Flatten the (Other) Curve
Dr. Pat Brown is the CEO of Impossible Foods, a company he founded with the mission to "Save Meat. And Earth." In 2011, Pat chose to leave behind his distinguished academic career and devote himself full time to Impossible Foods, after he realized there was a way to make delicious, affordable plant-based meats – that would be better for the environment and for consumers. Pat is a triple BA, MD and PhD (in Biochemistry) from the University of Chicago. He previously worked at the Chicago Children's Memorial Hospital where he studied HIV and other retroviruses. Later, at Stanford University, Pat and his colleagues developed DNA microarrays and pioneered the use of gene expression patterns to classify cancers and improve prediction of their clinical course. In addition to leading Impossible Foods, which launched in grocery stores across the U.S. (including Jewel Osco in Chicago) in April 2020, Pat is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine and recipient of the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor.
Thank you to the Impossible Foods' marketing team for providing these photographs.
Pat Brown 1: One lesson is that most meaningfully hard, big global problems and challenges don’t get solved without sacrifice.
Julia Hesse-Fong 1: From Chicago Studies and the Program on the Global Environment at the University of Chicago, this is Hidden Gems: Quarantine Edition.
Kimika Padilla 1: Where we discuss the implications of shelter-in-place by bringing special guests, student voices, and feel good features… from our homes to yours.
K2: I’m Kimika
J2: I’m Julia
Sofia Garrick 1: And I’m Sofia…
S2: And in this episode, we consider how our collective response to the coronavirus can inform how we address the climate crisis. As the movement to “flatten the curve” for the coronavirus gains popular understanding, some climate change activists have also latched on to the phrase. However, in their case “flatten the curve” refers to slowing carbon emissions growth in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.
J3: Just as nations around the world have activated extreme measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, climate experts and environmentalists say we need to radically reform our political, economic, energy, and food systems to meet the challenge of climate change.
K3: We chat with Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods, a company he founded with the explicit mission to “Save Meat. And Earth.” We ask: What parallels can we draw between social change for public health versus the environment? And, how can innovation in the food industry—especially with meat production—mitigate our environmental impacts?
[Impossible Foods 01:47]
P2: My name is Pat Brown. I am the CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods.
K4: So Pat, what does “saving meat” have to do with saving the Earth?
PB3: The biggest environmental threat that humans have ever faced is the catastrophic impact of the use of animals as a food technology. Not only is it a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and by far the biggest source of water pollution and consumption, the land footprint of land-based animal agriculture is about 45% of the entire land surface of Earth.
S3: So back in 2011, you decided to step back from your academic career to work full time developing a new plant-based meat product. Why the Impossible Burger?
PB4: There’s many reasons why it’s a good choice. One is beef, the beef industry is by far the most destructive from an environmental standpoint. So we wanted to maximize our mission impact. It’s also the single most popular kind of meat in the US so, you know, if we’re going to choose, product to launch with, I think that all else being equal, that’s a plus. And it’s iconic. So one of the big challenges we wanted to address as efficiently as possible is there’s a deeply held suspicion among current meat consumers that anything made from plants will suck. If you make chicken, people just feel like, well, you know, you could, you could take anything and call it chicken, and a lot of people would believe you, but a burger is a higher bar.
J4: So the Impossible Burger is sending consumers the message that delicious meat can come from plants…What is it that makes this message so compelling?
PB5: People don’t want to think about where their meat comes from. They desperately don’t want to think about it. We have tons of data on this from most meat lovers, the overwhelming majority, like high 90% of them, if you ask them, they don’t like how their meat is made. They like their meat. They like how it tastes. They like that it’s got a lot of protein and iron. The fact that it’s made in a slaughterhouse is not appealing to them, but they just put it out of their mind because the taste and the nutrition, the protein and stuff like that, and whatever other things they value.
K5: But it’s not just meat lovers who don’t want to consider the environmental and ethical consequences of their meat….as Pat Brown pointed out, it’s also the environmentalists.
PB6: ...I went to the Paris Climate Conference and I was the only one there I was talking about, um, you know, animal agriculture as a climate issue. But other people there knew it was an issue. That was the thing, but they didn’t think it was solvable. Um, and the reason I think they didn’t think it was solvable was because they all had meat for dinner. Okay? And these are people that, that they’ve devoted their whole lives to this issue. Okay? So there’s no question about it, they care about it and, and they understand the impact of their food choices. So education isn’t the problem, it’s that even with those things, it’s very hard to change established behavior patterns, and particularly when it’s something that gives you such rewards as eating foods that you love.
S5: That makes sense. Many people are really attached to the food they grew up with, or they have positive memories around a certain food. I know I have some comfort foods like banana bread and mac and cheese that I’m attached to, so I can see how asking people to give up meat completely wouldn’t be effective.
