Impossible Foods and Regenerative Grazers Face Off in a Carbon Farming Dust-Up | Civil Eats

Impossible Foods and Regenerative Grazers Face Off in a Carbon Farming Dust-Up

The plant-based burger company called regenerative grazing the “clean coal of meat” in a recent report. That hasn’t gone over well amongst carbon ranchers.

Moving the herd of cattle at White Oak Pastures. Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures.

Rancher Will Harris says he was “stunned” when he got wind last week that Impossible Foods, the makers of the plant-based Impossible Burger, called regenerative grazing “the ‘clean coal’ of meat” in their 2019 Impact Report.

Speaking by phone from White Oak Pastures, his 153-year-old farm in Bluffton, Georgia, Harris said, “I think there were many mistruths in that attack.”

The feud is the latest in an ongoing discussion about whether regenerative meat production and high-tech plant-based alternatives can co-exist. And for holistically managed animal operations like Harris’s, the suggestion that all meat production should be seen as having the same impact on the environment constitutes a battle cry.

Addressing Climate Change

“We emulate nature,” Harris says in defense of the 2,500-acre farm where he raises 10 species of livestock in a vertically integrated cycle. At White Oak Pastures, Harris’s “100,000 beating hearts” are born on the farm, reared in its plentiful pastures, and slaughtered on site. The property’s vegetation soaks up sunlight, water and—importantly—carbon dioxide in nature’s perfect process of photosynthesis. The cattle graze on this plant life, given the protein, energy, and fat they need to thrive.

Will Harris holds healthy soil at White Oak Pastures. (Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures)

Will Harris holds healthy soil at White Oak Pastures. (Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures)

“I find it surprising that they are spending energy attempting to discredit regenerative agriculture,” Nicolette Hahn Niman, an attorney, author, and expert on sustainable food and farming, says about Impossible Foods. “It is still, at this point in time, a really small portion of agriculture,” Niman, who is also a California livestock rancher who farms regeneratively at BN Ranch, says in reference to the regenerative grazing community. In the U.S., around 97 percent of beef consumed is from cattle finished on grain in feedlots, otherwise known as conventionally, or industrially, produced—the antithesis of regenerative grazing.

According to Regeneration International, a nonprofit that engages more than 250 international partners to advance regenerative agriculture and land management techniques globally, the methodology is rooted in stewardship of the land. The organization defines the management method as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter, and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.”

Though Regeneration International calls the field as a whole an “evolving science,” the organization states that a core component of their philosophy is the managed grazing of livestock. In plain English, this means mimicking the natural activity of migratory herds, by rotating them between a series of fenced-off paddocks. This allows for periods of intense mob grazing, where the soil is disturbed and the animals’ manure is naturally deposited and incorporated. Between grazing periods, the land is given time to rest and regenerate.

Advocates argue that the process enables land to act as a carbon sink and, as Regeneration International notes, they believe that managed grazing achieves “improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits, and overall pasture and grazing land productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration.”

At Impossible Foods’ headquarters in Redwood City, California, the company is using a lab to isolate engineered soy and other proteins and nutrients in plant matter to create meat and dairy alternatives that mimic the real thing.

Impossible Foods' Oakland, Calif., plant, where the company makes the Impossible Burger

Inside Impossible Foods’ Oakland, Calif., plant. (Photo courtesy of Impossible Foods)

Business is booming for the Silicon Valley startup, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in financial backing and is currently valued at $2 billion. The Impossible Burger, the company’s flagship product now in its second iteration and made primarily from soybeans, is available at more than 8,000 restaurants nationwide as well as in parts of Asia. There is reportedly so much demand that Red Robin and White Castle are seeing shortages.

This comes after the company unveiled a plant-based Impossible Whopper at select Burger King locations in April. And later this year, the company plans to outfit all 7,200 U.S. Burger King restaurants, the world’s second largest burger chain, with the plant-based Whopper while also launching their product for sale at grocers across the country.

