Beautiful Thinkers: Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, on solving the world’s biggest problem, taking down the beef industry, and why Katy Perry dressed up like a plant-based burger.
From the moment I bit into my first Impossible Burger, I was hooked. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ve been looking for ways to reduce the amount of meat I eat. The Impossible Burger was a godsend. It tasted like meat, had the texture of meat, smelled like meat, and yet, it was 100-percent plant-based. As I looked into the story behind it, I was impressed and surprised to find out it wasn’t created by a chef but by a biochemist at Stanford. Pat Brown is a force of goodness and nature. Talking with him and hearing his passion for Impossible Foods makes you feel that he can indeed solve the world’s biggest problem.
I wanted to talk to you because you solved a culinary challenge with science. What motivated you to create the Impossible Burger?
I’ll try and give you the short story. I have an MD and a PhD in biochemistry. My postdoc work was on how the AIDS virus replicates. I got into founding Impossible when I was on sabbatical. I was having lunch with a friend, and I asked him what he thought was the biggest problem the world was facing that I could work on. He said, “Climate change.” Then I asked what the most significant thing I could do to affect it was, he said, “Carbon tax and biofuels.” But I said, “No, it’s cows!”
The catastrophic impact of using animals as food is the most important and urgent problem humans have ever encountered. That was my motivation for starting Impossible Foods. We are going to be in a complete — well, we’re pretty much close to it now — shitshow if we don’t drastically reduce or eliminate the scale of animal agriculture and the animal-based foods industry at large. We are in a biodiversity meltdown.
Why weren’t more people talking about this?
I wish I understood why that is. Part of the problem is, once again, just as with climate change, the journalists of the world are asleep on the job. I’m sorry to say it. Why are people reporting on complete trivia and nonsense when there’s an existential, identifiable threat to our planet that almost nobody knows about?
But that’s only part of it. The other thing is a lot of people — including scientists and environmentalists who know the problem — have a dilemma. They acknowledge that using animals in the food system is the number one environmental threat, that we are in a biodiversity meltdown, but they all eat meat. To confront the problem, they’d have to confront the fact that something they do every day is the reason that the problem exists.
Are you saying that biodiversity is bigger than global warming?
There’s a very good case that it is. First of all, both are urgent problems that absolutely need to be solved. But we have the best solution to both: reduce or eliminate animal-based food production. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report has been tracking populations of wild animals (10,000 species that represent the diversity of wildlife) for about 50 years. In the last couple of years, the total number of living wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish on earth is less than half what it was 40 years ago. It’s about 60 percent lower. And since 50 percent of the earth’s entire land surface is used to raise animals for food, the human footprint is the animal agriculture footprint.
In contrast, all the fruits and vegetables that humans consume are grown on less than 1 percent of earth’s land surface. When you’re talking about habitat destruction and degradation, it’s driven by the demand for land — which almost entirely comes from animal agriculture. The person who puts this on the public radar will win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s just sitting out there waiting to be won by a journalist who is willing to take the initiative to tell this story properly.
When you look at smoke rising from the Amazon, the problem is not that there’s an asshole in charge of Brazil. It’s that people are buying beef, and demand for beef is motivating farmers in Brazil to produce more beef. Since producing beef requires land and there’s a finite amount, the only way they can scale is burning the Amazon. What’s responsible for those fires is not primarily the president of Brazil. It’s the people who are willing to pay money for beef and incentivize those farmers to do what they’re doing. It’s second-hand smoke from beef.
Would you say you came at this as an environmentalist or as a scientist?
Well, I would say neither. I came at it because I’m a person who cares about the future of the planet. I’m not an environmentalist in the sense that that’s what I live and breathe. I care about it because I’m a human being who cares about the planet. Because of my scientific background, I had confidence there was a solution to this problem. I solved it by identifying the heme, an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every single plant and animal. We make the Impossible Burger using heme from soy plants, which is identical to heme from animals and gives Impossible its uniquely meaty flavor.
It really is impossible to tell that the Impossible Burger is not a beef burger, it’s so real. How have vegetarians reacted to it?
Our experience is that some vegetarians don’t buy our product because it is too much like meat from animals. My sister is one of those people. She can hardly even look at it because it creeps her out. On the other hand, my kids, who have been vegetarian in their whole lives, love it. The point is: if zero vegetarians ever want to buy it, that would be fine because vegetarians are not our market. It’s the people that are creating the market for beef that is sustaining and incentivizing the industry that is pushing us rapidly toward climate and biodiversity collapse.
You’ve had pretty significant pushback from the Cattlemen’s Association. How are you dealing with that?
How are we dealing? Well, we’re creating better technology than they have ever had and building the meat industry of the future. That’s how we’re dealing with them. We’re not dealing with them by going out and picketing their beef operations or throwing crowbars into slaughterhouses or anything like that. We’re beating them in the marketplace. We’ll let consumers choose.
