Impossible Foods: How a Burger Will Save the World

Growing cows for meat consumption is inefficient and environmentally costly, but people still need their burgers. Ladies and Gentlemen…The Impossible Burger

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.

(Word Count 735)

[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.

[iv]  https://impossiblefoods.com/faq/. Impossible Burgers Website. HOW GOOD IS THE IMPOSSIBLE BURGER FOR THE PLANET?

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15 thoughts on “Impossible Foods: How a Burger Will Save the World

  1. I never thought about the meat industry as contributing to climate change, but duh — they do. All those cows and their methane… Thanks for this. One thing this prompted me to think about was USDA’s dietary recommendations. Up until recently, they pushed protein pretty heavily as a key component of an adult male’s diet. Now they realize that men are consuming TOO MUCH meat, and have scaled down their recommendations for daily protein consumption. I wonder if Impossible Foods were to partner in some way with the USDA, they might be able to get at the consumer behavior question you brought up in the last paragraph.

  2. Great post!
    I once read about Impossible Foods and thought it sounded incredible. I really wanted to try one, but, of course, as you point out, they have no strong distribution network yet. I think the key to mass adoption will be for people to just get to try it and see for themselves how much like a burger it is. I wonder if they could start by doing traveling samples/taste tests, perhaps at food festivals in NYC for starters, or at food truck events? I feel like the audiences at those types of places will be more adventurous than the average consumer and can be the early adopters and brand advocates. I think they should target mostly the meat-eating crowd rather than vegetarians/vegans as those will be the key switchers needed to accomplish their climate change mission.

  3. Awesome post highlighting the tremendous impact that the meat industry has on global pollution. You mention scalability as a key concern. I completely agree, but also think, on a related note, getting their costs down is going to be absolutely critical success. It will be hard to convince people to eat a more sustainability “burger” if it is way more expensive than a conventional one. Furthermore, I am concerned about their distribution strategy. How are they going to evangelize this product around the world? Right now they are limited to partnerships with extremely influential, high-end chefs in American urban markets. What is the goal? To sell in every grocery store? To be on the menu at Applebee’s? To be sold at McDonald’s? I think having a clear sense of mission and purpose will be critical for the company as it starts to expand its distribution.

  4. A really interesting post, Steve. I definitely agree with the challenges ahead that you laid out. Gaining scale will be difficult but I think if they can gain a strong beachhead market where consumers tend to be more sustainability-focused (potentially certain US cities or forward thinking European locations, e.g. Scandinavia and the Netherlands) from which they can improve operations and grow, I think over time they can address this. On the consumer preferences point, I think effectively creating this shift comes down to four factors: price, taste, convenience and time (to change perceptions). If Impossible Foods can achieve this then hallelujah… they would have achieved something many believe (not me) is impossible.

  5. Yuk! Great post, and there’s no doubt that our growing demand for meat has an immense impact on our environment, but I think consumer preference is a huge problem here that will not change any time in the near future. To be completely honest, I would not eat this, and I doubt many Americans would eat this over their beloved cheese burgers. For that reason, I don’t see this business diminishing demand for beef, nor the amount of GHG that comes from producing our food.

  6. Awesome post, Steve! In regards to the concern about “consumer behavior and preferences,” I agree that the sentimental value we attach to an old fashioned burger is tough to change. However, I’m curious whether they have done any double-blind taste tests with burger aficionados and used those results as marketing tools to prove that they are equally great? While the hurdle may be tough at first, the you paint a great picture of the long-term environmental benefits outweighing the short-term skepticism.

    My concern, though is about the cost to produce these burgers? I do not know much about the process of producing vegan food, but I assume that the meat industry as a whole has become very streamlined and good at maximizing its utilization / efficiency. What is your sense for how well vegan burgers can compete on their COGS?

  7. Steve, thank you for a very interesting look at the potential future of food. Having just lived in New York for the last four years, I noticed a handful of new restaurants popping up that were vegan, but “un-apologetically” so. The food blog “The Infatuation” put it better than I could when discussing one of these restaurants: “rather than serve vegetables that taste like meat, Avant Garden serves vegetables that taste like vegetables.” I’m completely on board with reducing our reliance on inefficient food sources (and wow, I did not realize quite how inefficient beef was), but is the “meat substitute” route really the way to go? Like Andrew said above, if you’re comparing a veggie burger to a meat burger, the meat burger has a natural advantage. Why not create something that isn’t a burger at all, but that is unambiguously more desirable? In a future where we simply don’t have the planetary resources to support cows, why eat something modeled on an anachronism?

