Widgets Magazine

The future of food: Impossible Foods’ meat alternatives

Courtesy of Impossible Foods, Inc.

Shortly after 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 29, a massive crowd of students, faculty and visitors had already formed outside NVIDIA Auditorium to hear from Pat Brown, CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods. This innovative company is striving to revolutionize the food system by creating a replacement meat product aimed not at vegetarian converts, but at people who love meat and aren’t about to give up the pleasure of eating it. (Brown’s talk at Stanford was part of the Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DJF) Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership Series.)

Pat Brown wore a tie-dyed “IMPOSSIBLE” t-shirt as he sat in front of the crowd, with listeners squeezing into the aisles and lining up in the back of the room. Impossible Foods has definitely gained some rockstar value since its founding in 2011. In August of this year, Impossible Foods announced $75 million in funding, including from bigwigs like Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures.

What sets Impossible Foods apart from other fake meat companies is its target audience — IF makes a product “intended to satisfy meat-lovers,” as Brown puts it; a product that “delivers the full sensory experience that burger-lovers want,” but with a fraction of the environmental footprint. “Using animals as a technology is fundamentally limited,” Brown said, not to mention destructive.

Brown stressed the fact that most people — in our society at least — don’t enjoy meat because it’s made from dead animals, but in spite of the fact that it comes from animals. However, meat-lovers are perhaps skeptical of the quality of meat substitutes, and some may also be equally skeptical of the cultural connotations that come with vegetarianism. Brown postures that if an equally delicious — even indistinguishable — and economically competitive protein could be created from plants, folks would be inclined to choose this non-dead-animal option. Essentially, he wants to outcompete animal products from the market.

Brown and the Impossible Foods team have approached the food system as a fundamental scientific problem; they are addressing the waste, health risks and inefficiency of the livestock industry from the angle of supply and demand. According to a report from the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, twenty-six percent of our global land area is currently occupied by livestock grazing — on top of that, one third of our arable is used for feed production. Brown commented that: “We ought to be able to produce all the ingredients used in meat, fish and dairy products using two percent of the land area.” Not only would this drastically reduce the emissions and habitat destruction from livestock farming, it would also free up a great deal of land for all sorts of other uses — forests, grasslands or continued development to maintain a growing population.

“For billions of people around the world, the foods that we get from animals are such a big part of the pleasure of living…” the lore of barbecuing, the luxuriousness of filet mignon, the comfort of cheese. For some, it’s simply out of the question to imagine leaving animal products behind. But what if all those goodies could be replaced with plants, such that we wouldn’t even know the difference? Brown said of the Impossible mission: “It’s on us to make a product so good that people will choose it over the traditional products.”

Plenty of pretty delicious meat alternatives already exist on the market, but what about eggs and dairy? Even the most stalwart of vegans will usually own up to the fact that imitation cheese is more or less indefensible. During the Q&A portion of the talk, one student brought up that dairy farming has all the same impacts as beef farming, and perhaps even worse humanitarian considerations. Will Impossible Foods be taking on this hurdle next? Brown responded that this was indeed on the minds of the IF team, citing that they had some “cool cheese prototypes” early on, and would “definitely be launching dairy when we have the bandwidth.”

Later that evening, folks were invited to join the Impossible Foods team for a “happy hour” at Vina Enoteca, an Italian restaurant by the Stanford Barn. A delicious umami smell wafted outside the restaurant, and inside people vied for a taste of the famed Impossible Burger, as well as other plant-based protein treats like meatballs and pizza toppings. The burger was tasty — no doubt about it. Rocco Scordella, the restaurant’s chef and owner, did a swell job with the non-traditional patty, and the crowd was quick to sing its praises.

Is the Impossible Burger going to replace animal meat anytime soon, as Pat Brown hopes? It’s rather hard to say. Brown makes a valid point that, sooner or later, something is going to have to shift in our consumer habits if we’re going to sustain the growth of humanity and adapt to climate change. It would be nice if we could make the preemptive shift to plant protein before it becomes an outright necessity. Perhaps Impossible Foods will indeed pave the way to a revolution of our food system.

In any case, the Impossible Burger is well worth a bite, whether for its world-saving potential or for sheer curiosity. I for one am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Impossible Cheese to go with it.


Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Claire Thompson

Claire Thompson is a coterm M.A. student in Environmental Communication. In her undergrad, she studied Earth Systems and Creative Writing. She loves food, mopeds, and mountains especially. Reach out to Claire via email at clairet 'at' stanford.edu.