Is the Future of Food Impossible?

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: How low will him to sleep?

S3: Money, food. Welcome. Tad, friend, you are here to talk to us about plant based meats. As anyone who has been following the beyond meat share price knows, this is something which a lot of people care a lot about and they’re making a lot of money on. Who are you and how do you know about this?

S1: I’m a staff writer at The New Yorker and I know about it. I spent about six months writing about the world of plant based meats and focusing particularly on the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, Pat Brown, who is a former Stanford University biochemist who started the company with the idea that if they were successful in originally just making a plant based burger and they could grow it, that eventually they got really, really fast. They could get rid of all animal food products across the globe by 2035.

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S3: It’s a huge ambition which we’re going to talk about. Pat Brown’s ambitions. We got to talk about the beyond meat, Jeff Rice. We’re going to talk about grass fed vs. green fed beef. We’re going to talk a little bit about your friend and mine, Mr. Ben Barber. And we’re going to talk about how to cook an impossible burger and how it differs perhaps from cooking a regular burger. All that coming up on sleep. Money. Food. So, Ted, how often do you eat fake meat?

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S1: That’s one question that immediately begs the question of whether the question is correct. It was the people who make what they call plant based meat would object strenuously today. Fake meat. But putting that aside for the moment, actually, when I started reporting about the world of plant based meats, cell-based meats, I eat it. Never. And now I find myself eating it a lot just because every time I eat a cow based burger, I kind of can’t help but think of clouds of methane going up into the atmosphere, which is not a very savory prospect. Just the other weekend, my daughter, who’s just declared that she’s a vegetarian, demanded an impossible birder’s. I was cooking both cow and impossible burgers at the same time in the oven and had the sort of interesting, weird thing. I’m trying to do them eat them side by side as a taste test and which I hadn’t done in a while. And unfortunately, the cow burger still tastes a little bit different. And also the impossible burger. You know, my wife is the chef at the family. I’m pretty good with progress, but it’s very easy to go from having it be. Looks still sort of pink. And then suddenly it’s like crispy. It’s very hard to get it. Exactly. Medium rare, at least in my attempts. But that’s a long winded answer. But I’m not I guess I’m not eating many burgers at all these days. And then when I do, I’m sort of thinking, gee, it should probably be a plant based one.

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S3: Would you say that the main use case for plant based meats is as a burger substitute?

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S1: Right now it is both beyond meat and impossible. Foods started in North America, which, you know, so they’re they’re starting there and then kind of branching out into the world, even though they know that North America only consumes about twelve percent of the world’s meat. It’s obviously a great place to start. And in North America, 60 percent of beef is ground. So it makes sense to start with the burger. That’s the thing where you’re going to if you can convince consumers to change, you drive a wedge in to a lot of them. I get right away.

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S3: So this is something I didn’t know, being someone who has never actually cooked an impossible burger at home. I mean, I like you maybe maybe even less. And you’re not much of a burger person to begin with. And when I do eat them, it’s only Lamberg, as you’re saying, that impossible. Burgers similar to. Beef burgers in the Dungeness increases over the time that you cook it, and so you can have like a less well done or more well done, impossible burger. And that affects the taste rather than just the crispiness.

S1: The whole idea when Pat Brown and the CEO and founder of Impossible started the company, he was thinking like in order, we are not convincing people to give up meat through arguments about animal welfare or even about the planet. We have to do it by basically making a better product. The way to make a better product is way to get there is you have to make a similar product. That’s a taste like meat and it has to cook like me so that it recapitulated the whole sort of savory sensation of eating meat. And there 1.0 product was not that great. I mean, it’s fine, but there 2.0 if you do it right in a matter of quite done it right. And it helps if you’re a chef. Kind of. Experimenting a lot, but the idea is it actually that it will release fuses. It will tenderize. It will caramelize. It’ll create a sort of Sabry you mommy as you cook it. Whereas if you just take a traditional vegetarian burger that you would find in the freezer case 10 years ago, it basically just kind of heats up and sort of wilts. I mean, it doesn’t doesn’t chemically transform. It just sort of warms up as you heat it. But this actually chemically transforms. And the main thing is a is a a molecule called heme for the impossible burger. That is the thing that’s in our bloodstream that makes our blood red. And also it’s in cows bloodstreams. And that is sort of they think of as the catalyst for a lot of these sort of meaty chemical transformations.

