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The Impossible Burger - the clue is in the name

By Rosewood Farm, Nov 23 2017 01:46PM

If there's one thing that disgusts me more than environmental damage and animal cruelty, it's the processed food industry taking advantage of these things to feed us rubbish and sell it as a solution to our problems, at an inflated price. This week Joanna Blythman delved into the ingredients list of The Impossible Burger to try to work out exactly what it was made of. And that got me thinking, what if we decided to do the Impossible here at Rosewood Farm?

The Impossible Burger proudly claims, on its website, to be better for the environment because it 'uses 95% less land' than beef. So based upon that 'fact', we've crunched the numbers for our business and realised we could produce the same amount of ‘meat’ as we do now, on just 30 acres! Sounds pretty brilliant eh? Of course, we’d sooner give up meat than abandon the wildlife on some of the most diverse pastures in the country here at Rosewood so the cows (or other more appropriate grazing animals if you wish) would have to stay to graze the nature reserve and retain the boost we’ve seen in biodiversity.

There's only one ingredient in Rosewood burgers - grassfed beef!
There's only one ingredient in Rosewood burgers - grassfed beef!

Things started crumbling for the new Impossible Burger plan when we looked at another of their ‘facts’ though - that the Impossible Burger produces 13% of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) of beef. On 5% of the land. 13% of the emissions, on 5% of the land. So actually, more than double the GHGs of beef production per acre. Add the 95% of GHG emissions still being caused by the cows or wild ruminants which encroached to fill the grazing niche created by the lack of cows, and we have an EXTRA 8% of GHGs being produced. We’ll pass, thanks.

This reminds me of two commonly reported benefits of the world turning to plant crops as our only food source - 1) the reduction of greenhouses gas emissions and 2) global food security. Apparently, according to UN figures farming animals produces 14.5% of all human related emissions which we could eliminate if we just ate the food we feed to animals directly to humans instead. It seems simple - less animals = less greenhouse gasses, right? Wrong.

As Mottet et al discovered, 86% of livestock feeds are not suitable for human consumption at all, leaving a modest 14% that could feed people. Livestock are in fact utilising the waste from human-direct crop production and turning it into human edible food for us. The irony of so many emerging meat & dairy alternative products is that they create by-products that are fed to intensively reared livestock. Copra meal from coconut milk, soya hulls from vegetable oils, almond husks, the list goes on, are all sold back to the meat & dairy industry. I wonder how many people buying these products actually realise that they are subsiding the feed costs of the very industry they usually wish to avoid supporting?

The UN/FAO are tired of being misquoted on this issue, too:

As a farmer, it has always puzzled me as to why anyone would think that it is financially attractive for us to feed animals on crops that we could sell direct to humans.

Livestock don’t currently utilise the waste of livestock production in the UK as they do for crop production - we aren’t feeding butchery trimmings back to pigs and chickens, let alone cows and sheep (thank goodness). Instead, the waste from livestock production makes things like fat/tallow, which goes into our cosmetics and toiletries to name but one use. In crops, the oil we’d make soap out of is the product and generates waste itself, (up to 79% in the case of soy). In livestock, the food is the product and the oil is just the ‘waste’. Cows are really cool that way.

Another Impossible fact that just doesn’t add up is water use. In their recent film Stella McCartney claimed that it takes 2350 litres of fresh water to produce a single beef burger. The reason they attribute so much water to a single burger is that this includes all the water that falls, as rain, on the land that animals inhabit. It doesn’t matter if the water is ‘used’ to grow the crops, drunk by wildlife, is stored in the soil or flows straight into a reservoir, it’s still attributed to beef. Because The Impossible Burger uses less land it is deemed to be ‘responsible’ for less water, even though the water continues to fall on the vacant land. To calculate it in this way has severe implications for the water footprint of our beef, as our fields can be covered with six feet of floodwater in winter!

