The promise of the world’s best plant-based meat product continues to sizzle. Soon — sooner than you think — it will taste like steak.
After its surprise announcement at CES this week, Impossible Foods is now rolling out what has been hailed as a juicier, tastier, 100% more gluten-free version of the Impossible Burger, which was already judged the best fake beef available (but used to include wheat). We put it on our best of CES list.
The thousands of U.S. restaurants currently serving it (including White Castle, purveyors of the $1.99 Impossible Slider), will make the switch by the end of February. Impossible says a retail version of the burger is coming to supermarkets sometime in 2019.
‘We’re going to replace animals by 2035’
And this is just the beginning for a Silicon Valley food sciences company that plans to scale up faster than any of the tech giants surrounding it did. Upgrades will be rolled out at places like CES, every user will quickly switch to the new version (no legacy problems here!) And then it’s straight back to the drawing board on how to tweak the proteins and other plant-based ingredients to make the next version even juicier, even more meat-like.
In the same way Apple and Android cast a snooty eye at each other, Dr. Pat Brown, the Stanford biochemistry scientist who became Impossible’s CEO, likes to say his competition is cows. And they aren’t iterating.
“Our cycle of innovation is likely to be faster than once a year,” Brown told me as he exited CES when I compared Impossible’s roll-outs to iPhone launches. “As soon as we feel we’ve got something decisively better, something that will accelerate our mission, we’re not going to wait around.”
The scale of Brown’s mission makes companies like Uber or Amazon look modest. “We’re going to replace animals by 2035,” he says. It’s hard not to be infected by his enthusiasm about what would happen next: food production occupies almost half of Earth’s land area, so “if you could snap your fingers and make the animal industry go away, vegetation growing back on that land would bring CO2 levels down every year by itself” no matter what kinds of cars we drive.
The jury is out on whether such a scheme would work, and of course we should replace gas guzzlers with electric cars regardless. But the vegetation we currently have on Earth absorbs 50 percent of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All that wild green stuff is no slouch when it comes to decarbonization, and it would love to go to town on the millions of acres currently occupied by nothing but cattle.
Brown may be impossibly ambitious, but he’s not wrong. Fundamentally, the cattle industry is like the coal industry: It is dirty, messy, a nightmare for everyone involved, profoundly poisonous to the planet, and a leading cause of climate change.
The people who make your burgers don’t want to deal with all that noise if they can serve you a product that is cheaper (as Impossible intends to be at scale), more consistently tasty, and doesn’t have fecal matter on it.
There’s a lot to this long-term vision. Brown and his 300-strong team in Redwood City, California have thought through it all, including which ingredients will be the most resistant to climate change effects themselves, so the company can keep scaling up its use of them. And how to license the recipe, because Brown is aware that one company can’t save the planet all on its own.
Oh yes, and what the next low-hanging food is. Brown boasts that the company already has a plant milk recipe that he claims is better than any other plant milk currently out there, but it’s too focused on the beef side of things right now. “If it was up to replacing what was in my diet, we’d make cheese before anything else,” he says.
But “meat technology is by a humungous margin the most disruptive technology on Earth,” he says. So next up is producing iterative versions of steak, which the company will only release when it’s ready to take on the real thing.
If and when that happens, it’s game over, cows.