Reimagining Our Food Systems with Impossible Foods: The Secret is in their Roots

By Reagan Richmond, Cindy Wasser and Stephen Williams

In March, Bard MBA students spoke with Rebekah Moses, the sustainability and agriculture manager of Impossible Foods, to learn about the company’s unique approach to reducing the impact of livestock food products. Moses shared the story of the company’s founder, a long time academic, and other researchers who are taking solutions out of the lab and into the market.

“We make meat and dairy products from plants—not because it’s particularly easy to do, but because it is one way to mitigate a crisis involving animal agriculture,” says Moses.

Rebekah Moses

The crisis Moses is referring to is the land use and climate impacts associated with raising livestock for meat and dairy products. About 30% of the world’s land surface is used for animal agriculture, which is estimated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association to contribute 14.5% of human-induced GHG emissions.

Worldwide, animal protein consumption is rising. The company says humans currently use a landmass larger than North and South America, Australia and Europe combined to raise animals to eat, plus enough water every day to fill San Francisco Bay. These impacts drive Impossible Foods’ desire to change the way humans consume delicious protein, with the intent to take pressure off our ecosystem.

The innovative Silicon Valley company was founded in 2011 by Patrick O. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., a tenured biochemistry professor at Stanford University. While on sabbatical Brown thought, “What is the biggest environmental problem I can think of and how can we solve it?”

He decided to spend the rest of his career focused on the resource depletion that results from having 30 percent of our planet’s ice-less land mass dedicated to producing animal products. Brown chose a market-based mechanism to do that; he assumed that by providing a functional equivalent to meat that used fewer resources, his company would have a true opportunity to change diets and the food system.

With the driving question, “What makes meat taste like meat?” Brown’s team spent the next five years figuring out how to put that flavor into a plant-based ground beef that would taste, cook and look like beef, without beef’s drawbacks.

The Impossible Foods burger smells like beef, caramelizes like beef, and even appears to bleed like beef, thanks to the company’s dogged work reproducing beef’s chemical compounds. The company isolated all of the flavor molecules of burgers and realized that they could replicate many of the meat flavors using purely plant components.

The “magic ingredient” of the Impossible Foods meat is plant-based heme that mimics meat’s iron compound molecule, which carries oxygen and makes blood red. Unlike animal hemoglobin, Impossible Foods’ heme is derived from the roots of bean plants.

“In order to create this experience of eating a beef product…we had to find a way to deliver that irony, bloody taste of beef, and that change in color when beef cooks. Heme is driving that, and catalyzing a lot of the flavor that is happening.”

Rather than extract heme from raw plant sources, Impossible Foods creates the ingredient in the lab, applying insights from Belgian beer brewing processes. With this innovation, Impossible Foods avoids using energy and other resources that would have otherwise been applied towards agricultural production.

The magic ingredient has celebrity chefs excited about the new alternative. A number of well-known chefs, including David Chang of Momofuku fame, have put the Impossible Foods burger on their menus, with great success. The burger is now available in more than 10 restaurants and recently launched at their first high-end chain, Bare Burger, in New York.

In addition to having created a delicious alternative animal-based protein, the plant-based burger uses about 75 percent less water, and only 5 percent of the land mass used to raise beef. Altogether, the plant burger supply chain generates 77% less greenhouse gasses than the beef burger supply chain.

While the burger currently sells at upscale restaurants, Impossible Foods has a vision to scale their production and impact. The company recently opened its first large-scale facility, in Oakland, CA, designed to produce one million pounds of meat a month—about 4 million burgers!

The above post is based on the Bard MBA’s May 19th Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

Listen to this interview and others on the Bard MBA Sustainable Business Fridays podcast on an Apple or Android device.

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