Impossible Foods cooks up a new paradigm for the food system
The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s May 26 Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.
Animal protein consumption is rising worldwide. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Association estimates that the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products contributes to 14.5 percent of human-induced GHG emissions. Meat and dairy production is also heavily resource-intensive, with 30 percent of the world’s land surface used for this purpose — a landmass larger than North and South America, Europe and Australia combined.
In March, Bard MBA students spoke with Rebekah Moses, sustainability and agriculture manager of Impossible Foods, to learn about the company's unique approach to reducing the impact of livestock food products. Moses shared the story of the company’s founder, a long-time academic, and other researchers who are taking solutions out of the lab and into the market.
Bard students: Can you describe Impossible Foods and the company’s products for those who might not be familiar with them?
Bard students: Who first had the idea for the Impossible Burger?
Moses: Our CEO and founder, Dr. Pat Brown, is a tenured professor at Stanford in biochemistry. While on sabbatical, he was thinking, "What is the biggest environmental problem that I can think of, and what is a way to solve it?" He decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his career working to help solve the very large problem of the 30-50 percent of the surface of the planet that’s devoted to producing animal products. Animal agriculture uses a quarter of the world’s fresh water and generates about the same level of emissions as the entire transportation industry.
For him, and I think it makes a tremendous amount of sense, there is a market-based mechanism to do that. If you provide, I call it a functional equivalent — the same thing using fewer resources in a way that people don’t have to compromise on the taste, cooking experience or even the cultural experience of eating a burger — then you have some real opportunities for changing diets and helping change the food system.
Bard students: How long did it take to perfect the meat product?
Moses: I would say that it is probably never going to be perfected. One benefit of [it] not being from a cow is that we can constantly innovate and make it better. A cow is just going to be a cow.
The company itself is six years old, and the first five years were almost exclusively research and development. We looked at what makes meat look, cook, taste and feel like meat: what makes meat, meat. It’s a fairly complicated question, so we spent the first five years building the technology platform to develop plant-based meat and dairy products. One of the critical components was finding a way to produce our plant blood equivalents (such as hemoglobin) sustainably, which is one of the differentiating factors with our product. It’s still in innovation and will be something that we continue to work on.
Bard students: Was your decision to go with chefs and restaurants based on production limitations? And how is your supply chain working in regards to supplying restaurants and expanding further into the retail market?
Moses: There are a lot of people who want to serve the burger. Right now we’re in eight restaurants, and we’ll be able to scale that up with our new manufacturing plans. Over the next several months, we will be commissioning a manufacturing plant in California that will produce a huge chunk of the supply. We are going to be able to grow into the millions of pounds.
Bard students: What does financial success look like in the meatless industry? How do you think the company is going to grow?
Moses: There are absolutely success stories to be found in the plant-based foods and alternative protein sector, and all you have to do is really look at the beef and other animal protein markets to see that there’s opportunity here. In the U.S., we produce about 24 billion pounds of beef; about 18 billion pounds of that is delivered to consumers. Putting a value on that whole market, you’ve got close to $30-40 billion of ground beef alone. Ground beef is half of the meat produced, so there are definitely opportunities there.
Bard students: What do you think the meatless industry is going to look like in five to 10 years?
Moses: I think we are seeing a lot of really interesting actors coming on board. From my perspective, the more people who are making delicious plant-based foods that folks can shift to, the better. I am hoping we see a really strong market for this, and a really great community of food producers. In general, though, what I would like to see is just growth in the industry, both for us and for other plant-based food producers.
In the U.S., we produce about 24 billion pounds of beef; about 18 billion pounds delivered to consumers. Putting a value on that whole market, you’ve got close to $30-40 billion of ground beef alone.
Bard students: Sustainability professionals often wear a lot of different hats. We’re curious to know how much of your day is spent doing research and how much is spent telling the story of the company.
Moses: It really changes day to day. To give you an example, last week we were out doing field trials, flagging plots and setting up agronomic trials. On another day, I might be working with life cycle assessment modeling software to find out, for instance, how changing an ingredient in our bill of materials might change our understanding of our environmental impact numbers.
I read a lot of journals and scientific papers, and I work closely with a bunch of different groups — our protein scientists, our communications team. I also sit on the business development team. So I have an extremely multi-functional role within Impossible Foods, which certainly keeps it interesting. Generally, my work is across three main pillars: the research side, the operations side and communications. Sustainability was baked into the company from day one as part of Pat’s mission.
Bard students: Do you have any tips for folks who want to get started in sustainability innovation?
Moses: For me, it was really important to have a grounding in field-to-consumer food systems. Being able to understand that whole value chain, especially at a field level, was really important to me personally. At the same time, you do want that theory background, an understanding of broader impacts, both environmentally and socially, and being able to model those impacts. Understanding how models are created through quantitative methods is something that I think is extremely important and something that I am always trying to improve for myself. If there was one thing that I could change about my educational career, I would definitely take more stats classes.