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  1. The Environment Interview
17 November 2021updated 02 Dec 2021 3:03pm

Pat Brown: “Farm animals are the most destructive technology on earth”

The CEO of Impossible Foods on why ending animal agriculture is the fastest and most powerful way to restrain climate change.

By Philippa Nuttall

Pat Brown is a man possessed. I am 44 and exhausted after a week at the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow. But if the 67-year-old CEO of Impossible Foods is even the least bit tired after flying around Europe to sell the concept of “alternative meat that tastes better than meat” he isn’t showing any signs of weariness. 

Scotland is the latest stop on his tour of the great and the good in the worlds of politics and business. At 10am on a Monday morning, he is all-guns-blazing as we sit in the austere surroundings of Glasgow’s Victorian town hall. Tall, thin and full of nervous energy, Brown’s motto is “fast, fast, fast”. He talks fast and he underlines the need for fast action on climate change.

“People are talking about climate change as if we have plenty of time,” he said, when we need “radical change fast”. But policy makers’ focus on changing our energy systems – shifting from oil, coal and gas to renewables such as wind and solar – shouldn’t, he believes, be approached in isolation. The goal of Impossible Foods is that “in 15 years there is no more livestock on the planet”.

“If you love meat and cheese and fish and milk and all those animal foods, you are not going to be thrilled with the idea of replacing them in your diet,” said Brown. “But if someone said you have to replace that steak with a reasonable plant-based alternative, or we turn off your lights, your heat and get rid of your car and public transport, which would you choose?”

Brown has exclusively eaten plant-based foods for the past 25 years and has “zero interest in something that tastes like meat: I happen to think lentils are delicious”. But given, in his view, that “95 per cent or more” of the world loves meat and may disagree with his view of lentils, the California-based company has created a “technology that delivers what people want”.

Consumers want “deliciousness in the sense of deliciousness as meat, nutritional value – people value the protein, iron and so forth in meat – convenience and affordability”, said Brown. The “meat” produced by Impossible Foods delivers all this and more, and will help save humanity and nature, he insisted. 

“In tests with hardcore meat eaters, they prefer our alternative over meat products,” said Brown, singling out the company’s pork product, which “in a blind consumer test it was preferred over pig in Hong Kong, where people love pig”, and its nuggets, which “taste more like chicken than those made from chicken”.

In his previous life, Brown was an academic scientist. “I never had an interest in going into business or much interest in food,” he said. But when he “realised animals were the most destructive technology on earth and almost entirely responsible for the global collapse of biodiversity, and that eliminating animal agriculture is the fastest, most powerful and least painful way to put the brakes on climate change”, he felt compelled to act. Founded in 2011, the company is now valued at around $6bn.

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Agriculture is globally responsible for around 18 per cent of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, and a third of historical emissions, which came “almost entirely from clearing land to make room for livestock”, said Brown.

By ridding the world of farmed cows and sheep, and acting to take fossil fuels offline, we can “turn back the clock” and reduce emissions to pre-21st century levels, he believes. His reasoning is that by removing animal farming, farmland can be replanted with carbon-storing trees, and methane emissions from flatulent cows and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilisers stymied. Given that both these gases exist in the atmosphere for a much shorter period of time than carbon dioxide, global heating can be stopped much quicker.

When I suggest that ridding the earth of all farm animals, bar some subsistence farming, in the next 15 years is rather a tall order, he replied: “We gotta do it.” The end of farming subsidies, a carbon price of $50 or more a tonne and proper rules to ensure that carbon trading is above board, coupled with “foods that taste exactly like meat but taste better”, will do the trick, he believes.

“If it weren’t for subsidies, 70 per cent of livestock farmers in the UK would be losing money and, with subsidies, 30 per cent are still losing money,” he said. “It is not the most lucrative business to be in. A better source of income, and vastly better for the planet, would be to allow biomass to recover.”

The car replaced the horse in the US in about 15 years, and the digital camera took only eight years to replace its predecessor, said Brown. “I never wanted to be in the business world, but I think you have to use the market as a subversive tool to get the change you want.”

And what about small organic farmers? “There’s this notion that somehow if you have nice grassy fields instead of cages and it is organic, it is not a climate problem, it is not a biodiversity problem. Utter nonsense.” Land covered by cattle is not covered in trees, he said, adding that since cows were introduced in California “no acorns have grown into oak trees”.

Another slight complication in his plans is the inclusion of genetically modified ingredients in Impossible Foods’ meat, including heme, a molecule that makes its burgers “bleed”. Brown dismissed the idea that consumers and some environmentalists are genuinely concerned about GMOs, and is confident that his products, which aren’t yet available in Europe, will get regulatory approval in the UK and the EU.

“If you ask people which they would rather have: a meat that satisfies people’s craving for meat or covering the frigging planet with cows and more or less resigning yourself to the complete collapse of biodiversity and climate change – which would you rather have? I had that conversation with some people who care about the planet and have this thing about GMOs, and they say that the latter is definitely better.”

“The livestock you see in fields is technology, it is a technology to turn grass into meat,” said Brown.”Do you want to have postcard picture scenes or do you want to have a liveable planet? That’s the choice.”

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