The Silicon Valley Race to Build a Fake-Meat Burger That Just Might Save the World

A real photograph of a real fake burger. (The Dodo.)
A real photograph of a real fake burger. (The Dodo.) Photo: Courtesy of Impossible Foods

In Romania, they have a saying: “The best vegetable is meat.” Actually, it might be an “old Alsatian saying,” or from some other primeval region, depending on how you Google. But joke like that at a dinner in Brooklyn — or anyplace, really, where identifying with the progressive vanguard has made eating a serious form of self-definition — and someone just might denounce you between forkfuls of heirloom greens. Mealtime, in these rooftop-gardened corners of the world, has become a theater for a kind of culture war. And that evangelist with the fork is hungry for combat, no matter which faction he is allied with: vegan, vegetarian, repentant short-rib apologist.

Meat’s place, you may already sense, is just different now, and not only for a vocal minority. After nearly a decade of falling U.S. meat consumption, we’ve got a First Lady praised as “captain of Team Produce” (and a vegan-leaning future First Family, maybe, who toasted Hillary’s 65th with gluten-free cake); a federal dietary-guidelines proposal that is newly anti-beef; Chipotle bailing on pork that defied its Responsibly Raised criteria; and desperate menu redesigns from chains like McDonald’s, which has started to put forth an “artisan” chicken sandwich, put away the antibiotics, and even serve kale. For each retro rib chop carted through Mission Chinese, a chef-driven “vegetable forward” restaurant seems to spring from the Earth (perhaps less fertile for crops than for tasting menus; California’s drought may have been blamed on almonds, but the meat industry, given its scale, actually drains more of the state’s water, an estimated 1,900 gallons per pound of steak). In short: “Holy cow” used to be an exclamation of wonder. In 2015, it is the title of a novel about a cow, a pig, and a turkey who flee our nation of factory farms for India, Israel, and Turkey.

Of course, people are still eating meat, even if we’re eating it guiltily or while talking about how bad it is for the body, the planet, and the easily anthropomorphized creatures we try not to think about eating. In fact, Americans still eat roughly their total body weight in meat each year; McDonald’s may have slumped, but Shake Shack, post-IPO, is worth more than $3 billion. Yet we’re four decades on since the debut of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, as well as Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, which argued against discriminatory “speciesism” and has lately become more of a mainstream road map. There was Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and even Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals; there was this winter’s exposé in the New York Times of abuses at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, which ignited outrage and consternation. Psychologists talk about the “meat paradox,” familiar to both the ethical and the unreformed: You care about animals and feel at least some remorse about the costs of eating them, but meat is still for dinner. Why? The answers are varied: tradition, masculinity, a prehistoric preference that gave us our big brains. Industry polls, however, back up common sense. A caramelized, juice-dripping burger just tastes good.

But what if taste isn’t a true obstacle to change? According to Pat Brown, it doesn’t need to be. Brown is a biochemist who resigned last year from his “dream job” at Stanford’s School of Medicine — tenure, funding, his own genomics and cancer-treatments lab — and who has called raising animals for food “a completely shitty, useless industry in every possible way.” “I am an ideologue, if you want to call it that,” he once said. Others have called him a “deranged visionary,” an “incurable optimist,” and, in the case of the Nobel-winning oncologist Harold Varmus, former director of the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health, a “prophet.” Brown is also a vegan, albeit one who disdains what he sees as the irrational “vegan fundamentalism” epitomized by PETA-style activists. “The way to win is the awesome power of the free market,” Brown says. Meat, he adds, “is like the horse-and-buggy industry at the turn of the century: It’s obviously doomed, and it’s just a question of who takes it down and how soon.” You might be able to guess who he says will help him do that: “Our target market is not vegetarians. It’s not vegans. It’s not fringy health nuts. It’s not food-fad faddists. It’s mainstream, mass-market, uncompromising, meat-loving carnivores.” Citing a U.N. calculation that 30 percent of the planet’s land is used for animal agriculture, he hopes his plan will “change the way Earth looks from space.” “The way that we’re going to monitor our progress,” he says, “is by looking at Google Earth, basically.”

