot dog.
“I can imagine products that we could create at Impossible that would be amazing things that could become as iconic as the hot dog,” Jardins said. “Because a hot dog really means nothing. It’s just a name that’s been attributed to this thing that goes in this bun. And so, I think there are many, many possibilities, and that we could create all kinds of delicious things that don’t have the environmental impact that animal-produced meats have.”
This article was originally published on Big Think in December 2020. It was updated in March 2022.