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- Pat Brown is the founder and CEO the $2 billion Impossible Foods, best known for its plant-based Impossible Burger.
- Brown is driven by his desire to combat the harmful effects of climate change through the reduction of meat in people’s diets, and believes business is the best tool for doing so.
- He wants nothing less than for Impossible Foods to be "the most impactful company in the history of the world."
- This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
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By all means, Impossible Foods is doing well. It just raised $300 million at a $2 billion valuation, has its plant-based Impossible Burger in more than 7,000 restaurants worldwide, and will soon be in all Burger King locations across the United States (not to mention your local grocery store).
But profits for their own sake aren’t what’s motivating founder and CEO Pat Brown, a chemist and environmentalist who started his business in 2011. When he says he wants Impossible Foods to do nothing less than change the way the world eats, you believe him.
Brown recently spoke to Business Insider about the company’s rapid growth, and in the following interview excerpt, he explains why Impossible Foods’ business is inextricably tied to an environmental mission.
The following was edited for length and clarity.
Richard Feloni: It seems there’s a kind of "meat alternative" media frenzy right now. Investors are talking about it, consumers are talking about it — there’s a craze around Impossible Foods and this entire concept in general. Does it concern you that the subject is becoming too fashionable?
Pat Brown: Yeah, it’s complicated. What I like seeing is that there is a certain interest and awareness in finding solutions to our dependence on animals, both among consumers and in the business world. That’s a good thing. I also like the idea that there are more companies and businesses that want to work on this problem. It creates a more robust ecosystem. There are more minds working on creative solutions. Those are good things.
The problem that we’re trying to solve is huge. The animal-based food industry is large by any measure: In 10 years, the animal-based foods market is projected to be more than $3 trillion. Clearly, it would not make sense for us to basically say, "No, we have to do this all ourselves."
I would say to the extent that other people who are really competent and really serious about the mission dive in, it’s an almost entirely good thing. The only caveat to that is not everybody is that competent or even well intentioned. There are things where I feel it’s kind of window dressing. Also, a lot of products suck, to be perfectly honest. The biggest obstacle that we face to new consumers trying our products is the deeply entrenched notion that "nothing that’s made from plants can deliver what I want from meat." Every time that issue is reinforced by another crappy plant-based product that is intended to replace meat, it in fact sets us back.
That’s why I’m just saying I’m ambivalent about it, but overall, I think it’s really great that there’s this level of interest and that awareness is surging.
Feloni: Is there a proven correlation that more consumption of these products leads to less meat consumption?
Brown: I think "proven" would be too strong. We collect data on our consumers. We have pretty good data that well over 90% of people who bought our burger in the past year have eaten meat in the previous month.
It doesn’t automatically follow that if they had not bought our product, they would have bought the cow version, but we also have separate data from consumer intercepts and so forth that suggests that that’s often the case.
Really what it comes down to is we have some good data that at least a significant fraction of our sales are coming directly at the expense of the animal-derived product.
Feloni: On the personal side of this, why is getting people to eat less meat so important to you?
Brown: Oh, are you kidding? The environmental impact of the animal-based foods industry altogether so far exceeds that of any other industry on the planet, ever. We are now in the advanced stages of the biggest environmental catastrophe that our planet has ever faced, and overwhelmingly the largest driver of that is animal-based food technology.
And this is not just some flaky notion that I have. Pretty much every environmental scientist that has looked at this on a global scale has come to the conclusion that this is by far the most environmentally destructive industry on the planet, and that it bears most of the responsibility for the worst environmental catastrophe that we have ever brought on ourselves. It’s driven by the growing demand for these products.
Why am I motivated? Because this is the biggest, most urgent problem that our planet and our species faces, and arguably the most urgent problem we’ve ever faced.
We know the culprit. But we’re not going to solve the problem by declaring war on the incumbent industry or telling people to change their diets. The only way to do it is by making products that do a better job of delivering what consumers value from meat and these other foods.
So, we’re not asking them to cut us some breaks because we’re trying to save the planet. Just go to the store, go to the restaurant, pick a product that you think is going to please you the most based on your current definition of pleasure. Then it’s our job at Impossible Foods to figure out how to make a product that outperforms the animal version in the way that matters to consumers.
If we can pull that off and successfully commercialize it and globalize it, it’s the only way we are going to avert this environmental catastrophe. You’re not going to do it by regulation; you’re not going to do it by persuasion or education. Climate change and biodiversity meltdown is happening at such a quick pace, that the only thing that can move that fast is the free market. That’s the most subversive institution that I know of.
Feloni: How big do you think the long-term impact of Impossible Foods can be on climate change? How big are you shooting for?
Brown: We will be the most impactful company in the history of the world. No questions. Full stop.
Brown: For example, by some estimates, 45% to 50% of the entire land area on Earth is actively in use to raise animals for food.
Most of this biodiversity meltdown is driven by the appetite for meat and dairy products. The definition of our mission is to replace animals with food technology by 2035. We can free up almost half of the entire land area of Earth that’s currently being used growing seed crops and grazing livestock and so forth, to begin to recover its biomass and biodiversity. That is huge!
If you take all the cities plus all the roads plus all the infrastructure, all the paved lands across the Earth, that’s just a low single-digit percentage of the land area of Earth. And the footprint of the animal-based food industry is almost half of the entire land area of Earth. If you can free that up, allow it to restore healthy ecosystems and habitats, not only do you avoid this biodiversity catastrophe, but the recovery of our land can actually turn back the clock on climate change. It will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere faster, and we’re pumping it out by fossil fuel emissions.
When you talk about carbon-capture technologies, the stuff that’s out there is very, very expensive, technically complex, extremely difficult and complicated and hard to scale. Or, you can just let plants grow. There’s just letting plants grow. That’s the most robust, mature, highly evolved system for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere that exists on Earth, and all you really need is land.
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