You may have heard of “cultured meat” made of lab-grown cells, like the $325,000 patty paid for by Google’s Sergey Brin — a strategy Brown sees as off-putting, not to mention technically and economically unviable. And you may have heard of start-ups, like Beyond Meat, that have tried to invent animal-cell-free “plant-based meat,” often made from soy, that re-creates the taste and texture of the real thing — a target, Brown and others agree, that they have failed to hit. You may not have heard of Brown’s own start-up, which is trying to do the same thing, because he has spent four years working mostly in secret, tweaking the user experience like his iPhone-making counterparts in Cupertino. But what he has done, he says, is spectacular: He has cracked meat’s molecular code. Which means that by sometime next year, he intends to sell what he calls a “shock and awe” plant-based burger that bleeds like beef, chars like it, and tastes like it (and eventually, critical to its long-term prospects, costs less).

“It’s going to be absolutely, flat-out delicious,” Brown says. “People have low expectations because they think what they’ve experienced before represents what’s possible.” Brown has high expectations. His start-up is named Impossible Foods.

America’s highest-tech hamburger prototypes are built in Redwood City, the Silicon Valley home of Oracle and Evernote, in what looks like a test kitchen hijacked by chemists. On a sunny day in October, a lab-coated technician piled woolly brown threads into a small Tupperware container: proteins centrifuged from liquefied soy, wheat, and spinach and reassembled to mimic the fibrosity and tensile strength of a steer’s connective tissue. (Shaped via high-moisture extrusion, a process similar to that used for spaghetti, the threads would add chewiness — the resistance you feel when biting through beef, said a scientist who had specialized in biophysics and polymers before transitioning to gristle.) Next came the muscle replica, fresh from a KitchenAid’s meat grinder: fluffy, pale-pink clumps of proteins from the same three crops, isolated because they could form fleshlike gels and because one of them — RuBisCO, found in most plant matter yet apparently never before purified for food applications — firms up in the same temperature range as myosin, a key protein in meat. (In other words, it would enable the prototype to transform from raw to cooked the way a hamburger does.) A broth of amino acids and other precursors of meaty aromas — the latest vintage of the flavor team’s “magic mix” — was squirted out of a pipette and warmed on a hot plate. Red blobs of yet another protein melted in a beaker, which suddenly filled with synthetic blood.

“Yummy,” said Brown, who appeared after the technician seized a chisel and began hacking away at a frozen emulsion of plant oils — the fatty tissue. Apple named operating systems after cats; Impossible, backed by some $75 million in venture capital, names burgers after birds. “When there’s a more incremental change, we’ll give it a number,” Brown explained. “It’s like software: OS 10, OS 10.1, OS 10.2, you know?” His latest prototype was thus called Dodo 5.

The terms “veggie burger” and “vegan meat,” like anything else connoting tofurkyish ecomasochism, were off-limits here at Impossible’s headquarters, which was filled with the of-the-moment buoyancy of a tech world that knows no bubble: bright-colored logo tees, triple-height ceilings, motivational quotations from Disney and Mandela. Beyond a wall painted with a coat of arms of sorts — a hamburger wearing a jaunty green cowboy hat — lay an enormous lab where researchers were invariably titrating, distilling, freezing proteins in liquid nitrogen until they puffed like popcorn, or tapping at any number of buzzing and chirping robotic machines. (More distant innovations might range from plant-based fish to nondairy yogurt, and Impossible was already troubleshooting a second flagship product: American cheese.) The raw burger, plopped on a plate not far from some buns and condiments, had the typical look of the Dodo series: bruise maroon rather than fleshy pink, with the too-uniform texture of overhandled chuck. Bill Gates (who, alongside Google Ventures and others, has invested in Impossible) has tweeted, “You hardly notice the plant blood.” When a researcher lifted the patty off the plate, it left behind a crimson pool, and when she lowered it onto a griddle, it sizzled, oozing a ring of fat and wafting an unmistakable musk — the one that jolts the nose and primes the mouth. Beef.