  8. Great post, Steve! I also wrote about the impact of the livestock industry on climate change. Impossible Burger seems to have a promising solution. If they can achieve scale, I wonder if large restaurant businesses in the United States (like McDonald’s) would ever be interested in partnering with them. If successful, such a partnership could have a significant impact on consumer behavior.

  9. Great post! Although it did make me very hungry….

    A lot of protein, beef in particular, is known for consuming more water vs. the nutrients it provides. If Impossible Foods can make this work, it would be amazing, for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Other companies are also trying to tackle this problem from a different perspective – using cricket flour! Crickets are protein packed but require very little water to grow. I’ve tried a Chapul bar (http://www.chapul.com/) and it wasn’t bad.

  10. This is fantastic! I was strongly reminded of the Australian version called Lord of the Fries (http://www.lordofthefries.com.au)! I didn’t realize they were vegetarian until someone actually told me, which is exactly the same case as Impossible Foods! I have a couple of points. 1)I think the difference between this case and the others we have discussed in class, such as Ikea is that this has direct implications on humans as consumers. For example, I think it’s great that Ikea is looking after the environment, and I’m willing to pay a premium for the “sustainability feel good factor” but there is no harm to me as a consumer. Contrastingly, I wonder what the nutrition value of these burgers is! 2) I question scalability and accessibility of Impossible Burgers! Its impact on sustainability could be low if it is only accessible to middle to high income earners.

  11. Steve – great read. Both of us were at the Tech Conference Future of Food panel and met the COO of Impossible Foods. My question for you is about what he said: that the key to this movement is not the product, the R&D, the implementation, or the distribution. It’s the marketing. Specifically, he also said that it’s important to market this to non-vegetarians first – those who really love a burger. Then, the vegans and vegetarians will follow (or will just naturally jump on the bandwagon without targeted marketing).

    I’m really curious as to whether you agree with that. If so, what are the types of marketing messages, channels, and media you would use to reach the target market. …and as a result, how quickly can this product diffuse into its adoption cycle? Let’s keep our ongoing dialogue going on this issue!

  12. Really interesting post, Steve!

    I’m particularly intrigued by the point on scalability. Assuming that government or some form of industry self-regulatory body steps in to guide the process of moving to products similar to the Impossible brand, not many (if any) brands would be likely to able to cope with the volumes needed for anticipated global demand. If they choose to follow this path, the global fast-food chains (McD especially comes to mind) seem to be the most likely drivers of this industry. How do you feel about the ethical prospect of a company like McDonald’s effectively owning this system? Is it right that given their scale, it is most appropriate to push change in the world’s largest companies?

  13. Very interesting post, Steve. You mention the possibility of government intervention here – has any legislation been contemplated? I also agree that I think this is a long shot as consumer pushback would be fierce. It calls to mind the hotly contested sugary drinks portion rule in New York city which was struck down by the courts in 2014. It is likely going to take innovative products like the Impossible Burger to change consumer behavior organically.

  14. Great read, Steve (can’t say I’m surprised – wouldn’t expect anything else). It seems like the future of food is becoming more bizarre by the minute – from meat grown in labs to all that’s featured on Season 2 of Chef’s Table. Being a foodie, I’ve never had so much to think about. According to an article, it took over multiple hundreds of millions of dollars and five years for Impossible Foods to create the burger – arduous amount of time and resources! What are your thoughts on how the Company can most effectively market its burger? Which consumer demographic would you target first? As a meat lover yourself, how likely is it that you (and other meat-lovers) will eventually switch to only eating non-meat burgers?

  15. I am really looking forward to products like this becoming more widespread! Seconding MA’s latter questions– Have you tried it, and was it good? What do you think it’d take to get people to switch (despite sentimental connection, etc)?

    Also, do you know what is the soy content of the Impossible Burger? And the sourcing of that soy? As you probably know, soy (a common meat substitute) is itself embroiled in environmental controversy– having driven a lot of deforestation (www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/wp/09-05TransportAmazon.pdf)… So switching away from meat to soy may not necessarily offer as much environmental relief as would a movement to non-soy base.

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