The $80M bleeding veggie burger could help fight climate change —even when the White House won't
Make better hamburgers, save the world?
That's the mission of Pat Brown, a former Stanford University professor of biochemistry and founder of Impossible Foods, who wants to create livestock-free meat so appetizing, even committed carnivores will salivate.
His ultimate goal is not to convince people to completely give up on animal products, but to reduce our carbon footprint by creating a climate-friendly substitute for resource-intensive animal meat.
Why use food to battle climate change?
"Right from the start, we decided that the way to address this problem could not depend in any way on the particular choices that governments make about policy and regulations," Brown, who's a vegan, said in an interview about Impossible Foods, the plant-based food company he founded in 2011. "We were going to do this no matter who was in power [in the White House] because using a consumer-driven approach is, under any scenario, going to be more effective and faster than depending on regulation."
Hamburgers are worse for the environment than Hummers, Anna Lappé, a James Beard Foundation award-winning food writer, wrote in her book, Diet for a Hot Planet. A 2006 report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock farming worldwide contributed more greenhouse gas emissions than cars, trains, planes and boats combined, Time reported.
Here are the resources that go into creating a quarter-pound hamburger:
Silicon Valley has taken notice of the synthetic meat's potential to disrupt the food system. Brown's Impossible Foods is valued at around $800 million — he turned down an offer from Google in 2015 for $200 to $300 million.
And luckily, Brown's "Impossible Burger," the first meat-free product his team has developed, can succeed — or fail — regardless of what goes on at the White House.
The animal-free burger couldn't come at a more important time: President Donald Trump has vowed to repeal Obama's regulations on carbon dioxide pollution and his pick for the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is in the process of gutting the agency's resources and power, the New York Times reported. Not only does Pruitt want to dismantle the government agency that protects public health and the environment, he does not acknowledge that climate change exists. Addressing climate change through the free market by revolutionizing how and what we eat has never been more crucial.
The burger fighting climate change
The Impossible Burger isn't a regular veggie burger. It's made in a lab and engineered to exactly replicate the taste and texture of a cow-based burger, and it even bleeds. Check out the medium-rare burger below.
The animal-free "meat" is so superior to typical meat substitutes, even Brad Farmerie, executive chef at PUBLIC, a Michelin-star restaurant, and Saxon + Parole in New York City, is on board. The two restaurants began serving two different versions of Impossible Burgers in February 2017, right alongside the restaurant's other award-winning burgers.
The major ingredients for the Impossible Burger include water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein. They're not completely unpronouncable chemical compounds, they're from plant-based sources. Brown's team even managed to engineer a plant-based "meaty" flavor by using yeast to recreate heme, an iron-rich compound naturally found in animal blood.
Holding the Saxon + Parole burger up to my lips at a press event introducing the new burger, I wanted the Impossible Burger to be better than any burger I had ever tasted. One mouthwatering bite yielded the right greasy mouthfeel, the right chewy yet juicy texture, but the "meaty" flavor was a little timid compared to the bold meatiness of a cow-based burger. It was kind of like how soy milk in cereal tastes less creamy than 2% milk, but it's still a viable vehicle for cereal goodness. Similarly, perhaps the Impossible Burger is a yummy vehicle for the burger-y goodness that Farmerie and other chefs dream up.
The recipe for a smaller carbon footprint
The burger costed a whopping $80 million to invent, but it's got a lot of bang for the buck. The plant-based burger uses 95% less land and 74% less water than a beef burger. Eating the Impossible Burger instead of a regular one is equivalent to saving the water you'd use in a 10 minute shower.
Will consumers be able to get past the idea that they're eating processed, lab-grown "meat"? There's something very Frakenstein-esque about imagining scientists inspecting hamburger meat and engineering new taste sensations with plants. Plus, there's not a whole lot of public trust in food science right now. Americans still think GMOs are unsafe (even though the majority of scientists say they're safe) and many people avoid processed foods because they can be laden with unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar and salt.
When it comes to the food science industry, Brown said that food has always been a collaboration between people and nature. People have consistently tried manipulating ingredients in pursuit of the most delicious and nutritious food possible. "That's what every chef does," he said, noting that he wants to be "open and transparent" with consumers about why Impossible Foods makes the choices it does.
Not all chefs are down with serving science experiments, though. Chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain has been outspoken against synthetic meat. "There are plenty of cuts of meat off the animal that we throw away and do not use and you can make wonderful things out of those products. I think we should be doing that long before we start thinking about growing product in the lab," he told Tech Insider.
But Brown insisted that meat is an area ripe for discovery. On a molecular level, Brown and his team of food scientists are just getting started unlocking the science of animal products.
"[Meat] has been completely neglected as an area of scientific research... We've started to make what I would consider to be very fundamental discoveries about what makes meat meat because no one had bothered to look before," Brown continued. Impossible Foods has 90 patents pending, a spokesperson confirmed in an email.
For now, Brown and his team are doubling down on their mission to make meat obsolete — because climate change won't pause during a Trump presidency.
"With the current administration, I would say that pretty much across the board, our determination and motivation at Impossible Foods has increased," Brown said. "[Determination and motivation] was pretty much through the roof to begin with but we are dead determined, as fast as possible, to massively reduce the impact of the food system on the environment."