Today, most leading climate scientists and thought leaders recognize the uniquely destructive impact of animal-based food production, and the urgency of a global transition from animals to plants at the center of our food system. But education, advocacy and international consensus isn’t enough. A solution was needed to bridge the gap between identification of the problem, and measurable progress against that problem.
We received the 2018 United Nations Environment Planetary Health Champion of the Earth Award, the highest environmental honor awarded by the United Nations, co-recipients with another leading alternative meat provider. Our business was selected because we developed a “revolutionary” plant-based alternative to beef, and for our efforts to educate consumers about environmentally conscious alternatives. Our entire business model is devoted to achieving key elements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as Life on Land, Zero Hunger, Climate Action, Clean water, Biodiversity and Good Health and Wellbeing.
The UN recognition was an inspiring vote of confidence in our mission and our entire team. In May 2019, we joined the United Nations Global Compact, pledging our commitment to the organization’s 10 principles of corporate sustainability. We believe in the importance of shared progress and feel that the technology platform we’ve developed is a critical tool for achieving the Compact’s principles.
Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature.
– EAT Lancet Commission Report, 2019
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, in partnership with over 30 leading scientists from around the world, launched a report that represents both a call to action and scientific consensus on healthy and sustainable diets.
The dietary transformations advocated in the report are essential for averting ecosystem collapse, provided the right consumer products are available. These transformations aren’t possible without viable alternatives. Impossible Foods has demonstrated that it’s absolutely possible to create and offer those alternatives.
In December 2018, World Resources International (WRI) released a synthesis report that provided a “menu of options” for the world to reach a sustainable food future, while promoting economic development and attacking global poverty. This report was unprecedented in its holistic consideration of the enormous opportunity to balance the carbon scales with transformation of land uses (i.e. pulling land from livestock in service of a return to nature and carbon sequestration).
The report points out that the footprint of industrial animal agriculture vastly outweighs the food value: In the United States, ruminant animal meats (mostly beef) provide only 3% of calories, yet occupy 41% of the United States’ land area, at the enormous expense of the greatest reservoirs of carbon sequestration and biodiversity: forests and grasslands.
Their report offers several scenarios. Under the most ambitious scheme, titled “Breakthrough Technologies,” they find that 80 million hectares (Mha) (200 million acres) of reforested land would capture 4 gigatons of carbon per year -- a huge step toward atmospheric stabilization. They also note the possibility of 585 Mha of reforested land, feasible only if there are tools for whole-sale dietary transformations, which would effectively negate all agricultural production emissions. We think it’s possible to go even farther.
Researchers at Harvard University’s Animal Law and Policy Program are recognizing plant-based meat as a breakthrough Negative Emissions Technology – historically, an aspirational technology.
A 2019 paper by Harvard University’s Dr. Helen Harwatt and colleagues shows why shifting from animal to plant-sourced protein should be adopted as an important climate mitigation strategy.
As Harwatt’s paper stresses, not all greenhouse gases are equal when it comes to rapid climate repair. Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), with global warming potentials many times more potent than carbon dioxide, have short residence times in the atmosphere, so reducing those emissions (2.4 billion tons of methane) can make quick and meaningful progress toward international climate goals. Methane is the biggest opportunity. In the US, 94% of agricultural methane emissions come from livestock.
Eliminating beef production is a massive methane reduction opportunity. It’s also an important carbon sequestration opportunity on the order of hundreds of gigatons of carbon -- which can be captured and stored by carbon-grabbing forests and grasslands.
New work by Harvard’s Matthew Hayek and colleagues demonstrates how powerful that action can be. Were the world to adopt a wholesale shift from animal farming, the resulting carbon capture from forests and grasslands would be equivalent to 300 to 500 gigatons of carbon. In other words, that’s about 15 years of fossil fuel burning, and a chance to literally ‘turn the clock back on climate change’ without compromising food security.
When negative emissions technologies are (infrequently) discussed in the press, they’re generally dismissed as being too expensive and “not ready yet” – they’d be nice to have someday, kind of like a back-up terraformed planet. We don’t have that kind of time. Why focus on developing and commercializing new carbon capture technologies when photosynthesis, the original carbon-capture technology, optimized by billions of years of evolution, is ready to be deployed, needing only a chance at the vast land area currently wasted on animal farming? So investment in negative emissions technologies needs to start putting meat at the top of the pile.
With the launch of the new Impossible Burger recipe in January 2019, we worked with independent sustainability consulting firm, Quantis, to carry out an updated life cycle assessment (LCA) covering impacts from the farm gate to the final product, to understand the sources of our own environmental impact, and to rigorously compare the environmental impact of the Impossible Burger to that of a conventional beef burger.
Our LCA results show that compared to the original Impossible Burger 1.0, the Impossible Burger 2.0 has increased its already huge edge over the cattle-based competition. The supply chain and manufacturing impacts of an Impossible Burger are vastly lower: 87% less water use, 96% less land use, 89% fewer GHG emissions, and 92% less dead-zone creating nutrient pollution, compared to the same burger made using even the most environmentally efficient cattle-based production.
The Impossible Burger and other truly tasty plant-based burgers appear poised to provide a major wedge in the fight against climate change and for forests. Roughly 40% of the world’s grazing land comes from forests, and as the world demands more beef, it clears even more and releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide. One necessary solution is to eat less beef, and to be more than a niche, that requires that most people be truly happy with the alternative. The year 2019 now looks like it might be the year when true substitutes first became viable.
– Tim Searchinger
The results are clear: Even yield improvements that bring global or US beef production to state-of-the art efficiency will be consistently dwarfed by the resource and environmental efficiency of making beef from plants. Moreover, comparative GHG estimates don’t even include the huge carbon sequestration potential of land spared from cattle grazing -- perhaps the most critical immediate GHG benefit.
To shed more light on how these numbers are developed, the LCA is available online on our website.