The lingering question, however, after the burger was crisped, flipped, and transferred to a bun, was how it would taste, in part because Brown was counting on deliciousness to propel him to the forefront of an increasingly crowded industry. In the third quarter of 2014 alone, according to the Cleantech Group, venture-capital and private-equity firms had pumped $320 million, the highest quarterly total ever, into food and agriculture start-ups, propelling a wave of entrepreneurs building what was sometimes called “Food 2.0.” In California, Hampton Creek was cornering the global market for egg-free mayo with the help of an ex-Google data scientist, Soylent was teaching hacker-house guys to live off nutrient shakes, and Muufri was culturing “animal-free milk.” To the east, in Missouri, Beyond Meat was extruding soy- and pea-based “grilled strips” resembling precooked chicken (as the firm readied a burger killer of its own, the Beast), while Modern Meadow, in Brooklyn, and Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, were growing meat from cells, though their best efforts, respectively, were a crisp $80 “steak chip” and Sergey Brin’s high-cost, low-flavor proof of concept. Brown didn’t consider these varied efforts to be genuine threats, and he sought his rivals elsewhere. At times, a TV near his scientists’ desks showed an old photo of him beside a photo of Steve Jobs, both of them clad in black turtlenecks. The caption: “Who wore it first?”

With a tentative-looking nibble, Brown took a bite of Dodo. “It tastes a lot like ostrich,” he deadpanned — a joke at his own expense, since Brown hadn’t eaten meat in decades and deferred to the near-daily reckonings of an in-house sensory panel. The flavor was almost dialed in, but not good enough. In fact, the Dodo was too beefy, without the fresh-tasting notes (the panel’s gurus spoke of cucumber and melon) that set steak apart from stew. It was too spongy; “turkey burger,” some people said. On a scale of one to ten, Brown’s tasters ranked the Dodo’s flavor a four — but, Brown was quick to observe, Impossible’s standards were very high. “We did a blind taste test with a way less advanced version in a Home Depot, and nobody actually said it was fake,” Brown said. That was Condor — preceded by Anhinga (named for a cormorantlike waterfowl) and the Blue-Footed Booby. Still, passing as flesh during a guerrilla tasting was insufficient.

But in making further advances, Brown had a singular advantage, an ingredient no other meat-replacing army had deployed. He led the way to a room of incubators, where a scientist held up a flask of what looked like pink juice: a slurry of genetically modified yeast. Its DNA had been rewired to produce leghemoglobin, a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of leguminous plants — and similar to both myoglobin and hemoglobin, which turns blood red. They all possessed what most people call heme, which Brown called “the molecule that makes meat meat.” (No technology exists to extract it from root nodules at scale efficiently, hence Brown’s reliance on the sort of microbial synthesis used by pharmaceutical firms for other compounds.) A ring of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and iron, heme was the critical component of Dodo blood. Early tests showed that when scientists added it to chicken nuggets, judges rated them closer in taste and aroma to beef than chicken. Molecular analysis, too, proved heme could catalyze flavor reactions. Reacted on their own, glucose and cysteine, an amino acid known as a driver of flavor chemistry in meat, emitted a sulfurous aroma; reacted in the presence of heme, they yielded compounds associated with beef, including some that smelled like mushrooms, chicken broth, and bread. If cooked alongside the right mixture of chemical precursors, heme was the secret, Brown believed, to re-creating the taste of shank or wing, mouse or whale — or, especially, a burger.