Founder and CEO Patrick Brown started the company with a focus on environmentalism and a mission rooted in eliminating animal agriculture, which the company calls a “destructive and unnecessary technology.” Impossible Foods’ branding appeals to the growing base of American consumers increasingly interested in how their food is produced.

Impossible Burger photo courtesy of Impossible Foods.

Impossible Burger photo courtesy of Impossible Foods.

The plant-based food revolution is also extending beyond start-ups like Impossible Foods. Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat producer, recently announced that will also enter the plant-based alternatives and blended proteins market this summer with a new brand called Raised and Rooted. This follows on the heels of similar announcements from companies including Perdue and Nestlé. A recent report suggests that by 2040, 60 percent of “meat” consumed will come from lab-grown products or plant-based alternatives.

A Look at the Data

Both sides of the debate point to data that supports their argument. Last month, White Oak Pastures and General Mills (which buys the company’s meat for its EPIC provisions brand) released the results of a life-cycle assessment (LCA)—a critical review of the environmental impacts of the various stages in the life of a product—of the beef operation. The study, which was conducted by the global environmental consulting firm Quantis (but has yet to be peer-reviewed), determined that the beef operation produces net total emissions of -3.5 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of beef produced, essentially reinforcing Harris’ belief that his farm serves as a carbon sink.

By comparison, Quantis reports, conventional beef produces 33 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of beef, conventional pork produces 9 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of food, conventional chicken produces 6 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of food, and conventional soybeans produce 2 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of food.

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Meanwhile, Impossible Foods also recently published the results of an LCA—one also conducted by Quantis—on the most recent iteration of the Impossible Burger. As the company notes on its website, the LCA showed that in contrast to conventional beef, the Impossible Burger produces “87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and 92 percent less aquatic pollutants.”

Inspecting the soil health at White Oak Pastures. (Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures)

Inspecting the soil health at White Oak Pastures. (Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures)

However, a strict look at the data has left some in the regenerative grazing community scratching their heads. The Impossible Burger 2.0 is formulated partly from genetically modified soybeans sourced from farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. In the White Oak Pastures LCA, Quantis notes that soybeans have a footprint of 2 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of food produced, based on the product’s listing in the World Food LCA Database.

Additionally, the White Oak Pastures LCA compared beef produced by the farm to a Beyond Burger patty, made by Impossible Foods’ prime competitor, Beyond Meat. As noted in the Quantis report, based on their own LCA, the Beyond Burger produces 4 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of food it produces. The Beyond Burger is made from pea protein rather than soy.

Environmentalists in Disagreement

When asked to comment on the findings from the White Oak Pastures LCA, an Impossible Foods spokesperson told Civil Eats, “First, we applaud any rancher or animal agriculture farmer for prioritizing climate and ecosystems in their operations. The issue is bigger than the management practices of one farm or ranch, and we are trying to raise awareness that grass-fed, extensive production is simply not scalable.”

The Savory Institute, a nonprofit advocating for regeneration of the world’s grasslands through holistic management practices, takes issue with this argument.

“Claims that our work has been ‘debunked’ disregard not just the millions of acres that have been regenerated globally and the tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers, and pastoralist communities who have stewarded this land transformation and witnessed it firsthand,” the Savory Institute wrote in response. “But they also overlook the growing body of peer-reviewed evidence documenting that properly-managed livestock can be a net positive for grassland ecosystems, carbon drawdown, wildlife habitat, and rural communities.”

Harris at White Oak Pastures agrees that his operation shouldn’t be scaled any further—but, he says, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be replicated in communities across the country. “White Oak Pastures will never be a multinational corporation,” Harris told Civil Eats. “There will never be a truly regenerative, humane, fair farm that will scale to a national level—much less multinational. Instead, every rural county in all 50 states should have a White Oak Pastures or two. That’s the way it used to be.”

Cattle and sheep grazing at White Oak Pastures. Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures.

Cattle and sheep grazing at White Oak Pastures. Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures.

