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A break for a change: Stanford professor to save the world with Impossible Foods
Founder Patrick O. Brown (Photo: Impossible Foods)

While climate risks are exacerbating and African swine fever rampant, plant-based meat brands are taking over the international market with flying colours. Heard of Beyond Meat? They got listed in the US last year and stock prices are already skyrocketing. Meet its primary competitor (drumroll, please) – valued at US$2 billion (May) with funding injected by Li Ka Shing and Bill Gates – Impossible Foods!

Long-time vegetarian/vegan

Impossible Foods came to being in 2011, founded by Stanford Emeritus Professor Patrick O. Brown. A paediatrician at first, he joined the academia for the possibility of making greater impact, and he did. Brown rose to fame with his research on genetics and microbiology.

In 2009, after more than 20 years of teaching, he took an 18-month sabbatical during which he pondered about two pressing issues, namely changing directions in life, and addressing one of the biggest global crises – environmental pollution.

A vegetarian-veteran for over five decades, Brown recognised environmental degradation as the toughest challenge for humankind today, according to past research. One of the pivotal culprits is the meat and dairy industry. On top of producing as much as 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, animal husbandry consumes half of the planet’s land space and 25% of its freshwater supply, “environmentally speaking, you cannot find another industry that causes more catastrophic consequences than animal husbandry,” he pointed out last April.

Brown is convinced that if there’s one way to save our planet, it is a reduction (or even termination) in meat and dairy consumption. That being said, he is well-aware that education and appeals to action have their limits. What if there’s a substitute that tastes like meat, feels like meat, “bleeds” like meat, that even meat-lovers would give up real meat for it?

Impossible Food’s signature product – plant-based meat that “bleeds” like actual beef. Even a meat-lover’s mouth would water. The company released Impossible Pork and Sausage early this year, targeting the Asian market. (Photo: Impossible Foods)

Five years in the making: Plant-based meat that bleeds

In the world of business where speed is king, Impossible clearly went against the current. It devoted five whole years to R&D before rolling out its first Impossible Burger in 2016, featuring their house “heme” – a common protein found both in plants and animals, key ingredient to the fragrance, flavour and texture of meat.

In 2016, this apparently “impossible” burger – consisting of mainly beans, potato proteins and plant heme – was made available in several US brand-name food stores, expanding to Hong Kong and Macau markets in 2018. Impossible even collaborated with Burger King this April, becoming a player in the fast-food market.

Impossible is now targeting mainland China as their next base abroad. At an environmental awareness event in Yunnan last September, Brown mentioned, “China is our highest priority for future expansion, full stop,” since the country is the largest consumer for meat across the globe, “China contributed to around half of the growth in worldwide meat consumption in the past decade.”

Last year, Impossible Foods made way into their first overseas market – Hong Kong. This Impossible Bao is crafted by local star chef May Chow. (Photo: Impossible Foods)

Pending approval to settle

Brown’s aforementioned “statement” was made amid China’s pig shortage and Costco’s opening in Shanghai, when citizens literally fought to get hold of pork. Brown described China as the one location to attain Impossible Foods’ mission and make the biggest impact, while pledging to entirely replace animal products by the year 2035. Following approval from Chinese authorities, the company plans to station new factories in Asia.

Aside from Impossible Foods, Brown founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS) with another scholar in 2001, introducing the idea of “co-sharing” to academic publishing. The website houses hundreds of thousands of papers on biology and medicine, freely accessible by researchers. It is PLOS’s mission to break the monopoly of commercial organisations in the field. Brown is truly a man of action.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong @ORKTS