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S3: We should jump in here to note that when people talk about their burgers being bloody, that’s not actually blood, that red stuff that comes out of a bag.

S1: It’s not it’s actually a molecule they find in blood. But then this case happens to be made from genetically modified yeast in any 50 thousand gallon tanks, sort of weirdly pink color. Sort of like a Dairy Queen type of soft serve, almost used to traditionally white. That because cream is pink tends to kind of pink and color is very important in foods and then burgers.

S3: The other question I have for you, just because it’s a genuine question, I haven’t broken in both with vodka, is that my my general technique of cooking burgers is I throw a bunch of ground laminate skillet and then it cooks in its own fat. As it warms up, the fat melts and that creates the caramelization because you wind up basically frying Lamberg in its own lamphere. Do imposible burgers and beyond burgers. Do they have fat in them that sort of leaks out and then cooks them?

S1: They they have to recreate it because it’s not animal fat. But they they both have they both use sort of coconut oil to marbleized and give you that sort of marble texture that ground beef has and also just create a sense it is a fat, but it’s a different kind of fat. So there’s not enough of a chemist to exactly know how to explain the seven chemical steps along the way. But my general sense is that, yes, it’s a simulacrum of that. And to the extent you find it pleasing is just about your taste and also your sense of moral outrage.

S3: And I think that the higher the moral outrage, the lower the bar for taste and your and your sense of outrage is is quite high moral and that you’re not caring about the cows themselves so much as your caring about the environment and the carbon emissions as well.

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S1: So you’re making morality can only apply to cows and not to welfare of an entire plant. That’s a very interesting man.

S3: Maybe maybe I can’t think about Gaia. You get about, like, the big morality here.

S1: Yeah, I like that formulation of the question a little better. I actually grew up on a dairy farm, so I’d you care about cows, but I would say my sense of moral outrage was heightened during the reporting of the piece. In a way, I usually I mean, I almost always start a piece without having much of an idea of where I’m going to end up, because I think if you know that, you end up sort of. Finding your way there no matter what. And I didn’t really think much of it. That was an interesting topic. But I found, as I reported, that my sense of the injury to the planet that I was totally unaware of from the agricultural sector and particularly from growing animals for meat was so much greater than I had thought. And ramify as in so many directions that even setting aside the question of animal welfare and whether we should be using animals for meat, the consequences of using them for meat seem to be bad for all of us.

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S3: Using the N equals one of your daughter, is that right? Was that the primary reason why she became a vegetarian?

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S1: No, she’s been agitating for a while. I think finally she was just like she just threw down and was like, I’m a vegetarian. And I sort of think secretly thinking, well, good for you. That’s great that you’re determining your course of life. And my wife, who’s a chef and who runs a food Web site, was outraged at that. The interesting thing was this is a slightly separate from the topic, but maybe it’s related is that after a few weeks of being a vegetarian, she started to miss some of the things that we like about eating meat. Many of us. So she’s now what she calls a Bako, Peski, Attarian, Jemal, bacon and fish, because, you know, she can sort of get the tastes and the proteins that she was missing without feeling like she’s eating kind of yucky steak.

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S3: I do believe there’s every vegetarian should have like one pork product that they kind of can cheat with. In Spain, of course, it’s. Come on.

S1: Well, I think it’s hard to just go totally cold turkey, which itself is a phrase that I suggest as a turkey somewhere about you know, the interesting thing is about the to me, one of these things about so many of the people have started either plant based meat companies or cell-based meat companies in which you sell base meat is a sort of different approach to the same problem where you basically are trying to recapitulated the growth of meat in a lab, starting with an animal cell and then multiplying it billions of times to create a burger or a chicken nugget or steak eventually. And it’s a very embryonic industry. But the people who started a lot of these companies are vegans. And they’ve they’ve realized that actually the way like both Pat Brown is a vegan. Ethan Brown, who started beyond burgers on meats, is a vegan. Josh Tetrick, who started just which makes the kind of man age and egg substitutes, is trying to get into cell-based meat. Is it vegan? And they all realize that people are not receptive to people, meaning like the vast swath of population is not receptive to that message because it’s again, about animal welfare. They are more receptive to ideas of taste and to sort of saving the planet. That seems to be a better way to go in terms of lowering people’s anxieties and hackles about what they’re eating.

