The Impossible Burger is a story of a visionary, passionate founder we businesspeople and entrepreneurs can learn from.
People always ask about its taste, so I'll get that out of the way. I last ate meat in 1990, but I for sure tasted that beef flavor in my first bite of an Impossible Burger. I couldn't help remarking on it.
For me, though, fidelity to beef didn't matter, but I'm in the minority for not liking meat. I prefer veggie burger (especially the Superiority burger in the East Village for readers in New York) specifically for not tasting like meat. (Although I won't like that the place we went, Umami Burger, had several options and we ended up trying them all.)
Come to think of it, I prefer vegetables to a veggie burger.
And that's the point of the Impossible Burger.
Some people want beef.
They will accept no substitute.
As long as they want it--and hundreds of millions seem to in this country--trying to change them won't get far. Yet producing beef still consumes resources, pollutes, expands, emits, and so on. Include the human, animal, and environmental ravages of factory farming and beef production becomes less tenable.
Yet people seem willing to overlook their effects on others to satisfy their taste cravings.
The Impossible Burger's Radical Insight
Pat's (in my opinion) radical idea is that meat doesn't have to come from animals.
Let that sink in a second. Meat doesn't have to come from animals.
His goal is not to make an alternative to a burger, but to make a burger without an animal.
I'm not his market. Those hundreds of millions of others are.
If they can't tell in a blind taste test, they can get what they want without the resource depletion, pollution, emissions, and so on of raising and slaughtering animals.
An animal turns plants, water, air, and so on into itself. If they can do it, we can too. It just means reproducing or approximating physical processes, which may take time, resources, research, and so on, but that's what entrepreneurs do.
Let's Hear From Pat
It didn't hurt that Pat also left academia to fill an unmet environmental need.
I caught up with him to learn the personal and business background and passion behind the Impossible Burger.
Q: You were an accomplished, comfortable academic. What led you to a path to leave all that?
Pat: I took a sabbatical from the Stanford University School of Medicine in 2009. I thought about how I could have the biggest positive impact on the world and how I could help solve the most serious problem facing the world.
The biggest and most urgent threat that humanity faces today is the catastrophic environmental impact of our use of animals as a food production technology. The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture alone rivals that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket combined.
It pollutes and consumes more water than any other industry and occupies about half of Earth's ice-free land area. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of wild vertebrates living on Earth today is half what it was 40 years ago--almost entirely due to habitat loss and degradation by animal agriculture and overfishing.
I knew we couldn't solve this problem by persuading people to stop consuming meat and fish. But I believed it should be feasible to create the most delicious, nutritious and affordable meat, fish and dairy foods in the world, directly from plants.
And that by doing so, and competing in the market against the incumbent industry, we could eliminate the world's most destructive technology. I came up with business plan for a company that would create and sell delicious, nutritious, affordable meat--without using animals and with a fraction of the environmental footprint.
We now blog about it.
Q: Can you be more specific? During your time off, how did you conclude that this was the most important science that could be done now?
Pat: We've known for a long time how to meet human nutritional needs with an entirely plant-based diet. But eating meat and fish is still a major source of pleasure to most of the world's 7 billion people.
Expecting people to eliminate or greatly reduce their consumption of the meat, fish, and dairy foods that they love is unrealistic. Even many of the most ardent environmentalists eat animals every day.
Matching the nutrition of meat, fish and dairy foods with a plant-based diet at a lower cost and with a fraction of the environmental footprint of the animal-derived foods, is a solved problem.
The critical unsolved scientific problem was to understand "how meat works" in biochemical terms--the molecular mechanisms underlying flavor, aromas, textured, juiciness--and to find scalable, sustainable plant sources for the ingredients needed to replicate those biochemical properties.
By enabling us to eliminate the greatest threat to the health of our planet, solving this problem would improve the future of our planet and humanity than, say, curing cancer.
Q: I read a remarkable concept from you that seems to change the game--to separate "meat" from "dead animal." Can you elaborate on it?
Pat: Meat lovers love meat because of its unique deliciousness, nutritional value, convenience, and value--not because it's made using animals, but in spite of being made of animals.
The notion that "meat" as a food is inseparable from the particular "technology"--animals--we use to make it is a fallacy. We've found that once meat-loving consumers realize that meat made directly from plants can be more delicious and more nutritious than meat made from animal cadavers--without the compromises to health, sustainability or animal welfare--they overwhelmingly prefer plant-based meat.
In a couple of decades the fact that the meat they love was once made from animal cadavers will seem shockingly primitive.
Q: I've had lots of non-meat burgers, but they haven't had this purpose behind them. How do you describe your mission?
Pat: Our mission is to vastly reduce the environmental impact and resource inefficiency of our food system by replacing animals as a food production technology.
Our mission is not to provide a palatable alternative for people who are already vegans or vegetarians, but to create irresistibly delicious, nutritious and affordable meat, fish, and dairy foods for omnivores.
Creating foods that meat lovers prefer to today's animal-derived products, and letting the market do the rest, is the only way we can solve the problem. You can find more information about how and why this problem is so urgent and about our solution here.
Q: So the goal is to satisfy existing human tastes, not to change them?
Pat: Yes, asking people to change their diets or purge beloved foods is not going to solve the problem. Human tastes aren't a problem if we can find a less destructive way to satisfy them.
We believe that the best way to replace the most destructive technology on Earth is to create foods that can compete successfully in the market against animal-derived meat, fish and dairy foods, by delivering greater pleasure and value, with a tiny fraction of the environmental impact.
Q: I hear an attention to detail and passion for performance that I associate with great founder/CEOs but not veggie burgers or academics. Did you already have it or did something in the project bring it out?
Pat: Like many scientists, I have always wanted to work on the most challenging and important problems I could find. I had the best job in the world at Stanford; I never intended to leave.
However, the threat to our planet is urgent and severe, and using animals as a food production technology is the most destructive technology on the planet. I started this project in 2011 because no one else was trying to solve this problem at the global scale.
The only responsible and ethical choice was to start Impossible Foods.