You know how techies are all into disrupting businesses? Well, right now, there’s a lot of interest in the food industry. In Impossible Foods' case, its mission is to disrupt the $74 billion beef industry.
“It’s egregiously inefficient,” says Patrick Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods.
Brown is talking specifically about the big business of raising animals for food. He says, worldwide, animal farming is one the biggest consumers of water.
“It’s using 30 percent of the entire land surface of earth,” he continues.
And that land is being cleared to make room for cattle to graze and to grow feed crops, which brings us to Brown’s next point.
“It’s the biggest driver of biodiversity losses in the world,” Brown says. “Just to raise animals, to make cheeseburgers, it’s ridiculous.”
We've been using animals to make food for about 10,000 years, Brown says, and that technology is outdated. Take off the cultural veneer and you’ll see “livestock is a technology. We use it to take cheap plant biomass” and turn it into meat.
Or in layman’s terms: We grow and harvest tons of corn, grass and other plants and turn it into meat by feeding it to animals, which we then kill and package into chops and steaks.
Brown says we don't need to do that any more. We now know how to extract nutrients and proteins from plants, and use those ingredients to make meat without animals. Enter Impossible Foods, one of a handful of tech start-ups that wants to make animal products, from cheese to eggs and beef, from plants.
To show me what he’s talking about, Brown asks Beth Fryksdale, the food scientist in charge of making the plant-based meat.
“So I’m going to put the patty on the griddle here,” she says, plopping down two of Impossible Foods’ most recent burger prototypes. When the "meat" it hits the fry pan, it sizzles.
“You’ll notice we’ve got this nice transition in color from red to brown,” Fryksdale says, just like a real burger.
I glance over at the plate the patty was on and I see ... blood?
“Yup, it looks like blood although this is not blood from an animal, this is blood from plant,” Fryksdale says triumphantly.
“That’s the color of the 'heme' that I was talking about,” Brown interjects.
Heme is a substance found on the roots of bean plants. It gives meat its unique flavor. It’s naturally red, and when you taste the heme raw, like I did, it tastes like blood.
When the burger was done, I ate it. And If I’d tasted it at a fast-food joint, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. At the same time, it’s not as good as the grass-fed burger that I get at my favorite restaurant, and that’s what Impossible Foods is going for.
Google Ventures invested in the start-up, and partner Andy Wheeler said while he’d like to go after that gourmet market, “it really is the mass-market opportunity that’s interesting.”
To get into there, Wheeler says, Impossible Foods needs to make its ground beef cheaper than the real stuff. And that’s a challenge. Right now, one Impossible Foods burger costs about $20 to make. Despite that, Wheeler says a bunch of events have made investors more bullish on food.
“We all see that obesity is a huge problem and people are getting more concerned with health,” Wheeler says.
And more people are concerned about sustainability. Traditional food companies have been slow to address these concerns, Wheeler says. Investors see an opportunity, and they think advances in science have made food more of a tech play.
“So the company may be starting with a ground beef product, but the core technology they’re developing around food science is really applicable to a really wide range of potential foods,” Wheeler says.
The idea of synthesizing real food is an age-old dream, says Michael Pollan, a food journalist and activist.
Think: Tang, non-dairy creamers and Cool Whip. But he says what’s new this go-around is that techies are on a mission.
“Which I think is distinct, and I think it’s political,” Pollan said. “These companies aim to shrink animal agriculture because of their environmental footprint.”
Pollan applauds that effort, but “I think you run into some of the limitations of Silicon Valley thinking when it comes to culture, which is the pleasure of eating meat is not simply a sensory pleasure,” he says. “Meat connotes prestige all over the world. Will fake meat offer that pleasure?”
And while this new crop food techies are using plant-based nutrients, instead of, say, artificial chemicals like they did decades ago. Pollan says there are reasons to be skeptical.
“Foods that we’ve been eating for tens of thousands of years have kind of proven themselves out and we are talking about introducing some novel foods and so we need to be careful,” he says.
But he says, that's not so say we shouldn’t do it.
Pollan says, we make processed foods for all kinds of reasons. We make it for convenience, taste and to make money. And so why not make it to save the environment?