I spent much of my junior year at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s as the managing editor of the college paper, where one of my jobs was to drive with a group of other editors to a huge printing plant west of the city each Tuesday evening, and put together one of the twice- weekly issues. A highlight of the trip was a stop at a local Burger King, where I and my friends would each devour a Whopper, fries, shake, and so forth. It was a messy but filling meal, and a good thing, because those production sessions fiddling with layout and linotype at the printing plant—we were still very much in the analog age—often lasted till well after midnight. 

The menu at a Burger King promoting the Impossible Whopper

When I left college, I dispensed with Whoppers, and all fast food for that matter, pretty much for the next fifty years…..until today. I just took my first bites of a Whopper, actually an “Impossible Whopper,” in celebration of the fact that this Whopper is made from a plant-based “Impossible” burger. Sure enough, it looks the same as those Whoppers I had a half century ago—it oozes lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayo, ketchup and pickles from the sides of a soft bun and, most important, the char-grilled quarter-pound “burger” tastes just like those burgers of long ago, but absent the slab of CAFO output full of antibiotics and other questionable items.

Not only am I enjoying the food, but I truly feel like a new-food pioneer, because it is becoming ever clearer that the Impossible Whopper (along with the Beyond Beef burgers I’ve written about previously) are pointing food production in a profound new direction. The soaring stock price of Beyond Beef has been one indication (the stock has been around $150/share; no word yet on a stock offering from Impossible, which remains private). 

A new, much better documented indication comes from an independent high-tech think tank, RethinkX, which predicts in a major new study that the Impossible Whopper is truly the tip of the soy bean when it comes to change in agriculture. Among its mind-boggling predictions: “By 2030, demand for cow products will have fallen by 70%. Before we reach this point, the U.S. cattle industry will be effectively bankrupt. By 2035, demand for cow products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%. Other livestock markets such as chicken, pig, and fish will follow a similar trajectory. There will be enormous destruction of value for those involved in rearing animals and processing them, and for all the industries that support and supply the sector (fertilizers, machinery, veterinary services, and more). We estimate this will total more than $100bn.” 

For farmers who refuse to see the light and adapt, the destruction sounds as if it could be nearly total, at least for those in the business of CAFO production (concentrated animal feeding operations). Those farmers outside the commodity economy and in the business of producing high-quality real food, like raw dairy products and pasture-raised meat and chicken, could presumably survive and prosper as specialty products for high-income niche markets. 

A huge driver of the emerging man-made food economy is something the study authors refer to as “precision fermentation.” Here is some context: 

 “Ten thousand years ago, the first domestication of plants and animals marked a pivotal point in human history. For the very first time, humans began breeding plants and animals to eat and put to work. These were wild macro-organisms, ranging from cows and sheep to wheat and barley. Humans no longer hunted and gathered their food, but began controlling its production, selecting the best traits and conditions for growing these organisms and thereby, albeit unintentionally, altering their natural evolution.

“An often-overlooked component of this first domestication is the vital role micro-organisms played. Micro-organisms exist naturally within macro-organisms, breaking down nutrient inputs to build useful outputs. For example, micro-organisms in the digestive tract of a cow help produce the protein and amino acids it needs to live and grow. Not only, then, were humans unintentionally manipulating the evolution of macro-organisms, but micro-organisms as well.

“One thousand or so years later, humans were manipulating micro-organisms in a more direct way through early experiments in fermentation. Within controlled environments such as ceramic pots and wooden barrels, humans slowly discovered how to make many staple foods such as bread and cheese, how to preserve fruits and vegetables, and how to produce alcoholic drinks. Humans were now able, in the most rudimentary way, to control the production of food. For thousands of years, the model of food production remained largely unchanged, based on the lessons learned during the first domestication.

“Today, we stand on the cusp of the next great revolution in food production. New technologies allow us to manipulate micro-organisms to a far greater degree than our ancestors could possibly have imagined. We can now unplug micro-organisms entirely from macro-organisms and harness them directly as superior and more efficient units of nutrient production.

“This is the second domestication of plants and animals. The first domestication allowed us to master macro-organisms. The second will allow us to master micro-organisms.”

The driving force in mastering micro-organisms is what the study authors refer to as “precision biology,” which “encompasses the information and biotechnologies necessary to design and program cells and organisms, including genetic engineering, synthetic biology, systems biology, metabolic engineering, and computational biology.”

Key to making precision biology work is something called “precision fermentation.” “This is the combination of precision biology with the age-old process of fermentation. PF is the process that allows us to program micro-organisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule. These include the production of proteins (including enzymes and hormones), fats (including oils), and vitamins to precise specifications, abundantly, and ultimately at marginal costs approaching the cost of sugar. These molecules are vital ingredients across a wide range of industries as they bring structure, function, and nutrition to consumer products. PF is a proven technology that has been used commercially since the 1980s – scientists have been using genetic engineering to modify micro-organisms for producing human insulin and growth hormone, enzymes such as rennet (chymosin), and various other biologics.” Indeed, more than 90% of the chymosin used in cheesemaking today is produced via this precision fermentation, the study says. 

The discussion of genetic engineering and other manipulative processes will no doubt disturb some readers here. But this revolution in food production is going ahead whether we like it or not, since the potential benefits, and financial rewards, are so huge: Reductions in greenhouse gases and water use for agriculture, on the order of 50% or more, they say. Food safety problems will reduce, as will antibiotic resistance. Food costs for families will decline significantly, especially benefiting the poor. 

This entire shift, with precision fermentation, is already in process. Here is how Impossible Foods describes the production of the Impossible Whopper I had: “We started by using the heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants. It’s called soy leghemoglobin. We took the DNA from soy plants and inserted it into a genetically engineered yeast. And we ferment this yeast—very similar to the way Belgian beer is made. But instead of producing alcohol, our yeast multiply and produce a lot of heme.” 

I suspect genetic engineering, minus the use of Roundup, will be much more palatable and workable on a more customized and small-scale basis than we have come to think of it. In the meantime, I recommend reading the RethinkX report. It contains much more than I could include in a blog post. In the meantime, I still can’t get over the fact that the Burger King a couple blocks from my house, which I had barely taken notice of for years, is now a hotbed of an emerging food revolution.