Is an Impossible Burger circular?

Close-up and personal view of the meat-free Impossible Burger
ShutterstockCaron Watson
Vegetarians, it's safe to look! It's only a leghemoglobin-based burger.

This article has been adapted from GreenBiz's Circular Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

What role do alternative proteins play in the circular economy? It’s a question I’ve been chewing on lately as these two areas simultaneously mature from marginal ideas to mainstream markets, and more people have started to ask me about their relationship. 

The linear food system is ripe for disruption (PDF). With the rapid increase in fast-casual dining establishments adding Impossible burgers and its competitors to their menus, alternative proteins — the plant-based or synthetically grown substitutes for traditional animal-based foods — are hard to ignore.

If you need a refresher on the complexities of synthetic biology, including alternative proteins, I encourage you to check out this article by GreenBiz contributor Meg Wilcox. Already a $19.5 billion market, alternative proteins are expected to capture 10 percent of the global meat market within 15 years, according to a report released in February by Euromonitor. (Still, it said, conventional meat will grow faster than meat alternatives over the next four years.)

From a resource efficiency standpoint — making the highest and best use of feedstocks and materials — the Impossible burger requires 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land and produces 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent-sized beef burger, according to its life-cycle analysis (LCA) conducted by metrics firm Quantis. 

But don’t write off beef’s environmental impacts too quickly. Although a plant-rich diet is ranked No. 4 on Project Drawdown’s list of 100 solutions to reverse global warming, there is a growing case for cattle grazing as a regenerative, carbon-sequestering approach to land management. 

 In its 2019 Impact Report, Impossible Foods, went so far as to call regenerative grazing "the ‘clean coal’ of meat," according to CivilEats. (FWIW, the website’s report no longer includes the mention of "clean coal.")

Who doesn’t love a good sustainability smackdown? 

Still, with LCAs for many alternative protein startups in short supply, the climate calculus for these burgeoning burgers isn’t completely clear. 

My tendency is to avoid — and resist — shoving everything under the umbrella of circularity. Part of my job is to serve as a self-appointed circularity gatekeeper, an arbiter of what falls within and beyond this buzzworthy moniker. But I also aim to connect the dots, and recognize circularity’s value as a lens — not a specific approach, industry or value chain — that can be applied to any market trend. 

In the end, plant-based meats are one piece of an evolving tapestry of technologies, solutions and systems that are slowly shifting from extraction to regeneration. 

According to a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report , a circular economy for food will be defined by three main ambitions: To source food grown regeneratively and locally where appropriate; to make the most of food (use by-products more effectively, prevent waste); and to design and market healthier food.

At the simplest level, alternative proteins, and synthetic biology more broadly, can be a crucial tool for companies to explore renewable alternatives to finite and fossil-fuel-intensive feedstocks, and replacing extractive linear supply chains with more circular (and, perhaps, healthier) alternatives. 

Ultimately, there is no one recipe for success when it comes to the circular economy.