Harris claims that he’s not waxing nostalgic. He’d like to see a reversal of what he calls the “unintended consequences” of America’s post-World War II “centralized, industrialized, and commoditized” agricultural model. Though cheap and abundant food were provided by the prototype, it has resulted in disastrous consequences to animal welfare, rural communities, and the environment, he says.

As reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock production is the greatest user of land globally. When combined, the land needed to grow feed for animal agriculture and the land on which animals graze accounts for 80 percent of all agricultural land use on Earth. As meat consumption continues to climb with a growing world population, more forests are expected to be cut down, alongside the ongoing compromise of land, air, and waterways.

In its impact report, Impossible Foods says that though they do not support any form of animal agriculture, they see regenerative grazers as one of the worst environmental options. They note that “in most cases, industrial feedlot beef actually requires less natural resources and generates less greenhouse gas than does grass-fed beef,” citing research from Judith Capper at Washington State University.

Impossible Foods’ spokesperson pointed to research showing that if grazing production models were adopted in the U.S. at a scale necessary to meet the billions of dollars in sales from annual cattle production in the country, “the agricultural footprint of the U.S. would have to explode at the expense of public lands and national ecosystem integrity.”

Richard Waite, a lead researcher with the World Resource Institute’s (WRI) food program, says that his group has reached the same conclusion. “It actually takes more land, and leads to more greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef, if you’re finishing on grass than if you’re finishing on grain because the animals grow more slowly and they are slaughtered at a lower weight,” he says.

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This presumes that consumers will want to eat—or be able to afford—as much regeneratively grazed beef as they do conventional. As WRI has reported, if ruminant meat consumption in high-consuming countries like the U.S. declined to levels half of its current rate, the need for additional agricultural land would be eliminated, which in turn would mean no new deforestation for agricultural expansion.

“It’s interesting that there is this tension,” Waite says about Impossible Foods’ take on regenerative grazing in its impact report. “The world is a big place and I think there’s room for both,” says Waite.

No Silver Bullet?

In May, Impossible Foods announced that it would soon start sourcing genetically modified soy for the Impossible Burger. Previously, the patty was crafted using non-GMO beans (and version 1.0 relied on wheat) but the company has faced supply challenges as demand for the burgers skyrocketed.

From White Oak Pastures, Harris says that he’s certain that a genetically engineered and highly processed product reliant on a monoculture crop is not a step in the right direction in the name of environmentalism. He says that “nature abhors monoculture” and notes that the production needs of the Impossible Burger mimic some of the most troublesome patterns found in industrial agriculture.

Nicolette Niman also calls the company’s reliance on a genetically modified monocrop “problematic,” noting that the company is “fostering, supporting, and reinforcing” agricultural models that contrast to working in harmony with nature.

“We are in favor of both making agriculture, including animal agriculture, more sustainable and more productive, and we are in favor of shifting to more plant-rich diets,” Waite says about WRI’s take on the matter. “We are fans of Impossible Foods and other plant-based meat alternatives—and we’re also fans of farmers who are using improved practices,” he says, recognizing the diversity of climate change adaptation strategies needed. “There is no silver bullet that’s going to allow us to feed lots of people sustainably. It’s going to require lots of changes from farm to fork.”

Back at White Oak Pastures, Harris says that he’d like to meet with Impossible Foods to show the company’s executives first-hand that regenerative grazers are not the enemy. “Dr. Brown, please come see me,” he pleads. “It’ll be an opportunity for both of us to adjust our worldviews.”

Top photo: Moving the herd of cattle at White Oak Pastures. (Photo courtesy of White Oak Pastures.)

