Making Veggie Burgers Doesn’t Help The Climate, Impossible CEO Says

Impossible Foods has no interest in making a veggie burger that tastes like meat, its founder and CEO said Friday.
Veggie burgers don’t serve the company’s goal, said Patrick Brown—to solve “the catastrophic impact of the use of animals as a food technology”—because veggie burgers cater to vegetarians, not carnivores.
“All the plant-based foods that have been produced in the past—if you look at what was in the heads of the people who produced them—their target consumer was someone who is looking for an alternative, i.e. people who want to have a more vegetarian diet or something like that,” Brown said in a Zoom webinar. “If that’s your consumer, you’re not going to have any effect on the climate issues because that’s a very small population.”
When Marketing Professor Sanjog Misra asked Brown about making a veggie burger that tastes like meat, Brown interrupted him:
“That was not at all what we were trying to do,” Brown said. “It was to make the most delicious meat on earth directly from plants. What we think of ourselves as doing is making meat—a better way of making meat.”
The Stanford University emeritus biochemistry professor took an 18-month sabbatical in 2009 to solve the most important problem he could think of, which he determined was the impact of animal agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, water consumption and land use.
“If you could vaporize that industry today, which I would do in a heartbeat,” he said, “and let the biomass on that land recover, it would outpace fossil-fuel emissions. It would literally begin to reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and you can do the math on that. We desperately need that.”
But Brown doesn’t expect carnivores to eat plant-based meat to mitigate climate change.
“It had been framed as we’ve got to get people to change their diets, or we have to compel that business to stop doing it and so forth, and that’s just like crazy. That is never going to work,” he said at the webinar hosted by the University of Chicago’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.
“People are very wedded to the foods that they prefer. The pleasure that they get from eating the foods that they love is a huge part of the pleasure of life. It’s unreasonable to think you can ask them to give that up. And that defined the problem very crisply for me, which is that it’s a technology problem.”
Animal agricultural is a $1.5 trillion prehistoric technology, Brown said, that’s vastly inefficient and hasn’t significantly improved in millennia. So it’s a “sitting duck” for disruption.
He assembled a team of 80 research scientists to solve the technology problem, to make a plant-based meat that’s more affordable, more nutritious and more delicious than animal meat.
Plants already offer the advantage of nutrition and affordability, he added, so the challenge—what he called “the most important scientific question”—has been deliciousness.
“We’re not going to solve this problem by mushing a bunch of peas and carrots together and forming it into a patty,” he said. “We have to deliver for a committed meat eater, who is not looking for an alternative, they’re just looking for the most delicious, healthy, affordable meat they can buy given their taste.”
Brown doubts anyone can convince consumers to compromise what they want. The producer has to give them what they want. So the Impossible goal has been “to make the most delicious meat on earth directly from plants.”
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Like Patrick Brown, I am an alumnus of the University of Chicago. I also teach there.

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