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S3: We had Dan Barber. This show, and he was very, very adamant that he is by no means a vegetarian, but that he very much believes in having Klumb scented food and, you know, just having the occasional protein from here and there as and when this is kind of a sort of supporting role and. I kind of get the same message and a different flavor, I guess, from the kind of people that you’re talking to in the alternative meat industry. There’s basically saying that the effects on the planet is much bigger if a lot of people eat less meat than if a minority of people eat no meat.

S1: Right. I think most of the sort of thoughtful, responsible people are simply trying to kind of essentially to take a phrase from the coded industry, flatten the curve and try to prevent China and India and very fast growing countries that have traditionally eaten less meat from adopting that meat is what they call a 20 2050 problem. That by the year 2050, our planet, which now has seven point eight billion people, will have 10 billion people. If meat growth continues to grow and it’s growing 400 times in China since 1960, one continues to grow. At that rate, basically, there will be no forests left. There will be greenhouse gases everywhere. So they’re trying to just responsibly sort of taper it off. The interesting thing about Pat Brown, who started impossible is he is like no tapering. We are going to replace all animal food, fish, chicken, pork, turkey, everything by 2035. And everyone, even his own board members, even people who work for his company and his most devoted disciples. No, no one I spoke to thinks that’s that’s feasible. It’s 15 years away. You know, right now, plant based food is still way less than one percent of the world’s intake. And Pat actually told me that he still thinks he actually thinks he can do it before 2035. He just thought it sounded so crazy. He had to sort of push it back a couple of years.

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S3: What’s the future in China? As you say, China is the big one with this massively growing middle class, with much more disposable income to be buying meat. And presumably on some level, it’s a lot easier to show people a pathway that involves less meat eating in the future than it is to try and get them to reverse the habits of many decades of eating meat every day.

S1: Exactly. That’s that’s exactly right. And that’s why these companies are all trying to, as quickly as possible, leap from America to places like China and India and China. There’s an interesting, complicated set of factors that go into the calculus, and I worry about some of them in the piece. One factor is that famously, you know, China has often hijacked intellectual property. So there’s a concern about you take your process in there. You have you have a relationship with a company where you work on something together and suddenly they just take it from you and then go from there and make it. That’s actually fine with Pat Brown. He’s like, I don’t care. Almost like if we make a profit there, I just want to get the idea introduced there. It’s not so fine with his shareholders. So there’s a little bit of a tension there. One of Pat’s major arguments, and it’s really interesting given what’s happening now, he’s trying to he’s trying to argue to the central government, this is actually a national security issue for you. You import a lot of your meat. You’re dependent on foreign supply. And if you can make, you know, plant based meat and that satisfies your nation’s hunger for meat, you’re no longer dependent on. That also is another points which you don’t know whether or not he is making to China, but he certainly made it to me was that so many pandemics start a potential pandemic, start from avian and swine flu and from meat markets like the one in Nouhad that ultimately led to the coronavirus, if you could. You know, if he’s right and if he’s successful and he’s somehow miraculously managed to rid the world of meat markets by thirty five, there wouldn’t be this, you know, zoonotic transmission chain from bats or monkeys through domestic meat animals to us.

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S3: I feel like on some level, if we are told a vegetarian diet will prevent a global pandemic like this one, having just lived through as we’re living through this one, that is an incredibly powerful argument to put to people, at least right now, before they forget how bad it is right now.

S1: It seems like I haven’t actually seen anyone make it. And I’m I’m so I’m going to defer to Pat, who, if he chose to make it, can make it much better than me. But I totally agree with you that it would be a powerful one. We’re running for a second to a point you’re making about Dan Barber earlier. You know, Dan is a friend of mine, and we agreed to talk around a central issue around plant based meats, which is. Yes. He’s totally you know, he’s all he’s obviously Mr. Farm to table. He’s totally about locally sourced plants and meats. The thing that I found that he he probably would disagree with this, but that was interesting and surprising to me was that you one naturally thinks of grass fed beef is somehow more organic and lovely and good in some vague, glowing way. And it turns out that actually. Because grass fed beef is not finished for the last four, six months of its life on grain at feedlots. It grows much more slowly and therefore produces much more methane. And also grass is harder to digest and therefore produces more methane than grayness. So that grain, which is you know, it’s like, yes, it’s an American factory system. Yes. It’s unsavory in a certain sense. Yes. It’s sort of mechanized and awful. And cows are not as happy, but it actually is better for the planet in a weird way than grass fed beef.