Nicole Rasul is an Ohio-based writer who covers food and agriculture. She is particularly interested in producers committed to sustainable practices, dynamic local and regional food systems, and inspiring food and agriculture advocates who drive change in their communities. Her work has appeared in Edible Columbus, Edible Indy, Columbus Monthly, and Read more >

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  1. elan star
    this is a very controversial subject. If one does not get compassion and that killing is killing is killing is killing (what don't you get about "murder") then there is no debate or logic or rational discussion. it is about old outworn ideals from the diary and meat industry which has ruined the planet and our biome. integrated management is one thing. killing the animals as if they are things is literally "Barbaric"....

    contemporary rhetoric uses "gaia bytes" to "appear" rational, but slaughter is not a "nice term" and we never need animal flesh nor will we ever need it....grazing for manure's for compost is one thing...killing the composting devices known as animals is anther....and it is time to literally ".grow up" and get out of your head and into your heart."

    once you go into this arena there is No rational discussion.
    • Stefhan Gordon
      Must be nice to be so ecologically disconnected. Such obliviousness affords you your supercilious sanctimonious beliefs. But sadly, your reality couldn't be further from the truth since plenty of animals get killed for your plant based burgers plus lots of insects as well especially in industrial cropping systems. It's just different animals that are either consumed by other animals or rot in fields rather than end up on your plate. or in your bun.

      These other animals include mice, moles, voles, ground squirrels, foxes, badgers, fawns, frogs, snakes, salamanders, frogs, birds, including nesting and migratory birds, rabbits, rats, etc. Also include animals in river ecosystems where water is diverted from to irrigate crops in many places around the globe.

      When these field animals land is converted especially to industrial crop land, their ecosystem is destroyed, and many are displaced and die. if they come back, their homes are again destroyed when the land is cultivated (tilled, disked, flamed, etc). They're also poisoned when the crops on this land are "protected, that is treated with herbicides, avaracides, fungicides, insecticides, rodentcides, etc. Pollinators, both native and trucked in, are killed by insecticides as well. Crops are often protected with nets and sirens as well. Then irrigation, especially flood irrigation, drowns all of these animals in their make-shift homes. If water is pumped from deep aquifers, that may pull up selenium which is toxic to birds. Then nitrogen used for almonds, sugarcane, wheat, etc, also ends up rivers and kills fish too. Mining for potash and phosphorus is also super destructive. Finally during harvest, any surviving fields animals are ran over, swooshed, thrashed, etc. Plus don't forget that the stored crops like peas, wheat, soy, etc also have to protected and transported, so even more animals die during these steps as well.

      So basically what occurs is ecocide for your ecocide burgers. Though I guess per your logic only certain animals getting killed to consumed directly matters but all the animals and insects that die for your plant food doesn't.
    • Dan W
      Just an absolutely excellent comment Stefhan Gordon. Thank you.

      The limiits of Elan's thinking were reached and anything beyond it was "no rational discussion".

      Looks like there is a TON of rational discussion beyond your thought process eh elan ?

      How about the fat tail risks of GM soybeans, the undocumented ones, that we will see over time ?
  2. Statements that suggest regenerative livestock production would increase land use ignore the fact that the elimination of grain-based livestock production would render such statements erroneous. Because, the millions and millions of acres currently used for corn and soy production for feed would go back into carbon sequestering grass land and the fossil fuel use, chemical fertilizers and environmentally disastrous herbicide and pesticide use would also be eliminated, further enhancing the environmental logic of the regenerative production model. The increased land use argument is simply wrong if not downright ignorant.
  3. Pheobe
    I grew up on a farm and am fortunate enough to live in Georgia where my local Kroger sells White Oak Pastures ground beef. It is nothing short of awesome; tastes like the beef we ate as children. You can feel the good nutritional energy you get from it and the flavor is amazing. I have been to White Oak Pastures and it is a lovely peaceful place with happy animals and a diverse ecosystem of wildlife, plant life, and farm animals. I personally will never, ever eat the Impossible Burger frankenfood. Run away, people, run away as fast as you can. Oh, and never listen to someone who has no concept of grammar and punctuation.
  4. Michelle
    We also should be questioning whether we want our food supply to be patented and in the hands of just a few biotech companies. Grass can't be centralized, but Impossible Burgers can.
    • Erik van Lennep
  5. Scott H
    When considering the land use requirements to shift meat production to a fully regenerative model, I wonder if the full extent of system inputs required for conventional crops were also factored in? The conventional crops that are grown to finish feedlot cattle require many levels of inputs, each with significant land and energy requirements. Think of all of the components required to mine, process and transport petrochemical fertilizer or to manufacture herbicides. In theory those would drop linearly as that crop acreage is converted to pasture.

