When we look at the man-made contribution to the emission of greenhouse gases, there are two areas that are the targets of a high level of focus by climate change activists; industrial production and the use of fossil fuels. An area that is not spoken about nearly as often as big industry and fossil fuels is industrial agriculture. Regarding this question around the contributing factors to climate change and what a company can do to combat them, I will be focusing on the production of meat.
When we look at the industrial process of growing beef, there are several factors that we must consider to gain an appreciation for the startling negative feedback loop that is created by meat production. One of the negative implications of global warming is the decrease in fresh water availability. When you consider the amount of water that a cow must consume to grow to a size that makes its meat output profitable (about 15,000 liters of water per kilogram of meat)[i], the growing of meat is negatively impacting this water scarcity situation on the other end of the spectrum. Next, growing animals is an implicitly inefficient way to produce calories for human consumption. When considering the ratios necessary when converting grain to meat, “beef starts at five to one and goes as high as 20 to one” [ii] making it the most inefficient of all agriculturally gown animals. Finally, there are collateral outputs that come from meat production that have an overwhelming impact on the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily the creation of methane which” accounts for 14.5% of global CO2 eq emissions.”[iii]
The company that I would like to highlight that is incredibly well positioned to respond to this situation is Impossible Foods out of Silicon Valley. Impossible Foods was started by a Stanford PhD who saw the coming storm in the meat industry and decided to learn what it was that people really loved about a burger, and see if it could be replicated using the correct ingredients in optimal proportions to create a 100% Vegan burger that tastes, smells, feels and even bleeds like a normal meat burger. They have very limited distribution right now, with only one restaurant partnership on the east coast but have just raised a Series D round of funding to begin producing their new “Impossible Burger” at scale.
The Impossible Burger could not have come at a better time. One consistent trend in developing economies is that as a middle class grows, so does the consumption of meat as part of the daily diet. Given this fact, the need for meat substitutes that the consumer can accept and enjoy just as easily as the real thing will be essential to slowing the contribution of “big meat” to the global climate change problem. Impossible Foods has professed on their website that “switching from a conventional burger made from cows to a quarter-pound Impossible Burger saves as much water as a 10-minute shower. It eliminates the greenhouse gases emitted by driving 18 miles in an average car.”[iv] While there is some discomfort around the idea of the government regulating consumer meat consumption, we are rapidly approaching a point where some level of intervention must happen to start moving in the opposite direction and Impossible Foods may be the best positioned company to answer the consumers call when that happens.
There are two major concerns that I have regarding Impossible Foods that must be addressed for them to take a leadership role with their massively innovative product in the fight against animal contribution to climate change. First is scalability. They have a proof of concept that has been supported by some of the greatest meat advocate chefs in the country but have not had to produce the product at a scale that would make McDonalds consider using the impossible burger as a vegetarian substitute. I am worried about how long Impossible Foods will need before it can adequately meet demand for this kind of solution. My second concern is around the changing of consumer behavior and preferences. It is incredible how emotionally connected people become to their favorite meals. In the end, the Impossible Burger is not a meat based burger, and while it may fool many, this singular fact may be the unbreakable barrier that prevents Impossible Foods from disrupting one of foods largest markets and ultimately changing the world.
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[i] J.L.P “Meat and Greens”. The Economist. December 31, 2013
[ii] J.L.P “Meat and Greens”. The Economist. December 31, 2013
[iii] Dekhtyar, P., Henderson, R., Migdal, A., Reinert, S., “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business” Harvard Business School. 2016. President and Fellows of Harvard College.