J5: It’s not just individuals like us who are making the choice to eat burgers and drive cars—businesses and institutions have a disproportionately large environmental footprint. So they have to be part of the solution.
K6: Impossible Foods is an example of a company that is taking on this responsibility by creating an alternative to traditional meat.
[Choice and Behavior Change 05:23]
S6: So how did Impossible Foods manage to convince meat eaters—hundreds of thousands of them, nationwide—to switch to meat made from plants?
PB7: 90% of it is make an awesome product that is not the product that you want, it’s the product that meat consumers want.
PB8: The Impossible Foods strategy is trying to depend as little as possible on people having to make sacrifices or make any concerted activities. It’s focused on just winning over individual consumers and so forth.
PB9: Another thing that I think is if we get enough penetration, like enough, enough consumers are really deciding that they can do just fine, now on a plant-based diet because there’re things that satisfy their craving for meat and stuff like that. I’m wondering, I don’t know whether it’s true, whether it’s like you change your behavior first and then you change the way you think about the problem.
J6: Okay, that’s a fascinating idea. When we normally talk about social change, the conversation seems to start with altering mindsets before you can get people to change their behavior. But Pat, is suggesting that in some cases, behavior change can actually lead to new ways of thinking about the problem. So how does this work with Impossible Burger?
PB10: Where I think it helps us is if people buy an Impossible Burger instead of a cow burger, can we reinforce that by saying, you know what, you just did that and good for you. And here’s the benefit, for the world and for the environment. If you buy...if you eat one quarter pound Impossible Burger instead of a cow burger that’s basically like flying 22 less miles in a passenger jet, you know?
J7: So reminding people that their choice is also good for the environment actually motivates them to do it again. This “nudge” reinforces the behavior by making people more conscious of their environmental footprint.
K7: That reminds me of what Richard Thaler said about “choice architecture.” He’s a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, whose big idea is that changing how choices are presented can nudge us toward decisions that benefit people and even the planet.
S7: Nudging could help encourage sustainable behaviors. For example, what if we nudge people to buy eco-friendly products by placing them at eye-level on the shelf? Or when you crank up the AC on a hot day, what if your thermostat said “this is going to cost you 10 dollars, and also contribute x amount of carbon emissions.”
K8: Oh I love that idea, Sofia.
S8: Thanks, it was actually Richard’s...
J8: But I think it’s also important to note that there really isn’t a silver bullet to tackle climate change. The public health crisis has also taught us that global problems require both individual behavior changes and conscious collective action.
[A Wake up Call 07:56]
PB11: But boy, would it be made easier, and just in general, the you know, climate issue, if people could recognize this problem is real, which COVID had this very good wake up. And that means that these things that, you know, three months ago, we would have never cooperated with, you know, we’re saying, no, we gotta do this even though it’s hard. I’m hoping that some of that lesson will stick because there’s lots of big problems in the world. We’re working on some very big ones that if we really want to make fast progress, and in order for us to solve it, you know, we have to do some things that’ll be hard. And we have to, you know, be a functional community.
S9: COVID-19 is a wake up call, in the sense that it has exposed structural problems that leave vulnerable people and the planet at risk. So we can use this opportunity to evaluate what’s working, and what’s not.
K9: And the meat industry is one of many industries that has received increased scrutiny in light of the crisis.
PB12: and one of the other things about the COVID epidemic that I think will be interesting for us is that we’ve heard the word slaughterhouse about a thousand times more in the past month than the previous 10 years, and people are actually kind of being exposed to it and thinking, you know, thinking about something that they really don’t like thinking about.
PB13: The only people that work in a slaughterhouse are basically recent immigrants, many of them undocumented, for whom it’s the only job available.
J9: Vox News explains that meatpacking plants are coronavirus risk zones, because it’s difficult for workers to maintain 6 feet of distance on the processing floor, and the physical labor means that often they’re breathing heavily while hauling cuts of meat, possibly spreading virus particles in the cold air.
K10: Almost 5,000 meatpacking workers across 19 states had tested positive for the virus as of April 27, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 20 workers have died, and local news outlets have reported that outbreaks continue to spread at some meatpacking plants since then.
S10: And yet, the Trump administration’s recent use of the Defense Production Act to compel meat and poultry producers to stay open, despite COVID-19 risks, reminds us how the status quo is preserved even when it isn’t working for people or the planet.
PB14: People are very wired to the foods that they prefer. For most, I would say for a large fraction of people in the world, the pleasure that they get from eating the foods they love is a huge part of the pleasure of life. And it's just, it's unreasonable to think you can ask them to give that up. And that defined the problem very crisply for me, which is that, it's a technology problem.