It wouldn’t be easy: Compared with many nonmeat flavors — such as banana and bell pepper, each of which can be suggested by a single molecule — the taste of beef is an enigma, nearly a thousand elusive compounds. The heart of Brown’s effort to understand them was a glass-walled isolation chamber in a corner of the lab, where, that week, a flavor expert had stuck her nose deep in a nose-shaped funnel clearly labeled “olfactory detection port.” It was attached to a bulky gray machine — a gas-chromatograph-mass spectrometer — that looked like a medical-imaging device; from one side protruded a robotic arm, a red box the size of a Rubik’s cube, and a tray of vials filled with a clear distillate of beef fat. Periodically, after a flurry of beeps, the arm deposited a vial in the box, which shook it and heated it, simulating the warmth of a human mouth. The machine deduced the structure and concentration of each volatile molecule it detected, one after another — and shot a cloud of each one at the smeller’s nose. “Earthy, soil,” the researcher droned, as if in a trance. “Sweet, fresh, watermelon rind.” A computer synced the words to the data, creating a map of the aroma of beef fat — this molecule was responsible for a soil note, that one for watermelon. By comparing the results with the map of a prototype, the scientists could spot key molecules that needed to be boosted or reduced. Then they could tinker with precursor compounds so the burgers would contain the proper chemicals when cooked.

That was the way of Silicon Valley. Why eat clumsy bioreactors — gobblers of antibiotics and natural resources, belchers of taint and greenhouse gas — that were so limited by the act of living? Why not build food better, once and for all, by finally cleaving taste from its biological moorings?

“Beef that’s better than any beef you’ve ever tasted,” Brown promised, amid the action of the lab. “Because we can turn all the knobs — anywhere we want. And a cow can’t.”

What would the world look like without meat, or at least the meat we’ve always known? Its disappearance may seem like part of some long-prophesied plunge into techno-dystopia, toward the sort of society that dines on Aldous Huxley’s “vitaminized beef-surrogate” or Margaret Atwood’s ChickieNobs (“no eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those”). Brown has a more hopeful view. The foods of the future, he believes, will take the form not of walking cutlets or Oobleck-ish goop but of the meats and dairy we already know, sold in supermarkets and at fast-food outlets, whose quest for low-cost inputs may make them his allies. (If McDonald’s, he says, wanted to blend its beef with a cheaper, plant-based version, that would be fine by him.) Farmers will grow less feed crops and more crops to feed to people, and ranchers will become farmers or be out of work. Because a quarter of all private lands in the U.S. are used to graze livestock, thousands of square miles will revert to something approaching a state of nature, soak up atmospheric carbon, maybe attract some pronghorn antelope. “The way to think of it is: What are the economic incentives?” Brown says. “You think people would replace the cornfields in Iowa with parking lots or office parks? Why? Who would they serve?”

The most radical aspect may be that no shift in public opinion, Brown and others say, is needed. One precept of Silicon Valley is that the values of disruptor and consumer don’t have to align: You can like a post on Facebook without loving Big Data. With high-tech foods, “the theory of change,” as Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, has put it, is for people to “choose the product not because they give a damn but just because it tastes good and it’s really affordable.” If these standards are met, the theory goes, objections will evaporate — a view shared by the eminent food psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. “The main thing that people forget is they get used to things,” he says. “My guess is that a really good-quality synthetic meat would be accepted.”

In fact, Impossible believes people may misjudge how they’ll react to something made out of plants that tastes exactly like a burger simply because a lifetime of eating has taught them that such a food cannot exist. Early on, the firm polled 300 self-identified burger lovers in Indianapolis, Chicago, and other red-meat strongholds. When they were surveyed about a plant-based burger, almost no one was enthusiastic. But then a researcher served each person a hamburger and what was said to be a plant-based burger — the secret, known to neither researcher nor consumer, being that both were identical and made from beef. Most people, perceiving an opportunity to get the same enjoyment at the same cost but with fewer health risks, said they would prefer to buy the “plant-based” burger.

The success of such a food would mean the fulfillment of a very old wish: the dream of a plant-based future actually goes back centuries. According to the prolific researchers William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi — creators of the SoyInfo Center and SoyaScan, “the world’s most comprehensive computerized database on soybeans and soyfoods” — the earliest known reference to tofu, also the earliest reference to a plant-derived meat substitute, dates to A.D. 965, when a scholar in China wrote that it had “gained the sobriquet ‘mock lamb chops.’ ” But the idea of synthetic meat did not captivate the world until the 1800s, when the rise of modern chemistry coincided with a belief that industry could further utopian ends. “That at some time in the future artificial meat will infringe upon the domain of natural meat, as artificial butter” — margarine — “has upon that of natural butter, is only to be reasonably expected,” the chemist Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot proclaimed in 1894. With a Brownian flourish, he argued that the Earth’s surface could cease to be “disfigured by the geometrical devices of agriculture.”

In the book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, Warren Belasco, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, argues convincingly that speculation about future foods is cyclical, driven by price spikes, environmental crises, overpopulation, and cultural anxieties, like those about immigration. So as the 20th century unfurled, meatlike failures piled up. On the eve of World War I, which led to years of inflation and famine, the Belgian chemist Jean Effront created a “nutritious substitute for meat” called viandine — brewery waste processed with sulfuric acid and quicklime. (He was reportedly “silent” when asked about the taste.) In The Soya Wurst Program: A Case Study (1953), a USDA official noted that meatless hamburgers had become unpopular in Nazi Germany, only to give way to a government-affiliated soy-fortified-sausage effort that rapidly collapsed. (American researchers later concluded that “the inherent flatulence factor” was a “major drawback” of early soy-based foods.) In the U.S., despite the increasingly apocalyptic mood at mid-century, even algae burgers seemed like saviors, with the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations — and Stanford University — sponsoring earnest algae pilot studies. Pond scum didn’t pan out. It was too costly, Belasco says, and its champions, like earlier entrepreneurs, harbored a fatal false belief: that future humans, in the words of a Caltech biologist, would “place less emotional importance on the gourmet aspects of food.”

The emotions haven’t gone anywhere, and when it comes to Impossible’s future, Brown believes, they may be the most important factor of all. “The only way we’ll be successful is if we make the world happier,” he says. “If you have a new product that people love — like smartphones went from zero to more than half the world having one in less than ten years — it’s hard to stop you. Who could not love that?”

On a peaceful Monday night in Palo Alto, Brown and his wife, Sue Klapholz — a fellow M.D.-Ph.D. who runs Impossible’s cheese team and is as kindly as he can be brash — invited me to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, a Cuban spot near the Stanford campus. Amid the clatter of families eating and a brass-heavy Latin playlist, Brown, wearing a T-shirt decorated with what looked like an atom diagram and spatters of fake blood (Dexter inspired, he said), eased into a banquette, rum rickey in hand. He had just come from a long day of meetings at the University of California, San Francisco, including one, he added, with a researcher who was doing intriguing studies of sexually dimorphous behavior in mice. Brown had also given a lunchtime talk on his career, and he was hungry; he hadn’t eaten because the school had ordered pizza topped with a vegan cheese whose flavor and texture he disapproved of, and it had seemed weird to pick it off. So now he dug into some slices of baguette, dipping them in chile-flavored oil. Behind him, a painting depicted a conquistador-like figure paddling a boat shaped like a chicken.