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S3: Assuming that the total number of cows you raising stays constant, which I think is probably not a fair assumption, you can’t move from grain fed beef raising to grass fed beef raising and keep on raising the same number of cows.

S1: You’d actually have to raise more cows.

S3: Yeah, well, one thing is that there’s just less capacity that, you know, if you if you converted all of us beef industry to grass fed, the total capacity of the industry would go down a lot and the price would go up.

S1: Well, I’m not clear on how you’re using the word capacity. The total number of cows you would need to boost the same amount of meat would go up or else you have to have them eating more food for longer.

S3: I guess what I’m saying that you the total amount of sheer acreage that you would need would be so enormous to keep the and volumes that they would just be no physical way to produce that much.

S1: Almost five percent that level. Yes. Right now, five percent or so of cows in North America are grass fed. So to be multiply that by 20 essentially. And in terms of that, to get 200 percent of grass fed, and that would mean a lot more munching a grass and a lot more methane. So and there are theories that kind of this and there’s a you know, there’s sort of the idea, Helen Savery, did you ever genitive grazing that if you raise it very carefully and you had the cattle marching in it as a kind of very carefully confined herd and treading down the grass in certain ways, it regenerates the science I’ve seen. And that seems at best uncertain. But there are definitely people who believe in who like the idea of a virtuous cycle of the cattle that tramp down the grass and then the manure that restores the grass and so forth. It’s all one happy circle of life and it kind of isn’t this way. But it weirdly seems like the actual way for the meat industry. If you believe in the meat industry, to try to tamp down the curve would be to apply American scientific methods broadly across the globe and to have more factory farms.

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S3: And if we don’t want that, then we go back to the club based meats. I want to come back to something you were saying about like China stealing IP, the club based meats that are really catching the popular imagination right now beyond meat. Impossible burgers made by private for profit companies with patents and share prices. If the future is clomp based, meats is the future or also by necessity, one where, you know, a large chunk of the protein that we ingest is is basically a patented corporate for profit thing where we’re sending money to a big global company.

S1: Yes. Yes and no. Yes. In the sense that, you know, the way America we figured out how to build a better mousetrap tends to be privately rather than the government building mousetraps. And the government has shown no interest whatsoever in building a better burger. Better for the planet. In fact, quite the opposite. You could argue that the power of the media industry and its lobbyists has had a significant influence. Let’s put it that way on the USDA. So the. And the laws that have been passed the last few years is slightly off topic, perhaps. But in states that prevent impossible and beyond from even describing their product as a burger, nomenclature laws this sort of legislative thicket trying to convince customers that these things are not even, quote unquote vegetarian burgers, you can’t call it in Arkansas. You can’t call impossible a vegetarian burger. What do they have to call it? I don’t even know something else, like probably fake meat or, you know, something that sort of sounds unappetizing. But getting back to your earlier question, Pat Brown, because he is he’s a missionary and a zealot and an evangelist. His plan is, you know, within a few years and again, his shareholders might hem and haw about this, but his plan is to not in China, at least in the beginning, but eventually across the globe, including China, give away the formula to to all these different, you know, not to meat, but also pork and sausage and chicken as it rolls those out to other companies and say, go ahead, have at it. Improve this. Tweak it. And as soon as you start to make more. A million dollars from your company. Give us some royalties on it. But the idea is you thinking that’s that’s the way we can grow really fast and we won’t own the entire market. We won’t be this big a hated megacorp. We’ll be the friendly, nurturing, you know, almost quasi governmental institution that’s trying to build up companies around the globe.

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S3: Are you hopeful on that front? You think this vision might come to pass?

