What society considers “meat” may be revolutionized by the long-awaited debut of the “Impossible Burger,” a meat patty made entirely from plants that tastes, smells, looks and cooks like real beef. This “Impossible Burger” might one day replace animal agriculture, Dr. Pat O. Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, said in a lecture on campus last Tuesday.

Brown’s lecture was titled “Replacing the World’s Most Destructive Technology” and centered around finding a substitute for the beef production industry.

The destructive technology, Brown said, is the animal agriculture industry. In response to growing environmental concerns regarding the animal agriculture industry, the scientists and engineers behind Impossible Foods, Inc. began research and reverse engineering in 2011 for an alternative substitute to meat. “I realized that the problem is ... not that people like meat, but it’s the way we’re producing the meat, and we just need to figure out a better way to produce it,” said Brown. “Our food system today is heading towards disaster. ... It’s inefficient, unsustainable, and we’ve used it for millennium, but it’s a sitting duck for replacement because it’s so underperforming the bar is low.”

Now, five years later, Impossible Foods has solved the mystery and launched its Impossible Burger this past summer in select restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Impossible Burger is a successful imitation beef made completely from plant products, including wheat, coconut oil and potato protein. Crucially, the patties contain one percent of a very important ingredient — heme protein.

According to Brown, the first question Impossible Foods’ scientists asked themselves was, “Why does meat taste like meat?” They sought to understand the deep flavor and texture characteristics of meat from a molecular level. In an unprecedented discovery, their scientists found that an organic molecule called “heme” accounts for 95 percent of meat’s flavor and aroma. Brown, pointing to his forehead, told the audience that their research shows that “meat flavor happens ‘up here.’”

Heme is an iron-containing protein found in mammals’ blood and the myoglobin of muscle tissue. It’s the “magic” macromolecule that catalyzes the taste that taste bud receptors and brains identify as meat. As the heme protein unfolds in saliva, the tongue experiences the explosion of meat flavor chemistry. Most importantly, it’s a common organic protein that can also be found in plants. The heme in Impossible Foods’ burger is carried by a protein called leghemoglobin, which is extracted from the root nodules of soybean plants.

So why did Impossible Foods seek a meat alternative in the first place? “A big [reason] is climate change,” Brown said. In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Program reported the animal agriculture industry to be the most environmentally destructive economic sector. If the global population is to reach the international climate goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, “there’s no way we’re going to do it without a major reduction in the consumption of animal products,” Brown said. “Take every car, bus, truck, train, ship, airplane, rocket ship — all together, they produce less greenhouse emissions than the animal agriculture industry. ... In more familiar terms, the greenhouse gas emissions released in producing one pound of beef is equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of driving 74 miles in the average American car.”

However, alongside climate change, Brown says the most dramatic impact of the animal agriculture industry is its detriment to the biosphere and the biodiversity of the planet’s wildlife. According to Brown, 45 percent of the planet’s land is used for raising animals for food, and animals raised for food have a total biomass two and half times the biomass of the human population. In 40 years, it is expected that earth’s population of wild animals will decrease by a factor of two due to habitat loss and degradation as a result of animal agriculture, he said. The recently debuted beef is only the first of Impossible Foods’ planned products. “We’re still in early stages, but the whole point is to have a lower environmental impact,” Brown said.

The event was held as part of a joint public colloquium hosted by the University’s Biology and Neuroscience departments.