The talk’s title, Brown said, was “Subversive Activities” — a reminder of just how he had come to see himself ever since, as a University of Chicago grad student, he proposed a then-outlandish mechanism by which coils of DNA might unwind, a key step that occurs when cells divide. His theory — that an enzyme temporarily breaks the DNA, letting an unbroken strand pass through — is now enshrined in textbooks. A much greater achievement came in the mid-’90s. Traditionally, studies of genetic activity in cells had relied on arduous gene-by-gene analysis. But Brown, in a grant proposal submitted to the National Institutes of Health, outlined a plan he and his lab developed for a microchiplike device in which gene fragments, printed in thousands of dots on a glass slide, would bind to corresponding fragments from a target cell. When scanned, the chip, known as a DNA microarray, would reveal how much the cell was expressing each of the thousands of genes. The NIH rejected Brown’s proposal. He built the chip anyway — and rather than profiting from it, posted a how-to guide online, helping to usher in an era in which microarrays have demystified everything from the developmental pathways of human cells to treatments for genetically distinct forms of cancer, and in which Brown is considered a contender for a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Brown strayed farther afield. In the early 2000s, subversion meant waging a war for open access to publicly funded biomedical research — “I want to literally overthrow the scientific publishing Establishment,” he once told an interviewer — which led him to co-found the Public Library of Science, a publisher and advocacy group. By the decade’s close, it meant “trying to the maximum extent possible to eliminate animal farming on the planet Earth,” and when food-industry officials and policymakers rejected his calls to action, it meant speaking, Brown’s friend and former postdoc Michael Eisen recalls, of “legal economic sabotage.” “It really is like everything he’s done in his life has led to this moment — to this convergence of himself as a scientist, as a creative force, even as an entrepreneur, and a vegan, and a do-gooder,” says Eisen, now a biochemist at UC Berkeley. “He will make this work, because he just sort of was perfectly engineered.”

In the restaurant, over a nourishing spread of soups, salads, and plantain chips, Brown looked uncharacteristically tranquil. Obstacles persisted, of course: There were yet more technological hurdles, like refining the burger’s nutritional profile and bringing down its cost, then $10 a patty, as well as possible regulatory snags and industry opposition. Beyond Meat, for instance, has found that supermarket meat counters have been unwilling to stock its Beyond Chicken strips and taco-meat-style “feisty crumble,” relegating them to the frozen-foods section. Impossible, too, has encountered hostility, with a commentator for Drovers CattleNetwork sneering at the notion of an “ultimate pseudo-burger” that’s “right up there with the latest iPhone, phablet, or other techno-toy created by the geniuses in Silicon Valley.” But success, to Brown, seemed all but inevitable. After Dodo, Emu would arrive within weeks, then Falcon. The particulars didn’t seem to matter so much as the path: onward, as if by intelligent design. The knobs would turn again.

Soon enough, Brown began to rail against his critics. There was the idea that he would hurt farmers. (“They think of this as, You’re forcing this on the world — and that’s completely wrong.”) There were the potential jabs from the political right. (“It’s like, what could be more in tune with the American free-enterprise system than creating a new product?”) There were those who thought the best Brown could ever make would be a perfect replica, and that even a perfect replica would never persuade burger lovers to defect. (“It can’t be as good, or almost as good. If we do that, we fail — and we know it.”) But what really set him off was a less malicious accusation: that Impossible was making processed food.

He leaned in and picked up two slices of baguette, rotating them in the light of a candle. “This is processed food,” he said. “This is taking a fraction of wheat seeds, adding sugar — another species — to it, and adding yeast, which is incredibly different, not even a different species but an entirely different phylogenetic tree of the natural kingdom! What you’re going to have for dinner, your plato de vegetales, is an incredibly processed food!”

“Well, that’s what cooking is,” Klapholz said.

“Exactly,” Brown said. “It’s cooking! If I make a kale smoothie, that’s processed food. We’re just making food the way humans have been making it forever, which is taking things from nature and making the sum more delicious than the parts. It’s one of these things where there’s so much fundamentalism about food. They’re not even quasi-religious beliefs. They’re religious beliefs. They’re immune to rational thought.”

Brown quieted down, as if afraid he’d said too much. “My suspicion,” he finally added, “is that a lot of these food fundamentalists are sneaking deep-fried Twinkies.”

*This is an extended version of an article that appears in the June 1, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Silicon Valley’s Race to Build a Fake-Meat Burger