S1: Well, you know, like, it’s one of those classic car head things where I would like Kim to be correct in how he sees the world working and in the success of his own products. I think it would be good for all of us. And I also, in some kind of metal sense, think it’s great when a scientist using actual science can develop a product that seems to improve things. And I think that has a sort of ramifying effect on our belief in science. I would say my head sort of thinks it’s, gee, it’s you know, I still you’re still 10. They started in 2011 and it took them a while to get a product to market in 2016. But so five years after getting their product to market, you know, all a plant based foods inmates are still less than one percent of the market. And he’s done the calculations on a napkin for me. And it’s more convincing than Laforet career, but not much. Which is that they have to grow to double production every year to get there to take over the entire meat supply for the next 15 years, which is growing more than thirty thousand fold, which is huge and impossible. So I kind of think the only way to do that probably is by outsourcing it to other companies and having them be part of that growth. And I also think he is he doesn’t really care about money. He doesn’t care about world domination. He really wants this idea to work for the good of all. So I believe his heart is totally in the right place. And then the question is whether they can execute on division.

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S3: I mean, on some level, I’d buy it. It’s becoming the sort of dominant operating system for a post meat world. Do you become a little bit like Microsoft? You just sort of install your Windows software on every computer sold and take some small slice of the price of that computer, and then you can make a lot of money that way. If you if you kind of install the impossible operating system and a bunch of food factories around the planet, and they will pay you a little license for that software, even though it’s not really software. That could be a huge business. And on some level, the shareholders would love to have a smaller slice of something global than a hundred percent of something which isn’t really getting traction yet.

S1: I think you can make that argument and and he will make that argument and say, look, it’s going to be not just good for the world, but it’s also good for the bottom line. The tricky thing is to get back to the China point is if they if and when they get in there and scale. I was talking to the the vice president there who’s in charge of kind of heading that up. And you saying we won’t give them the formula, but we’ll do the same thing that Coca-Cola does. We’ll send in the bucks, you know, and then maybe they can reengineer it. But we won’t be sending in the buckets with the most recent update upgrade. We’ll be sending in like the version from a couple years back because they’re just like a littles still worried that, you know, for purely capitalist reasons at the moment, as they’re growing, as they keep having to raise money, they just raise another 500 billion dollars, if not raise one point three billion dollars. There’s no need to. Payback. Their investors. They can’t just throw it all back it.

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S3: Well, here’s the Formula One final question about the beyond meet share price, which is one of these stocks a bit like Zoome or Tesla or Virgin Galactic, but just kind of goes parabolic in this crazy volatile. And people have made a lot of money on it. And because lost a load of money on it, too. Do you understand the sort of volatility there? I mean, I think what the market is telling us is that no one has a clue whether these things are going to be successful or not. And the range of outcomes is so enormous that you can tweak your assumptions just a little bit and the value of the company. Whipsaws all over the place.

S1: I think it’s exactly what you said. I think it’s the, you know, plant based meats in North America alone. Sales grew 18 percent just in grocery stores and impossible joined beyond in grocery stores only in September. So this year, it’ll be a lot more, particularly because people are getting their food from grocery stores now and not from restaurants right at the moment as much across America. So you can see that growth and you can think, you know, you can look at that trajectory and think, wow. And then you can also look at the other thing, which is you look at meat and think, yeah, but meat is still traditional. Meat is still ninety nine point five percent of the global market. And they’re very entrenched. And those people, you know, kind of know what they’re doing. And when they eventually just come along and kind of do some crappy version of it, which they already tried to do, what he started to make things called incognito is possibly the worst all time name for a product.

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S3: What what is incognito?

S1: I need to know, Incognito is a meat substitute made by Kella and and, you know, like and clearly they think, honestly, Mitt has made the amazing burger and the incredible burger. And I may be getting this name somebody Romba they’re currently trying to, you know, confuse people about what’s the impossible, what’s the incredible, what’s the amazing but good for the road. It is. They’re often sort of these watered. Yes. In an in a general sense, except if you’re disappointed by the knockoff and a lot of the knockoffs are weird, kind of like mixtures of chicken and pea protein or sort of kind of flexitarian mashups that satisfy no one. And just to satisfy everyone. But to your earlier original question about Beyond Burger, if you’re investing in it, you’re investing in the story, you’re investing in the belief that this can you know, eventually this whole way of engaging with animals and plants is going to change.

S3: Well, as a storyteller, I suppose you’ve you’ve done your part for the Beyond Reach appraisal, whether it was not the intent of your piece.

S1: Well, I bought a lot right before I got on the phone with you.

S4: And then you can sell it all three days after this book comes out and flip. There’s going to be a series of complex trades that can take you to right after the podcast. Friend, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure to have you. Thanks so much for having me.