Is the Plant-Based Impossible Burger Sustainable?

It all comes down to GMOs.

When the Impossible Burger was first launched in 2016, it was touted as an exponentially more sustainable alternative to beef – and for good reason. As compared to traditional hamburger patties, the Impossible Burger requires 95 percent less land and 87 percent less water to produce and emits 89 percent fewer greenhouse gasses. The team behind the burger quickly set a lofty goal: to use its more sustainable (but just as meaty) patty to help completely eradicate animals from food production by 2035.

It’s not surprising that the burger quickly took off, gaining acclaim first at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi and later at restaurant chains from Bareburger to Umami Burger to White Castle to Burger King. The Impossible Whopper has recently become so popular that, the New York Times reports, it “disrupted” the supply chain of White Castle and Red Robin.

“We definitely didn’t predict that demand would spike this quickly,” Rachel Konrad, a company spokeswoman told the outlet.

But now, some people are pointing to a major issue with the plant-based meat: its dependence on GMOs.

Genetic modification has always been part of the Impossible Burger’s recipe. It was first engineered by Stanford biochemist Pat Brown as the first vegan beef patty to bleed, a characteristic that comes from heme protein that is genetically engineered in a lab using yeast.

In and of itself, this genetic engineering technique probably isn’t harmful. While in 2015, the FDA found that data (voluntarily provided by the company) did not “establish the safety of SLH for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety,” the Agency has since dubbed the proprietary process safe, supporting the company’s  continued claims. Impossible Foods spokesperson Rachel Konrad says the burger’s heme is “identical to the heme humans have been consuming for hundreds of thousands of years in meat.”

“Nobody has proven that the tools of genetic modification are harmful to humans or to the environment,” explains Wil Hemker, Entrepreneur Fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation. “It’s not the tools – it’s how the tools are used.”

And it’s this latter issue that has become a problem.

In January of this year, Impossible Foods released a new Impossible Burger recipe. And while the new burger may be “tastier” and “juicier,” as the company claims, but it also replaces the wheat in the original recipe with soy – which, as with upwards of 94 percent of the soy sold in the U.S., is genetically engineered.

In a recent statement, Brown announced that the change stemmed from “surging demand” that is “outstripping the available supply of ingredients from domestically grown, non GM soybeans.”

“We have done a tremendous amount of diligence and we’re confident that in using GMO soy, we are not taking a step backward in terms of sustainability,” Impossible Foods senior manager of impact strategy Rebekah Moses tells FoodNavigator-USA.

But by transitioning to GMO soy, Impossible Burger is catering to the preponderance of glyphosate in the environment. 

About 90 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, an herbicide present in Bayer’s Roundup – developed by Monsanto – which is regularly sprayed on Roundup Ready plants that are bred to be resistant to the chemical. But not only does evidence from animal feed studies indicate that just 0.1 part per billion of glyphosate can destroy gut bacteria, glyphosate was dubbed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015 and has since been linked to cases of terminal lymphoma.

Hemker notes that the presence of GMO soy in the Impossible Burger is indeed “a concern.” 

“Not because it’s GMO, but because it’s a modification that was designed for the soybeans to tolerate glyphosate,” he says. He notes that since glyphosate tends to accumulate in GMO soy, safety is an important issue to consider.

“Safety for the humans, safety for the environment. It’s not safe.”

Moms Across America recently had the Impossible Burger tested at Health Research Institute Laboratories and found that it contains glyphosate to the tune of 11.3 parts per billion. The Environmental Working Group estimates that people should consume no more than 60 grams of food containing 160 parts per billion of glyphosate per day. 

In addition to its effects on human health, glyphosate-treated soy also contributes to environmental concerns. The planting of these glyphosate-resistant seeds reduces biodiversity and contributes to the development of herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” according to a 2013 Food & Water Watch study, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.

Of course, Hemker notes, the Impossible Burger remains better than many other options, including feedlot-raised beef: Even bearing in mind the use of glyphosate, he notes, the burdens on the environment are lower.

But if Impossible Foods really wants to corner the natural food market, it may need to transition away from GMOs.

“Natural and organic consumers want their food with simple ingredient lists, clean ingredient lists, and as close to nature as possible, and a part of a natural ecosystem,” says Hans Eisenbeis, Director of Marketing & Communications at the Non-GMO Project. “Impossible Burger definitely stands outside of that picture.”

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco