Impossible Foods, the company behind the meatless ‘bleeding’ burger and countless other meat substitutes, is poised to launch in the UK. We grill its founder, Patrick Brown
Patrick Brown’s PR rep is frantic. Thousands of tech whizzes are queueing in Lisbon to hear him speak. A TV crew trails his every step. But her boss is hungry. And can she find as much as a vegan sandwich in the gargantuan conference facility? Not a sausage.
In truth, what Brown, an award-winning Stanford scientist turned eco-warrior businessman, would really like to eat is something from his own lab. A chicken-less chicken nugget, perhaps. Or a meat-free burger, maybe.
Ever since Brown hung up his professorial robes to set up California-based brand Impossible Foods, he’s been on a mission. Eating better is part of it: the company’s flagship burger contains heaps of protein and stacks of vitamins, but zilch cholesterol, trans fats or animal hormones.
But his main passion is to save the planet. His basic tactic is simple: to transform where we get our protein. So, ditch eating millions of cows (“an ungainly creature”), chickens, pigs and the like. And start eating plant-based alternatives instead.
The T-shirt-wearing tycoon reels off the strategy’s benefits: “It uses 25 times less land than a cow does to produce meat. Plus, there’s an eighth less water, and less than 10 per cent of the fertiliser use.”
Should the entire livestock industry somehow disappear overnight, we would wake to find 45 per cent of all agricultural land freed up. That’s more space for carbon-sucking trees, grasslands, wetlands, whatever. (Plus, less planet-heating methane: cows fart; plants don’t.)
Not only would swapping animals for plants dramatically reduce current emissions, 14.5 per cent of which currently derive from livestock, but it would also help resolve the gnarly problem of historic emissions already accumulated in the atmosphere. How so? Photosynthesis. Forget industrial-sized carbon-capture plants (“insanely unscalable”) or fancy geoengineering. The best way to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, says Brown, is for plants to convert it into chemical energy.
“Photosynthesis is the most optimised negative emissions technology on Earth,” he states. “The limiting factor is that you need land, and 45 per cent of Earth’s land area is just waiting for you if you can kick the cows off.” (As Impossible’s marketing department puts it: ‘Think of it as burning the Amazon in reverse’.)
So, plant-based meat is healthier and better for the climate, but are people really ready to ditch their barbecue steak for a soya-based patty? Also, isn’t pretending that a nugget comes from a chicken when it doesn’t all a bit suspect?
Apparently, many people think not. More than 582,000 people from 209 countries and territories officially took part in Veganuary – the 31-day ‘go vegan’ campaign – last year and this year is set to be even bigger.
From its base in North America, Impossible Foods has already expanded into Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, with plans also afoot to add the UK to its list soon. Brown’s business is currently speculated to be worth as much as $7bn (£5.2bn).
Nor is Impossible Foods the only game in town. Beyond Meat, Amy’s Kitchen, Boca Foods and The Vegetarian Butcher are just some of the other meatless brands snapping at its heels.
What is it in meat that makes it taste like meat? The answer, it transpires, is ‘heme’
But key to persuading the sceptics is texture and taste. Mimicking the uniqueness of meat is no easy task. The succulent chewiness of meat and its browning ‘sizzliness’ when cooked, for instance, are both tough to replicate.
Yet plant-based brands are edging closer by the day. Brown allows himself a small boast. Testers of Impossible Foods’ new soy-based ‘chicken’ nugget consistently identified his nugget as the tastiest. But the consensus was also that it “tastes more like chicken”.
The key lies in a question that he put to the 80-or-so scientists in his initial team. ‘What is it in meat’, Brown asked them, ‘that makes it taste like meat?’ The answer, it transpires, is ‘heme’, a ring-shaped organic compound present in all animals (in both the liver and in bone marrow).
Any half-decent scientist could have worked it out, Brown says, only no one had thought to ask: “To me, it’s a statement about the food industry’s lack of curiosity. Innovation for food companies is coming up with a new flavour of Cheerios.”
Impossible Foods’ real breakthrough was to subsequently identify the same protein in soya (known as soy leghemoglobin), which the company extracts from the plant’s DNA and then inserts into genetically engineered yeast.
Brown insists that the process has been verified by top food-safety experts, but this dabbling with plant genetics makes some nervous. Indeed, last year, Impossible Foods found itself the subject of a lawsuit on safety grounds (note: the company won).
For all his disruptive idealism, Impossible Foods’ founder is also an arch realist. If consumers were willing to switch to a diet of tofu and lentils, then that would be fine. But, “habituated” as we are to eating meat, that’s not going to happen, he says.
That doesn’t mean that we have to satisfy ourselves with a second-best alternative, insists Brown, who continues to see himself as a scientist rather than a businessperson. In fact, he predicts that plant-based meats will get tastier and tastier. Why? Because an animal “isn’t trying to make itself delicious. But we are.”
Main image: Kelsey McClellan