Making the Impossible Happen: A Profile of Impossible Foods
By Nora Rosati
Introducing Impossible Foods, the company that makes meat from plants. In their own words, Impossible is “working to transform the global food system by inventing better ways to make the foods we love, without compromise.”
Impossible Foods began in 2011 when CEO and Founder Pat Brown quit his job as a biochemistry professor at Stanford University School of Medicine to tackle what he described as “the most important and urgent problem in the world” — the use of animals for food production. As Dr. Brown wrote in The Mission that Motivates Us, “Relying on cows to make meat is land-hungry, water-thirsty, and pollution-heavy. That’s why we set out to do the impossible: make delicious meats that are good for people and the planet.”
If you’re not convinced our meat-eating habits are at odds with a thriving planet, consider Impossible’s well-cited breakdown of the current situation: Animal agriculture has the most destructive impact on the global environment than that of any other technology on Earth. “The greenhouse gas footprint... rivals that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocketship combined. [And it] pollutes and consumes more water than any other industry.” Not to mention that, according to this data, raising the animals we eat takes up 45% of the land on the surface of the Earth (while “all the buildings, roads and paved surfaces in the world occupy less than 1% of the Earth’s land surface.”)
Head of Content Ashley Geo traces the beginning of the Impossible journey back to a team of hyper-focused scientists and problem-solvers. They started with the basics (what a biochemist considers basic, at least): “Flavor molecules, materials and textures...the reactions that make meat cook, handle, smell, and taste like meat -- the comprehensive experience. Our team took this knowledge and discovered the same molecules, proteins, and nutrients in meat, and found them in plants,” Geo explained. That, plus a conviction that something needed to change to secure our planet’s future led Dr. Brown to rethink and ultimately reinvent the technology used to create meat.
As Dr. Brown wrote, “Most people erroneously conflate meat, fish and milk (the foods) with the animals that produce them (the production technology). It turns out that consumers love meat, fish and dairy foods not because they come from animals, but in spite of the fact that they come from animals. To most consumers, the fact that we currently use animals to produce these foods is a necessary (or so we’ve assumed) evil. Until today, the only technology we’ve known that can turn plant into meat has been animals.”
So Dr.Brown and his team did the impossible: they figured out how to make your favorite burger from plants. According to Impossible’s sustainability report, today there exists an animal-free burger that “beats the cow in blind tests, requires roughly 75% less water and 95% less land, and generates about 87% lower greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional burger from cows. And while it has the iron and protein, the Impossible Burger is produced without using hormones or antibiotics and contains 0 mg of cholesterol.”
True to their promise, the Impossible Burger doesn’t sacrifice flavor in the name of earth-friendly stats. “We prioritize deliciousness—something the consumer loves, in order to achieve our mission and save the planet. Our approach is: We all love meat, and have these wonderful memories growing up with meat— at barbecues, family gatherings, special moments. But we eat more meat than we can produce at a rate that’s faster than we can produce, and if we keep going, our kids won’t be able to. So, put simply: we’re just here to save your favorite steak,” Geo said.
Now they’re on a mission to get the burger— and eventually, “a wide range of delicious meat and dairy products”— into every grocery store and restaurant.
Aside from the ingenuity of its product, the urgency of the problem, and my unofficial role as an Impossible Foods fangirl, Impossible was an obvious choice for this series because it represents the fusion of business and social impact. And it covers a lot of bases: it’s a startup, a food company, and an environmental-justice organization. For this team, success is equal parts cash flow and impact -- and they reinforce one another.
“I’m often asked whether Impossible Foods is a tech startup or a food company. We’re both. But more importantly, we are a planet company. Our real 'product,' the measure by which we determine success, is a thriving planet for future generations,” Dr. Brown wrote.
What’s it like to work in such a dynamic, multidimensional space? Geo summarized it neatly: “By making the best product possible, we are going to reach the most consumers possible, to get the most sales possible, and therefore to make the most sustainable food system we can.”
“When we reach business goals we are reaching our sustainability goals. There is no compromise involved at the business level,” Geo added.
At the end of the day, no matter where you are, work is work. If you’re in your twenties, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a job absolutely devoid of tedium, or long hours, or some kind of dysfunction. (If any of this sounds unfamiliar to you, please dish the details of your magical job to Second Day’s job board team).
“I’ve been with the company for three years now, and there are times when I really feel the fact that I’m working at a fast-paced startup. It can be exhausting,” Geo said. “But I’m driven by the fact that what I’m doing is for the greater good...When I’m out representing the company, I’m reminded that I’m not just talking about any company. I’m talking about a company that was founded to make a difference. And the magnitude of what we’re trying to do is really inspiring.”
To learn more about Impossible Foods, the Impossible Burger -- or better yet, to join the movement -- visit impossiblefoods.com.