The problem is that we're using prehistoric technology that's the most inefficient technology at any scale around, hasn't improved in a thousand years fundamentally in its efficiency to produce this, this category of food source for which there's huge global demand. And there's no reason we ought not to be able to produce the same foods with the same quality or greater quality, vastly more efficiently by using, um, by basically turning plants directly into these fruits as opposed to, you know, with 3% efficiency, as is the case with beef.
K11: This industry certainly seems ripe for disruption. So how is Impossible Foods trying to bring innovation to the beef industry?
PB15: Basically the thing is that if you do the thought experiment, if we have products that do a better job of delivering what the target consumer wants in terms of deliciousness, nutritional value, affordability, convenience, and so forth, which is the number one focus then it’s our game to lose.
PB16: Ultimately, our success or failure hinges on the R&D team continuing to innovate and to work on making the best product in serving the target customer, and then making it better the next day.
S11: Similarly with COVID-19 and climate change, our success or failure depends on our ability not only to “flatten the curve,” but also to research and develop effective responses to crisis.
K12: For coronavirus that means accurate, widespread testing, effective treatment, and a vaccine. For climate change, current technological advances can help us transition our way of life—in everything from clean energy to food production and more.
J10: Individuals and institutions will need to work on solutions that are both preventive and adaptive: Solutions to prevent the crisis from getting worse, and solutions that help us not just get back to normal, but actually build a better way forward and out of this crisis. So we asked Pat Brown--
[Responding to Crisis 12:33]
S12: What does our collective response to the current public health crisis reveal about how we are addressing or can address climate change?
PB17: I think the thing about COVID, it’s the thing that makes it a little different than climate is that the connections between, the choices you make and climate change are very, are so indirect. And whereas it’s easy to understand that if you have a contagious disease, that the logic for social distancing and, you know, wearing a mask and improving your hand washing techniques and stuff like that. You know, it’s so directly connected.
J11: As Pat Brown points out, being able to see a “direct connection” between our individual actions and the health of the community is one of the key distinctions between the pandemic and climate change. It’s been hard for individuals to connect how such seemingly small choices in the grocery store, like buying milk or meat, contribute to global warming and rising sea levels. With climate change, Pat Brown notes that--
PB18: --Connecting the dots is much, much harder. It’s much more of an abstract concept for people. If the West Antarctic glacier collapses into the ocean, I think that would be a wake up call for people when they suddenly find themselves under 10 feet of water.
S13: In many parts of the world, climate change is already affecting people’s quality of lives and daily experiences.
K13: But to make the concept less abstract for people who might not see the connection, perhaps we need to change the rhetoric around environmentalism. It’s about saving us *crowded room sound*...and saving the planet *bird sounds*.
J12: That’s right, we have to make it personal. And remind people that when the community is better off, so are they. Actually, the movement to “flatten the curve” for coronavirus has done that really well.
PB19: I think, whether deliberately or not, communication about COVID has, has convinced people that the reason that they should practice social isolation and, and hygiene and masks and stuff like that is to protect themselves.
PB20: Whereas actually the reason that you’re doing this, the chances of you getting infected is minimal. But if everybody practices good public health practices, the transmission in the community will go down. Your chances of being infected if you, you know, I have a conversation with someone who’s carrying the virus is very, very low, but if everybody’s doing it, some of them will get infected, and it will continue to cascade. And then there’s a problem for all of us, but that’s too abstract.
[Final Reflection 15:03]
K14: So it seems to me that there are a couple of takeaways from our conversation with Pat Brown. First, with new technology and advances like clean energy, electric vehicles, and of course, plant-based meats, the new alternatives can be better and safer than old ones.
S14: But to inspire people to switch, we need to draw clearer connections between the environmental consequences of our actions, and our individual and collective long-term wellbeing.
J13: Finally, climate change is going to require that we make sacrifices and adapt to new ways of life, through a just and inclusive transition. That means we need to identify and support communities that bear job losses and are at risk for being left behind in the transition.
S15: The current moment has brought some of these disparities to light, and taught us we are capable of working together to address global problems—even if our efforts are imperfect.
PB21: I think that might be a really good lesson for people that, you know, we can solve these really, really, really big problems by working together and making sacrifices, and feel good about it and come out the other end better off. And I don’t know, if any of that lesson sticks, I think that’ll be a really positive thing.
S16: And while we’re staying at home, millions of front-line workers are helping to deliver food, essentials, and medical care to people around the world.
K15: This week, we would like to thank grocery store employees and truck drivers for helping to deliver tasty products like the Impossible Burger to supermarkets and food shops around the country.
J14: And thank you for listening to our podcast. You can visit our website at uchicagohiddengems.com to view accompanying images, to find source information for our music and sound effects, and to subscribe to upcoming episodes!
S17: This podcast is sponsored by the Program on the Global Environment and Chicago Studies at the University of Chicago.
K16: This has been Hidden Gems.