‘Let’s get rid of friggin’ cows’ says creator of plant-based ‘bleeding burger’
Patrick Brown is on a mission: to eradicate the meat and fish industries by 2035. The CEO of Impossible Foods, a California-based company that makes genetically engineered plant-based meat, is deadly serious. No more commercial livestock farming or fishing. No more steak, fish and chips or roast dinners, at least not as you know them.
In their place, his company’s scientists and food technicians will create plant-based substitutes for every animal product used today in every region of the world, he promises.
“I want to put the animal agriculture industry out of business. It’s that simple. The goal is not because I have any ill will toward the people who work in that industry, but because it is the most destructive industry on Earth,” Brown says.
The former Stanford University biochemistry professor started Impossible Foods in 2011 after a sabbatical researching intensive farming. The company has since attracted nearly $1.3bn (GBP960m) in investment. Jay Z, Katy Perry, Serena Williams and Trevor Noah all took part in the most recent $500m fundraising round in March last year, alongside leading financial institutions. The Silicon Valley firm’s flagship Impossible Burger is on sale at thousands of restaurants in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore, including around 7,000 Burger King chains, and the company has branched out into supermarkets during the pandemic.
The products are not cheap – a 5lb (2.25kg) family pack of Impossible Burger ground beef in the US costs about $65 (GBP48) – but the company aims to lower cost as it grows and announced a 15% cut in wholesale prices this week. Impossible Pork and Impossible Sausage were added to its portfolio of GMO plant-based meat substitutes in 2020, part of the company’s “worst first” approach that targets the most environmentally damaging livestock consumed by humans. Milk and fish equivalents are in development in its laboratories.
“To the outside world, Impossible Foods is a food company – but at its heart [it] is an audacious yet realistic strategy to turn back the clock on climate change and stop the global collapse of biodiversity,” Brown wrote in the company’s 2020 impact report. As part of his vision of the future, the 45% of the land surface of the Earth reserved for animal agriculture would be returned to nature. Deforestation, antibiotic resistance and overfishing could be overcome and reversed in some cases, Brown insists.
Although attitudes are changing to plant-based diets and growing numbers of Americans are eating less meat, Brown still has a mountain to climb to make his vision a reality. A January 2020 YouGov survey found more than two-thirds of US adults identify as meat eaters, while beef burgers were rated more highly than plant-based equivalents for taste.
But there’s good reason to see the need for change. Millions of hectares of ecosystems are projected to disappear by the middle of the century to meet future demand for agriculture, animal feed and bioenergy. A 2018 study of life on Earth found that farmed poultry makes up around 70% of the birds on the planet. More than half of mammals are livestock, mainly cattle and pigs, and just 4% are wild animals.
“The entire cause of the catastrophic collapse of wildlife populations, which are less than a third of what they were 50 years ago, globally, is the use of animals as a food technology,” Brown claims, ahead of his talk at Web Summit, a technology conference hosted virtually from Lisbon, during which he told the tech industry it was “game over” for traditional animal agriculture.
“Cows outweigh every remaining wild vertebrate on land by more than a factor of 10. Just the cows. We’ve literally totally replaced biodiversity with cows. Let’s get rid of friggin’ cows and let nature recover,” he says.
Brown’s vocabulary is infused with the lexicon of Silicon Valley. Livestock are a “prehistoric food production technology”. Meat production from animal cadavers is “not part of the value proposition” for consumers. He speaks with his body, fidgeting with the impatience of someone who is certain they are right.
Did Brown ever eat meat? Yes, until his early 20s, but he stopped when he realised he was only doing it for pleasure. Does he really mean all meat and fish could be substituted? What about chorizo? “No problemo.” And what happens to livestock farmers? “They’re not going to be in that business any more. But there’s a lot of very reasonable solutions.”
But the rise of Impossible Foods, which claims to have “cracked meat’s molecular code” and aims to to decouple “meat” from animals, has not been without controversy. Unlike the market leader Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods uses genetically modified ingredients to replicate the texture, taste and sensations of eating meat. Soy leghemoglobin – known as heme – produced by genetically modified yeast, is the key to replicating the “meaty” taste. The Impossible Burger even “bleeds” as it is cooked.
Some scientists say such GMO innovations can save humanity, but the UK Food Standards Agency has not licensed the ingredient for sale in the UK and requires a pre-market safety assessment. Impossible Foods says it plans to meet and exceed food-safety regulations in all parts of the world, including the UK. In the US, the company has faced criticism from a number of organisations, including Friends of the Earth and the US Center for Food Safety, over concerns that the process to produce heme has not been properly tested and that the products are “overprocessed”.
Joe Rogan, the comedian and podcast host, savaged the Impossible Burger on his show, citing unproven claims about ingredients in the products. The US Food and Drug Administration has twice investigated soy leghemoglobin and found no questions about its safety.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Brown. “Our foods are no more processed than the foods that people eat every day. Everything you eat, the little loaf of bread that maybe you baked in your own oven is processed in pretty much the exact same way as our food.
“Processed food is a pejorative term because people are used to applying it to foods that are basically sugar and salt and garbage. OK. But that image does not apply to our project progress with our food, which is very, very thoughtfully put together from healthy ingredients.”
In the UK, the debate about next generation foods is set to intensify amid calls by the chief scientist for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for a new public discussion on biotechnology. By contrast, this interview takes place days after the first ever regulatory approval of cultured meat – no-kill, laboratory grown “chicken bites” – in Singapore by US company Eat Just. Brown, however, doesn’t see them as a rival to plant-based meat substitutes.
“It is never going to be a thing. It misses the real opportunity when you’re thinking about replacing animals in the food system,” he says.
“As we learn what consumers prefer in terms of flavours and textures, we can dial those up and down. You can’t do that when you’re stuck with whatever an animal cell can do.”