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Behavior Change
Burgers for Biodiversity? How Much Difference Can the Impossible Burger Really Make?

For a country that loves its burgers, the Impossible Burger’s swift uptake has been a bit of a surprise. But it shouldn’t be — Impossible Foods is giving people what they really want: taste, health and ethics.

In the last year, I’ve had more Impossible Burgers at food conferences than regular burgers. Just this week, for example, WRI hosted an event called in Washington, DC on How to feed the world without destroying it, which discussed its just-release report, called Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Impossible Burgers were served for lunch; and Kim Bartley, the CMO of White Castle — which added Impossible Burgers to its menu last year — spoke at the event. She shared that having the burgers on the menu has brought back people who had stopped eating fast food burgers.

The emerging message is that meat-eating consumers also care about their health, climate and the environment. Burgers are a guilty pleasure for many, so a solution that relieves some of that guilt is poised to do well in the market. Modern consumers want it all — and Impossible Foods aims to offer it by integrating taste, climate and biodiversity goals into its business model.

I caught up with Rebekah Moses, Impossible’s Senior Manager of Impact Strategy, to learn more about how Impossible Foods sees itself and its role in nudging us toward more sustainable diets.

Impossible Foods markets to many people who don’t consider themselves vegetarians, at restaurants that range from fast food to gourmet. What do you hear from your customers about why they are so keen to try the burger?

Rebekah Moses: The level of demand we're seeing indicates widespread interest in plant-based meats across all consumer segments. In fact, 90 percent of our customers are omnivores who eat meat on a regular basis. We have always marketed our product primarily to meat eaters because convincing people who eat meat to switch to a plant-based diet accomplishes our mission. Inversely, selling to vegetarians and vegans who already eating a primarily or completely plant-based diet, doesn't necessarily have a positive impact on the environment because they were already doing the right thing. By focusing on meat eaters, it's really proving the concept that a delicious-tasting product will drive change towards a sustainable, scalable food system. Impossible Foods takes a molecular approach to understanding the full experience of eating meat, and this is why our product appeals to people who eat meat regularly. The real driver for food choice is always the sensory experience and the accessibility — plant-based meat is delicious, and we're showing customers that they don't have to compromise on taste to reduce the amount of animal products they consume. We bake sustainability in from concept and development, deliver it in a great product, and the environmental outcomes can really scale. 

People aren’t always aware of how much of an impact on the climate their diets make. How does Impossible Foods like to frame this issue for people?

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RM: Impossible Foods doesn't shy away from advancing the conversation on food and the impacts of dietary choices. The science is clear: Eating a plant-based diet uses dramatically fewer resources than eating livestock at the 'top of the food chain.' We frame that issue in many ways, but in our messaging and brand communication we lead with deliciousness and experience, knowing that taste is what drives consumers to buy the product. Sustainability follows our business success and is built into our company mission at its core. Many people care about sustainability in food systems and we do a lot of engagement around that; but the majority of consumers are here for the great taste, and we're bringing them along for the sustainability journey even if they don't know it.

How does the Impossible Burger stack up to a regular burger, in terms of its environmental impact?

RM: The Impossible Burger is vastly more sustainable than a burger from a cow. It generates about 87 percent lower GHG emissions, uses about 96 percent less land and 87 percent less water. The real relevance here is for scaling a food system that will demand far more meat and dairy, when cattle already occupies a huge land footprint, at the expense of forests and other natural landscapes. With plant-based meat, we can use far less resources — sparing land for habitat and capture carbon through natural vegetation — and still create an equivalent nutritional and culinary experience.

If 1 in 10 US consumers switched half of their meat consumption to Impossible Burgers, how much water, land use and GHG emissions would this save?

RM: By several estimates, beef production takes up about 40 percent of the continental US land area. US consumers eat about half of their beef intake as ground beef. So, if plant-based meat can capture that, it's safe to say that land-sparing is going to be dramatic. We’d rely on a much smaller cropland footprint and wouldn't require rangeland or pasture. We partnered with Denmark Technical University in 2017 to model out what total resource-sparing might look like in the US, if we replaced 50 percent of ground beef in the US with our Impossible 1.0 recipe: The very conservative results showed the change would result in a greenhouse gas reduction of 45 million tons of CO2 equivalents, 12 km3 of water spared, and 73,000 square miles of cropland and rangeland spared.

Impossible Foods has been very successful at raising money — what does this say about the appetite for consumer products that offer environmental solutions?

RM: Consumers are hungry for choices, and that's exactly what we're providing. Our investors are recognizing the growing consumer movement towards plant-based products, and investors are recognizing the potential growth framed in the size of the industry we're displacing. Demand for plant-based meat is driven by a number of factors — not just the environment, but a general awareness around the many negative aspects of the animal industry.