Makers of plant-based meat deal with a constant balancing act between promoting their products as simple, wholesome food and also extolling the amount of science and technology that goes into them. Impossible Foods recently hired a new chief science officer who will spend a lot of time advancing that science while also working to convince more scientists that food is the most interesting and important problem they can work on.
“Firstly, I’m a discovery scientist and curiosity-driven researcher,” says John D. York, who is joining Impossible from his current post as biochemistry chair at Vanderbilt University, with previous experience as an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “The other aspect of my life, since childhood, is that I’ve been a foodie and love the science of food.” York recalls getting a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in high school, is impressed by the work of Samin Nosrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat fame, and speaks reverently of former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold’s 2011 food tech breakthrough, Modernist Cuisine.
But he knows that neither modernist cuisine simpatico nor a shared love for the perfect Ligurian focaccia is going to attract the 50 or so scientists that Impossible wants to hire to work on projects that will show the plant-based movement isn’t just a bunch of burgers and sausages. “The problem of [animal] ag and its contribution to climate change is as big a problem as we face,” says York. “You don’t have to be a foodie; You just have to want to use science and research as a way to help the planet.”
“It’s simple: We are working on the most urgent and important science and engineering project: Climate change and a catastrophic collapse of biodiversity,” says Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown. “The use of animals in food tech is by far the most destructive technology in human history.”
York’s recruiting pitch to scientists may also turn on unlocking the secrets about what makes certain foods craveable by our lizard brains. “I find it fascinating why I like certains things and tastes, and the mysteries that are part of food,” says York. “There are so many folks in the last few decades that have been trying to dissect what it is about certain foods that are appealing not only from the standpoint of nutrition but of satisfaction.” Impossible will have its work cut out for it on that front as it tries to develop satisfying plant-based milk and plant-based meats in the form of whole cuts.
Impossible says 72% of sales of its plant-based burgers comes from conventional animal meat sales, with another 8% coming over from other plant-based burgers. But the plant-based meat market remains the electric car of food — growing healthily, but still tiny — while Americans increase their per capita consumption of conventional animal meat. Still, Impossible remains committed to its food Manhattan Project of replacing animals in food production by 2035.
“You can be, as I was, in academia doing research, following your curiosity and making important discoveries,” says Pat Brown, “but it doesn’t matter if we destroy the biosphere on the only planet we know that supports life.”