Facebook changed the media landscape, Uber transformed the taxi industry, and now another bold Silicon Valley trendsetter is about to disrupt the beef patty.

For the next three months, Business Premier customers travelling on Air New Zealand's LA-to-Auckland haul are being served a hamburger unlike any hamburger they've ever eaten.

Its meat looks, smells, sizzles, bleeds and tastes like beef – yet it isn't.

It's the Impossible Burger, a plant-based innovation that one Stanford University biochemist-turned-entrepreneur wants to save the planet with, one patty at a time.

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Dr Patrick O. Brown's Impossible Foods has become a phenomenon amid the US food tech industry, simply for the reason it's already managed to achieve the impossible – making meat that isn't meat, but which might just be better.

Brown, whose start-up has signed a deal that made Air New Zealand the first airline in the world to serve the Impossible Burger, was on the first flight himself overnight to see how passengers liked it.

While on a sabbatical at the end of the past decade, the former Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator decided the world's biggest environmental problem was one where he could have the biggest impact.

And solving it came down to answering to a single question: what makes meat taste good?

Brown argued animal-based production systems would ultimately become unsustainable in the face of climate change, global population growth and pressure on resources and food security.

Cow's meat, he believed, simply wasn't good for the planet and couldn't last if we wanted to live in a sustainable world.

Two of the Impossible Burgers, served in the Business Premier cabin aboard Air New Zealand's NZ5 flight from Los Angeles overnight. Photo / Jamie Morton
Two of the Impossible Burgers, served in the Business Premier cabin aboard Air New Zealand's NZ5 flight from Los Angeles overnight. Photo / Jamie Morton

"Every time we sell 2000 burgers, that's one less cow."

Available in nearly 2,500 restaurants around the US, the Impossible Burger uses around 75 per cent less water, generates about 87 per cent fewer greenhouse gases and needs 95 per cent less land than conventional ground beef from cows.

It's produced in a facility in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, and doesn't contain any hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavours.

Ingredients include coconut oil; wheat, which provides its longevity and fibres; and potato protein, which holds water and gives the meat a juicy texture, along with the uncanny ability to sizzle and burn upon cooking.

The magic of the patty, however, is what's called heme - an iron-containing molecule in blood that carries oxygen, is found in all living organisms, and makes for meat's red colour and distinctive flavour.

By sourcing heme from the roots of soy plants, Brown figured he could effectively recreate the hamburger patty.

It wasn't vegetarians Impossible Foods was mainly targeting, but carnivores hunting for something new.

Some of the ingredients used to make the Impossible Burger. Photo / Jamie Morton
Some of the ingredients used to make the Impossible Burger. Photo / Jamie Morton

"We started working on a problem six years ago, and now we have products, right now, that I would say run even with blind tests with anything from a cow."

Soon, he expected plant-based meats like the Impossible Burger – fish, chicken and pork are all possibilities for the future – could beat beef with flavours and textures we haven't even discovered yet.

"It's getting better all of the time, and the cow isn't - that's basically it."

It's why he'd like to see New Zealand explore the technology itself.

According to a recent study funded by Beef and Lamb New Zealand, Kiwi beef exports faced the greatest challenge from alternative proteins, particularly to the United States.

It found that although alternative proteins are currently manufactured in small volumes, large scale production of burger patties and mince was likely to be a reality within just five years.

"New Zealand is the best in the world at producing food in the conventional way, and this is disruptive change, potentially," said Brown, who has now made several visits to the country and spoken with Kiwi farmers.

"On the other hand, that change is inevitable and being ahead of the curve is an awesome opportunity."

Asked whether the beef industry saw his innovation as something of an existential threat, Brown said there was "ambivalence" – but added his company wanted to work with farmers, rather than against them.

"If you look into the future, you can see it's absolutely inevitable that there is going to be an irreversible transition away from animals as a food production system."

For Air New Zealand, the deal was a coup.

"We chased them pretty hard," inflight customer experience manager Niki Chave said of the start-up.

The airline prided itself on being innovative and admired other companies with similar DNA.

"Obviously it was important for the team that they work with partners that do justice to the product and look after it, and they trust us with that.

"We're confident vegetarians, flexitarians and dedicated meat lovers alike will enjoy the delicious taste of the Impossible Burger - but for those who want to stay with the tried and true it will sit alongside our regular selection of menu items prepared by our talented culinary team and consultant chefs."

Brown said he wouldn't have a chosen any airline other than Air New Zealand, which had a "pristine reputation".

The Impossible Burger is plant-based and doesn't contain any hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavours. Photo / Supplied, Impossible Foods
The Impossible Burger is plant-based and doesn't contain any hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavours. Photo / Supplied, Impossible Foods

"I feel it's so entwined with the country… if you asked people around the world what countries do you like, New Zealand would be at or near the top of the list."

Air New Zealand will serve the Impossible Burger on flights NZ1 and NZ5 from Los Angeles to Auckland through until late October.

Tasting The Impossible

I've loved meat for as long as I can remember.

Growing up on a Central Taranaki dairy farm, the family freezer was unsurprisingly well stocked with plastic bags teeming with delicious home kill: porterhouse, blade, casserole meat.

Lamb chops, roast pork, winter stews and home-made meatballs were standard weeknight fare.

Some of the best travel experiences I've had have involved meat: smoked, slow-cooked barbecue beef in America, steak tartare in Paris, beef shin pot pie in London and sirloin sushi and yakitori grilled chicken in Tokyo.

I've also seen my share of burgers, having spent weeks searching Tauranga for the city's best - it proved to be a creation called the "diet buster" – and chomping into a 1.5kg brute served up for brave customers at Angelo's Pizzas in Waihi Beach.

So when I was given a chance to eat a burger made with a plant-based patty, I was apprehensive to say the least.

The supermarket-variety vege patties my wife has long enjoyed have never appealed to me.

But the Impossible Burger was something else: it was hard to believe my eyes when I watched staff at the company make a patty out of a couple of base ingredients, and then fry it, bringing out all of the bubbling, sizzling juices you'd get from real meat.

The first bite was a revelation: tasting something like a lamb burger, packing a rich, juicy texture, but with an almost-sweet aroma.

I polished the whole thing off in just a couple of minutes.

My verdict: an eating experience I'd put up against any of my adventures abroad, and certainly something that could have held its own in the family freezer back on the farm.

Jamie Morton was hosted in San Francisco by Air New Zealand