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Q&A: Rethinking the technology of meat production

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Sustainable and nutritious meat alternatives could play a significant role in the search for solutions to the climate crisis. FSE Founding Director Rosamond Naylor recently sat down with Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, to talk about the role plant-based protein can play in creating a more sustainable future, and the potential of Impossible Foods to draw consumers away from meat.

Edited excerpts and video of the March 11, 2021 Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Conversation event are below.

Q: I want to start with your personal journey. How did you get to where you are?

I didn't set out to work on this project. I was not contemplating doing anything in the business world… I just challenged myself to figure out how I can have the biggest positive impact on the world, given the kinds of things that I'm competent at doing. And I figured it would probably have something to do with addressing the global environmental issues since I feel like that's the biggest determinant of the future of humans and our planet. And when I started looking into it I very quickly realized that the use of animals and food technology is, by a very large margin, the most disruptive technology on earth today, and very likely the most disruptive technology in human history. So the only way to solve it is to realize what the actual problem is, which is: we're using the wrong technology to produce these foods that the world loves and is not going to stop loving and wanting to consume. And, when you frame it that way, actually it's very solvable.

Q: You appreciated that people actually liked to eat meat, and there were certain psychological aspects of eating meat that somehow you got into better than anybody I've seen. Can you talk a little bit about the psychological part that you delved into and how you really replicated meat in the Impossible Burger and why that was important.

Well the psychological aspect I feel like is not rocket science. Anyone who has lived on earth with other humans knows that people are just not going to be persuaded by logical arguments or nagging to change their diet. I mean, people won't even change their diets for their own personal health, much less for something much more abstract and distant like the health of the planet. I realized that the only way to solve this problem is you have to make a product that is better in every way that matters to meat consumers. You're not going to achieve this by mushing some vegetables together. From a pure nutrition and economic standpoint, the problem is solved. The hard part is deliciousness. So I just felt like as a scientist, if we're going to make a product that does a better job of doing what meat does in terms of satisfying consumers' cravings, we need to understand how meat does it.

Q: So I want to get into some of the challenges that you've probably faced. Is the Impossible Burger actually a lot better for you than having actual meat?

In a nutshell, from a nutritional standpoint, one of our core principles is that we're never going to make a product that we don't believe, from a nutrition standpoint, is better for the consumer than what it replaces. Note that it's better for the consumer than what it replaces. Not better for the consumer than anything else that they could possibly buy, because the goal here is not to replace your kale salad with an Impossible Burger, it is to replace burger made from a cow with an Impossible Burger

Q: You’ve gone from niche to mainstream in fast food joints. What's your strategy for making this an international food product?

The most important thing is that we absolutely intend to be selling our product everywhere that consumers are shopping for meat or fish or dairy foods, and that of course means international. In order to be at that scale, first of all, we have to scale our production and supply chain. The other thing is that we have at least one ingredient, which is our heme protein, that we produce by using genetically engineered yeast. It's very scalable and it's very low environmental footprint, vastly lower than covering the planet with cows, but it’s viewed as a novel ingredient. The regulatory groups are required to regulate those ingredient, and there are bureaucracies and they take time, but we've been through this with a bunch of countries, including the US and Canada and now, Australia, New Zealand and various others, and that's just a gating factor but we're extremely confident for China and Europe and so forth that we'll get to the other end of that. And then we definitely will be ready to scale internationally and that's our intent.

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