If we take out the water that remains on the land though, maybe drinking & processing water is still too much? Here at Rosewood we’re charged £1.27 per 1,000 litres by Yorkshire Water which, according to the McCartney figure, would mean each burger would cost us £2.98 in water consumption alone, and we’d only be able to produce 30kg of beef. Given that we sell our burgers for £1.20 each that would represent a net loss of £1.78 for every single one, just in water - that really would be an impossible burger!

In reality we produce much more than just beef burgers here at Rosewood, but let’s assume we didn’t, for the sake of simplicity. At current production levels the entirety of our water supply, including all the water we use domestically, amounts to 60 litres per burger or 1/40th of the amount claimed. At less than 8p per burger that sounds like a much more realistic figure.

Floodplain beef production & floodwater storage go hand-in-hand
Floodplain beef production & floodwater storage go hand-in-hand

Yet again the eco- friendly claims of the Impossible Burger all get a bit muddled, because it uses 74% less water than beef on only 5% of the land this means the Impossible burger has a water footprint 5 times that of beef. Price is important to us at Rosewood - a product can be the most sustainable thing mankind has ever seen but unless most of us can afford it, it’s a waste of space. We price match with supermarkets, thanks to our efficient system which grows cows purely on old pasture that can’t be used to grow crops on, and no middlemen. We had struggled to work out why Impossible Burgers cost, in their own words ‘as much as a high end beef burger’, given they are so supposed to be much more efficient to produce, but if they use five times as much water this might go some way to explaining it.

We’re not sure what kind of profit margin this ‘cost of a high end burger’ leaves for the Impossible Burger company, but we’re a bit worried if it’s a good one. Because that 95% of vacated land starts looking highly vulnerable if it is. What would stop unscrupulous corporations swooping in and serving Impossible Burgers at a vast profit to as many human beings as we could breed to eat them? Not much. If we converted more than 20% of this land to Impossible Burger production, given the 5x higher water footprint, we’d run out of water altogether. And if all of the land was used, we’d be producing an extra 8% GHGs for our troubles.

Luckily, we don’t need to convert to Impossible Burger production. While we do graze a large area of land with our cattle, the time they spend on any given patch of ground is relatively small, ranging from 2-14 days per year. So, in terms of land use over time, Rosewood rotational cattle grazing only uses the land for 3.8% of the time at most, even beating The Impossible Burger’s 5%, with just 20% of its water footprint and 8% less GHGs…

Jan 18 2018 10:30PM by Björn Hammarskjöld

If you put a 30 kg (dry substance) bale of hay on a field and let it rotten anaerobically there will be produced about 22 400 liters (L) of equal volumes of methane and carbon dioxide.

If you feed a similar 30 kg bale of hay to a cow and measure the gases produced by the cow after fermentation in the intestines of the cow. By measuring the gasses exiting the colon to a ballon on the back of the cow you can get about 100 to 150 L exhaust gasses from the cow.

Where did the rest of the 22 250 L carbon gasses go?

Well, about 20 kg hay became milk and the rest of the hay is used by the cow to maintain life and build more protein and animal fat, a.k.a. cow. At least 99 % of the hay is not converted to methane contrary to fake information.

There are some natural fertilizer produced as well. The natural fertilizer is improving the soil quality of the grazing land.

When slaughterd one kg of meat removes about 0.7 L of water. The rest of the water is naturally circulated in the atmosphere, ground water and surface water and the evaporated back into he atmosphere. So the total amount of water to produce 1 kg of meat and taken from the grassland is the water content of 0.7 L in the 1 kg of meat.


Cows are methane sinks as they decrease the methane gasses by eating grass that otherwise should be emitted as methane to the atmosphere. Forests are carbon dioxide sinks in the same way as the trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Vegetable growth for food decrease soil quality, requires chemical fertilizers and produce more methane, at least rice fields emit from space measurable amounts of methane.