    I would also suggest that even if more land were required, there is an ample surplus should we choose to stop subsidizing the production of corn and soy that is ultimately used to create the millions of food like products filling the center aisles of the grocery store.
    • John Goudge
      Don't forget all the Corn grown for ethanol production or soy or palm trees grown for biodiesel in other countries. All the studies indicate at best a break even situation, ie costs a much in CO2 to produce as avoided
  6. Sherman
    One may want to look closer into details of laboratory-bred meat substitute, as sourcing clean materials has become highly suspect. Little is natural in industrial grain production, GMO and now standard grown grains and beans carry a level of toxic residue, recently tested and reported in children's breakfast cereals. Water-based herbicide sprays are picked up by roots and accumulate in plant leaves, and residues cannot be washed off when inside beans. The ethics of integrating gmo beans into processed food intended for human consumption is beyond comprehension, as it is becoming better known that toxic residues also accumulate in humans. Talk and marketing is cheap, time will tell if these lab rats can take their $2 billion in funding and offer tainted, chemical-based wonder product for willing participant's throats, without incident?
  7. Lumarion M Conklin
    If the Impossible Burger, or any burger is produced with GMO I certainly will not purchase such product. It is defeating the very purpose of producing a product that is both good for the environment and for human health. Why does every effort to do good always is defeated.
  8. "When combined, the land needed to grow feed for animal agriculture and the land on which animals graze accounts for 80 percent of all agricultural land use on Earth."

    This conflates two vastly different land use models.

    1. In the Midwest, all the most fertile, flat land in the Midwest has been converted from native prairie grasslands to a monoculture of GMO-corn and soy. The herbicides and pesticides, and fertilizers, not the GMO-plants themselves, are the root cause of polluted waterways, the dead zone in the Gulf, herbicide-resistant weeds, as well as the majority of the water footprint that beef gets blamed for. Now Impossible Burger is sourcing from the same supply of GMO-soy - which just makes them complicit in the same industrial cycle of environmental degradation. The whole point of grass-finished, regeneratively grazed cattle is to raise animals without feeding them monoculture inputs.

    2. Cattle usually don't graze on the same flat land that corn and soy grow on. Grazing land and farmland are fundamentally different. Cattle, sheep, and goats can graze on hillsides and rangelands, which are unsuitable for farming because you can't run a plow through them. In the US, Allen Williams has cogently put together the numbers for how we could grass-finish cattle without running out of land (below).

    80% of land on the planet is used for raising animals, because there are a billion people - mostly in the global South - who rely on grazing on marginal land for subsistence. Meat and milk are critical to nomadic pastoralist diets, in cultures intimately tied to living in rhythm with nature, from the Alps to Patagonia to Sub-Saharan Africa to the Mongolian steppe. Suggesting that they all eat Impossible Burgers (TM) made from industrial soybeans sprayed with glyphosate is a special kind of dystopia only a VC could dream of.

    Possible ways to heal our land:
    Corn and soy is currently raised for animal feed, but it doesn't have to. We could grow anything there. The Great Plains of the Midwest corridor could be reconverted into native prairie and support grazing animals, as they once supported millions of bison and elk when native Americans managed the prairies, or they could be moved out of monoculture into more ecologically diverse crop mixes. Actually, we could grow both crops and animals. The settlers found our prairies so rich in sod (herd poop builds soil) that it would grow literally anything. Grazing herds are critical to fertilizing the land and building soil without synthetic chemicals.

    Any of these solutions would be better - and produce more ethically raised meat - than Impossible burgers.

