Tech Start-up Raises Big Money for the Fake Meat of the Future

Can Impossible Foods reach the Holy Grail of a meaty cruelty-free burger with $108 million?
(Photo: Facebook)
Oct 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here’s a question for socially conscious vegetarians: What would you pay for an oozy, juicy burger that you could savor guilt-free? Does $108 million sound about right?

It seems the Silicon Valley tech set is bullish on the future of plant-based foods. As TechCrunch reports, the four-year-old food-tech hybrid company Impossible Foods just raised an eye-popping $108 million in its most recent round of funding, with an A-list group of investors that includes Viking Global Investors, Khosla Ventures, Horizon Ventures, and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. That’s on top of the $75 million the company raised during its first round.

Impossible Foods is, indeed, trying to do something that seems to live up to the company’s name: come up with a plant-based burger that looks, cooks, and tastes like real beef. Appropriate for Impossible Foods’ home base of Redwood City, California, smack-dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. The company’s founder, Patrick Brown, spent 25 years as a biochemistry professor at Stanford before setting out to revolutionize the food industry with science.

“Animal farming is absurdly destructive and completely unsustainable,” Brown told The Economist last year. “Yet the demand for meat and dairy products is going up.”

As more people around the globe have moved into the middle class, they’ve developed a taste for more beef—a trend line that causes no small degree of concern among sustainability experts. Cattle require an outsize amount of natural resources, from land to water, and the payback in terms of calories from the meat they generate is relatively paltry: In the U.S. and Europe, for example, a cow must consume between 75 and 300 kilograms of feed to produce a single kilogram of meat. Meanwhile, a study published last year found that red meat production is responsible for five times the amount of carbon pollution other types of meat cause, and 11 times the amount for crop staples such as potatoes, wheat, and rice, leading to headlines touting that in the fight against global warming, we might do better to give up our burgers rather than our cars.

But coming up with the next-generation veggie burger that doesn’t just taste like a barley-patty sodium bomb hasn’t been easy for anyone. NPR correspondent Queena Kim sampled an Impossible Foods burger last year and gave it a tentative thumbs-up: “If I’d tasted it at a fast-food joint, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. At the same time, it’s not as good as the grass-fed burger that I get at my favorite restaurant.” Of course, that’s a decided improvement over the company’s initial prototype, which one early taster described as tasting like “rancid polenta,” as Brown admitted to The Economist.

The burger even oozes a substance that looks like blood; it’s derived from heme, which isn’t just found in hemoglobin but also in the roots of bean plants. Thus, the appearance of a medium-rare burger isn’t just for show; as Kim reports, it tastes like blood. Gross as that is to write, it’s part of what fuels our carnivorous cravings.

Even as a number of tech-style start-ups have emerged to challenge the status quo of how we eat, from Hampton Creek’s mission to replace the egg in everything from mayo to cake mix with plant-based ingredients to other efforts to create lab-grown “chicken” tenders, there’s perhaps a paradox here that all these innovators may have to overcome, one obscured by the enthusiasm of the venture capitalists eager to back them. As more Americans become more conscientious about the food they’re eating and the environmental ramifications of producing it, we’ve come to equate “natural” with “less processed.”

The question is: Are we ready to accept that the most sustainable, cruelty-free food of the future is probably going to come from a lab?