So eat more meat from cows to decrease the methane production, increase soil quality and save the planet Earth

Jan 19 2018 03:18PM by Martin

You are assuming that if we take cows out of South America or Australia all those native ruminants will come back to graze and produce more GHG. Only cows there are as natural as car exhausts. There were no large ruminants in those continents. Also, wild ruminants will tend to have a lesser concentration that farms: wild animals do not get vaccines or antibiotics, they are not sheltered and their offspring often die.

Also, 1kg of "impossible burger" = 5% of land used, 13% of GHG emissions relative to conventional. While the intensity may have doubled, the total amount has been reduced. For example (making figures up) 1 kg beef = 100 hectares, 100kg GHG, 1 kg impossible burger = 5 hectares, 13 kg GHG. So if you produce one kg of each, which has less emissions?

The most nefarious impacts from livestock production actually come from its concentration, towards which the industrial food complex is increasingly turning towards. Which are not mentioned at all. In your last paragraph you mention what would happen if...which is funny because it is kind of what is already happening with meat, with unscrupulous corporations swooping in and serving people impossibly cheap meat (4 quarter pounders for 1.50GBP at Iceland, whole chicken for a few quid). Which is the market they are trying to disrupt. Not your production model, which is more sustainable environmentally I am sure, but which has not really scaled up to provide the 84 kg of meat that Brits have gotten used to eat each year. So a shame that you do not address the 2 big problems, rather than a start up that is trying to disrupt a nasty market, which are the scale of meat production and consumption and the industrialisation of the meat industry.

Jan 19 2018 11:31PM by rosewoodfarm

I think methane emissions from cattle have been seized upon as a convenient scapecow, despite the lack of evidence for cows being the source of atmospheric methane increase it continues to be repeated as fact. Unfortunately by the time we've got rid of all the cows it will be far too late.

Jan 20 2018 12:28AM by rosewoodfarm

Hi Martin,

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. A few points to consider in relation to your comments;

1) I haven't assumed anything about South America or Australia as my blog is about our own farm in Yorkshire. However large grazing herbivores often exist in large herds due to predator pressure and they are forced to move on frequently due to food resources. Managing cattle in a similar way benefits the cattle, the soil, the wildlife and the grasslands in a multitude of different ways. If you were to take the cattle away from the sites we graze then it was suggested to me that wild herbivores would do the same job and would therefore need to exist in similar concentrations to achieve this.

2) You are assuming that the "Impossible Burger" guarantees that only 5% of the land area would be used. In actual fact there is nothing in Impossible Foods business structure to ensure that this is the case. The more likely scenario would be that the land would be used to grow 20x as much food or non-food crops instead. The Green Revolution was our last major shift in agricultural productivity and rather than feed the population of the time sustainably, population has since doubled as a result.

3) You are suggesting that Impossible Foods are trying to disrupt only the market for cheap food rather than our own production model. Unfortunately fighting fire with fire doesn't stop things burning and cheap food is no exception. The reason cheap food is a problem is because it competes directly with more sustainable food and makes it less viable to produce 'standard' food in this way. You cannot solve the problem of cheap food by making a cheaper alternative as you are still undercutting more sustainable methods. The reason our production model isn't scaled up is because of cheap food, not because it is impossible to produce. Between 1961 & 2011 beef consumption in the uk dropped by 11% despite an overall increase in population. This has led to fewer cattle farmers and less grazing of the wildflower meadows that we now manage - it was the standard, supermarket beef animals that were used to graze these pastures, not specialist sustainable producers, and it is these that are first to go when products such as chicken, vegetables or fake meat take market share. See my other blog; Meat Us Halfway -Supermarkets Need To Stop Telling Porkies for more details and figures. In order to drive sustainable food production in thr right direction we need more people demanding it, not less.

Feb 4 2018 12:51PM by Michael Broadhead

Trophic inefficiency will make meat always more inefficient than its plant-based counterpart.

But more importantly, these animals want to live. I grew up on a farm and now when I look back, I can see how strongly family, history, and the local culture influences us to ignore our compassion to cows, pigs and chickens. There's a great documentary of other farmers that have gone on to save the animals they used to farm: I hope one day you can see the animals with more compassion.

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