    It's not the cow, it's the how.

    More reading:
    • Erik van Lennep
      Awesome, Christine. You nailed it.
  9. Erik van Lennep
    I think the most serious misfit here is to be found in Impossible's desire to become a multinational. Scale is important, but it's equally important to qualify *what* is being scaled.

    There are better ways to scale regenerative practices than creating or enabling multinational domination of the market. We know how that plays out, and Impossible has already announced intentions to start using GMO soy.

    Their efforts to discredit regenerative grazing are a blatant move to seize and control market share. In the end (which we seem to be rapidly approaching), scaling towards industrial production simply disguises business-as-usual extractive capitalism as some sort of 'solution'. We need a profusion of diverse solutions, not a one-size-fits-all tech-based dietary monopoly.
  10. Erik van Lennep
    Criticism of this wannabe industrial-tech multinational attempt to dominate the "meat market" (in all its implied irony) have mentioned GMOs, habitat destruction, monocultures, and indutrialized, centralized food dependency.

    We also need to talk about the false perception that soy is good for you. Studies by a group of New Zealand researchers (already some years ago now) laid out the long term negative consequences of soy consumption, and termed 'big soy' as possibly the biggest scam of the 20th century.

    I just did a 2 minute search online, and of course, loads of articles came up. I selected just one to link here, as it touches on many of the issues and provides further links. Interested readers might want to have a read and then do further searching on their own.
  11. Barbara Cannova
    I believe this is the finest article published by Civil Eats to date! Thank you!
  12. When I heard about the "Impossible Burger", I tried it at a local eatery near my home. I was told it was made of beets, and it tasted good. This report and other articles I have read have told me the truth in its ingredients, GMO soybeans. Anything, we eat that is genetically modified is not good. Most of the food and inorganic vegetables and fruits that are in our supermarkets in the United States are genetically modified. These genetically modified foods and vegetables are altered, then what is the outcome for the people who are ingesting this into our bodies.
  13. C Benson
    Fantastic article - thank you so much Civil Eats.
    I'm new to regenerative farming ideas and, having been an urbanised non-meat eater since turning 18 (was totally put off the mass meat production system).
    The idea of using grazing animals as part of rehabilitation of landscapes was pretty hard to grasp for me until it was successfully prosecuted (via Charles Massey's fantastic book - Call of the Reed Warbler) that it is a very important part of emulating nature for the betterment of the land, regional diversity of flora and fauna, as well as the hip pockets of farmers (far less chemicals and fertilizer). The end product (I am told ;-)) is far better too. Hats off to the farmers who persist (against conventional thinking) and farm this way.
    The Impossible Burger and it's friends have just hit Australia and I'm not convinced. Whole foods appeal much more. However, hopefully it's a great stepping stone for meat eating people to start conversations around ingredients, current farming methods, and GMO soy/pea. Maybe it's the Eureka moment for them realising that it's either the Impossible Burger or finding new ways to farm animals such as at White Oak Pastures???
    PS. We really need this discussion now in Australia where we are facing a crisis on the land and our farmers are suffering.
    PPS. Really enjoyed all the comments and their links - great for further research and understanding.
  14. Lauella Desborough
    What is astonishing to me is the simple fact that in order to produce soy for soy products, a LOT of land is required. And, when that land is turned into fields full of soybeans, many small animals and birds die in the process. Furthermore, the natural environment which provided HOMES for many species of wildlife has not been turned over to production of soybeans. So, if killing is killing, why is it not a problem that wildlife is being killed to produce soy for NON meat products??? Where is the compassion for the wildlife that inhabit this planet with us? So, when are these proponents of not killing animals going to start promoting growing plants in high rise environments "where no animals are killed"?? Or coming up with a different solution other than tearing down the Amazon rainforest to grow soy? Stopping the production of beef cattle is simply not the entire answer here. The solution may be worse than the problem UNLESS a lot more attention is paid to the entire process.

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