Our whole strategy is to make the best meat in the world directly from plants and put the incumbent industry out of business. That’s it. They can whine and fuss all they want, but if we got a better product and consumers prefer it — as long as we have a chance to compete in the marketplace — there’s not much they can do about it.
Are they challenging you on using the term “meat” on your packaging?
To a consumer, meat is defined by a particular kind of flavor, texture, aroma and juiciness. That sensory profile is what they crave, along with a set of nutritional values. The fact is, no consumer values that it’s made from the corpse of an animal. That is not part of the value proposition to any meat-loving consumer in the world. They love meat in spite of the way it’s made, not because of the way it’s made.
Twenty-five years ago, every single camera in the world used photographic film. And now they pretty much all use digital imaging. But they are still cameras to a consumer because they do exactly what consumers want a camera to do. If our product does exactly what consumers want meat to do, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. But if there was a law passed that said we can’t call it meat, well then, we’ll call it something else.
On the flipside, there’s a lot of chatter about processed food and GMOs. How do you address those concerns?
Well, first of all, yes, we use genetic engineering to produce a critical ingredient. The fact is: the vast majority of foods that you consume every day involves processing — from preparing the ingredients to preparing the final product. They’ve been safely consumed for decades. There’s literally no scientific debate about whether genetic engineering carries any novel risk for consumers. It’s really only an issue we have to address because some people are anti-GMO fundamentalists, and they’re determinedly on a mission to eliminate genetic engineering entirely.
There’s nothing inherently problematic about a product that has more than five ingredients or that is produced by processing. When people use “processed” as a pejorative term, they’re conflating the terrible nutritional choices food manufacturers have traditionally made in products. In those cases, manufacturers made terrible ingredient choices with no apparent concern for consumer health. That’s not us. We are categorically the opposite of that. We are incredibly conscientious and deliberate about our choice of ingredients. And we’re constantly trying to optimize our products to be as healthy as they can possibly be.
We’re certainly not going to sell it if we don’t believe it’s better for the consumer than what it replaces — in this case, a ground-up cow. But we’re not selling it as a kale salad. We’re selling it as a burger. It’s intended for a customer who would otherwise be eating a burger made from a cow, not someone who would be eating a bowl of quinoa.
As a scientist, you’re constantly evolving your work. In fact, you just released the 2.0 version of the Impossible Burger. How does that square with consumers and clients like Burger King in the food industry where consistency is key?
That’s a very good question. When we switched from 1.0 to 2.0, we felt that it was a significant enough improvement in almost everything that mattered to consumers: flavor, texture, juiciness, nutritional profile. It was gluten-free. It cooked on a grill. It had substantial advantages and all our data suggested the large majority of our customers would clearly prefer it. From an operational standpoint, it was easier just to make the switchover than continue to manufacturer two products.
We’re already working on new products we’ll be releasing in the next year. As we get bigger, we’ll have more resources and more manufacturing capacity, so there could be the option of keeping a current version if people love it. But for now, being a small company, reducing operational complexity is important.
Were you so surprised to see Katy Perry, an investor in Impossible Foods, dressed as a couture vegan burger Met Gala last May?
We were totally surprised — and totally delighted! We have a hard policy of no paid sponsorships and no paid influencers. We believe there’s declining relevance and credibility for ads and paid endorsements. We want real people to advocate and love Impossible because of what it represents and because of the quality of the product — not because we’re sliding them cash in lieu of an authentic endorsement.
Why was your launch strategy to start with restaurants instead of starting in the grocery aisle?
When we started, we had very limited production capacity. We had to think about how to make every encounter, every sale of our product as viable as possible. The most important thing to achieve in that first year was to drive home the message that delicious meat doesn’t need to come from an animal. Given that this was the prevailing notion, the best thing we could do was have restaurants that are loved and trusted by meat-lovers serve our product on their menu.
As it happened, we were talking to a number of chefs who were hardcore meat guys. We had access to a number of these chefs, and when our product got to a certain point, we shared it with them. They absolutely loved it. If we could get Dave Chang — a chef who famously banned every vegetarian item from his menu as a matter of principle — to put a plant-based burger on his menu, that’s incredibly valuable to us.
That’s why we initially launched with opinion-leader meat gurus. We did it because we could, because our product actually delivered what meat-lovers love, which can’t be said about any other plant-based products. Once we had sufficient production capacity, scale and the economics to go mainstream, we launched with White Castle. Suddenly all you had to do to try our product was to spend two-and-a-half bucks. It was still being sold in these super high-end restaurants, with Michelin star chefs.
We sent a message that our product is for everyone. To accomplish our mission, we had to be everywhere, even retail, which we are now. We plan to take a double-digit portion of the beef market within five years, and then we can push that industry, which is fragile and has low margins, into a death spiral. Then we can point to the pork industry and the chicken industry and say, “You’re next!” and they’ll go bankrupt even faster.