The planet is being ravaged by industrial farming. The only way to persuade the world to stop consuming meat, is to grow something that tastes even better.
Seven years ago, before the words plant-based meat even existed, biochemist Pat Brown zipped his MacBook into his backpack, hopped on his bike and cycled from his laboratory to the Silicon Valley headquarters of Khosla Ventures, a US$1.3-billion-plus Venture Capital firm.
He was off to pitch an idea, one he was convinced was the best way to persuade humanity to reduce climate change. He wanted US$3 million to scale a laboratory for developing plant-based meat, fish and dairy that tasted not just indistinguishable, but even better, than meat.
Khosla gave him US$7 million on the spot.
“He came in and said, ‘I can replace a large portion of the world’s meat with a plant-based product’. And we said, ‘sure’. It takes a scientist such as Pat to disrupt entrenched world industries,” says Samir Kaul, founding general partner at Khosla.
Luckily, says Kaul wryly, he made the investment before tasting a sample of the first prototype.
“It tasted like shit. It was like polenta that had been left out for a day or two then thrown in the microwave,” he makes a playful grimace at the memory. “But Pat being Pat, I knew he would make it better.”
He was right. Seven years later and the ground-beef alternative known as Impossible is selling at more than 3,600 restaurants in the form of burgers, tacos, meatballs, chilli-cheese fries, pizza, dumplings and doner kebabs. At its manufacturing site in Oakland, California, the company shifts nearly 220,000 pounds of plant-based meat a month, just 0.2 percent of the nine billion pounds of ground beef produced in the US from cows each year. It has ambitions to scale up to production of four million pounds as demand increases.
Its products are predominantly found on the menus of US restaurants, ranging from gourmet burger joint Umami Burger, where it is served with truffle aioli and port wine, to fast-food drive-thru White Castle, where sliders cost just US$1.99.
Last year it also launched in Hong Kong and Macau, from the chicest restaurants to the humblest Dai Pai Dongs, and is set for a Singapore debut next month. Poultry, pork, fish and dairy products are in the pipeline, as well as gluten-free and lower-calorie options. It's new updated recipe, which it calls Impossible 2.0, claims to be even more meaty and delicious than its predecessor. Die-hard carnivores say they can't tell it from meat.
To date, Impossible has attracted total funding of US$460 million through a roster of A-list investors, including Bill Gates, Li Ka-Shing’s Horizon Ventures, UBS, Viking Global Investors, Google, Open Philanthropy Project, Sailing Capital and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek.
From an investor’s perspective, says Kaul, the clean-tech industry has to date had limited success. Historically, consumers have proved unwilling to pay more, for environmentally-friendly alternatives for fuel or power.
With the exception of food, as Samir discovered. “I had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment when I happened to go shopping in Safeway and the entire bill came to only US$200. In Wholefoods, where we usually shop, a single bag costs more than that. And I realised it wasn’t just rich lawyers and venture capitalists shopping at Wholefoods, it was students and hippies, everyone. People will pay a premium for the food going into their body. So that’s when we got interested in clean-food tech.”
Around the same time, Pat Brown had come to a similar conclusion. If it wasn’t for his tousled grey hair, you could mistake him for a teenaged undergraduate. His uniform of sneakers, jeans and carelessly zipped hoody may be typical of youthful tech entrepreneurs, but on his gangly body it is somehow even more befitting. His expression is one of deep focus and slight bafflement, as though he is surprised to be here and even more surprised you should be asking about him.
For Pat, it has clearly never been about money, success, fame or any other trappings of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. A former paediatrician, he is simply a man driven by a mission.
It started when he dedicated a sabbatical in 2009 to figuring out the most efficient way to make a positive impact on the planet. “I had a chance to think about what I wanted to do next and the biggest cause I could help solve, and I realised that modern farming and meat production is by far the most destructive environmental technology on Earth.”
How could a burger save the planet? Industrial animal agriculture occupies 48 percent of the world’s land, making it one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. It emits 15 percent of greenhouse gases — predominantly methane from cattle — and uses a quarter of the world’s fresh water. By Brown’s calculations, a plant-based future means only two percent of the world’s land given over to crops, using 75 percent less water and a net positive impact on greenhouse gases due to a higher proportion of carbon-sucking plants.
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as making another vegetarian option. If that was the case, products such as Quorn would already be mainstream. Brown had to make something absolutely delicious, more irresistible than meat, to create a consumer movement to propel plant-based food to the top of the menu.
“It couldn’t be a compromise, as it wouldn’t scale,” he says, talking at Palo Alto-based Vina Enoteca, the first restaurant to serve the Impossible Burger. “It was too much to ask people to give up. Animal products are some of the most beloved foods in the world. So, the solution had to be to figure out a way to make a product that was not a replacement, not a compromise, but something that was the most delicious, most versatile, meat, fish and dairy food in the world. I wanted to do that, but I wasn’t sure how.”
With a team of top scientists, he began looking into what people love about meat, at a molecular level. One ingredient stood out: heme. Brown calls it “the secret sauce”. Heme in a liquid form tastes metallic, meaty and salty, like blood. It contains iron that is found in animal tissue but rarely in planets, which allows cells to carry oxygen around the body, literally a building block of life.
The only plant compound that contains heme is leghemoglobin, which can be extracted from the roots of soy nodules. Brown’s team learned to produce more of it using yeast fermentation, which saves water and farmland. It also produces just an eighth of the greenhouse gases that would otherwise be required. So heme became the backbone, along with potato protein, soy, wheat protein, coconut oil and xanthan gum.
By 2016 the product was ready for launch. Marketing was key. Instead of pushing it out to supermarkets, they put it in the hands of the most influential chefs and restaurateurs, such as David Chang of the Momofuku chain in New York and Hong Kong’s Uwe Opocensky (pictured), who trained at elBulli. The reason for placing it in restaurants instead of supermarkets, was to get consumers to taste the burger first in its best light.
But retail is huge; this year Americans will eat about 10 billion pounds of ground beef, half of which they will eat in restaurants and half at home. Impossible is set to launch in supermarkets but the marketing will be carefully targeted.
Impossible’s message will not be about the explosive growth of animal agriculture and overfishing that has played a dominant role in wiping out half the world’s wild animals in the last 40 years. Or that meat and dairy production generates a seventh of global greenhouse gases and requires a quarter of global freshwater.
But instead of preaching about environmental credentials, Impossible focuses simply on the deliciousness — and nutrition — of its meat, because, Brown says frankly, that is what most consumers ultimately care about.
And studies show that Impossible is winning over even the most self-declared carnivores: its target market. Only three percent of its consumers say they are completely vegan. “The omnivore is key to our sustainability mission,” says Brown. “If only vegetarians ate our burgers, I would consider this a waste of time.”
In blind tests with meat burgers last year, about half of testers preferred Impossible’s burger, a big increase from less than 10 percent five years ago. Naturally, the goal is for Impossible burgers to beat cow burgers decisively, but that could still take a few more years of development, Brown admits.
“The surest strategy for replacing the most destructive technology on Earth is to create foods that deliver greater pleasure and value to consumers of meat, fish, and dairy, offer them as a choice. And then let market demand take care of the rest.”
It will also hang on a changing consumer profile, adds Kaul, pointing to the trend for Millennials to move towards healthier, fresher food. “People in India, China and the rest of Asia have the money to eat better and more protein in their diets. So, I think the winds are right behind us with this product.”