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Plant-based meat is the ‘future,’ billionaire Bill Gates claims. What has to change?

Bill Gates speaks during the Global Fund's Seventh Replenishment Conference, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022
Bill Gates speaks during the Global Fund's Seventh Replenishment Conference, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Charlotte Elton with Reuters
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The climate impact of meat is hidden, Bill Gates has warned - but the billionaire believes that plant-based meat is the ‘future’.

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Fertiliser and cows are a hidden cause of climate change, Bill Gates has claimed - but plant-based meat is “the future.”

Most people still don’t know how agriculture contributes to climate change, the billionaire claims - specifically the methane emissions from livestock and fertilisers.

"Of all the climate areas, the one that people are probably least aware of is all the fertiliser and cows, and that's a challenge," Gates recently said on the latest episode of his podcast, "Unconfuse Me."

The topic came up because Gates was in conversation with musician and director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who, like Gates, also happens to be an early investor in several plant-based food startups, such as Impossible and NotCo.

Thompson, who is from Philadelphia, even recently partnered with Impossible to create a plant-based cheesesteak that counts former president Barack Obama as a fan, he told Gates.

Thompson told Gates he was won over by plant-based foods' ability to mimic the taste of real meat, among other products.

"Something told me plant-based is going to be the future … and I want to be the person that plants the seed," he said.

What is the agricultural impact of climate change?

The agricultural industry contributes roughly 24 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, with much of that stemming from methane emissions from livestock and fertilizer used to cultivate crops, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Beef produces the most greenhouse gas emissions, which include methane. A global average of 50kg of greenhouse gases is released per 99 grams of beef.

While plant-based foods have won support from those looking for alternatives to products made from animals, Gates said that he started backing plant-based food ventures because of their potential to combat climate change.

"I came to it more from that climate angle," he said

In fact, if cattle "were a country," Gates wrote in 2018, "they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases [in the world]."

canva
The meat and diary industries account for millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year.canva

In his 2021 book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," Gates wrote that effectively combating climate change will take people being willing to commit to new ideas, like switching to electric cars and synthetic meats.

That same year, Gates argued that wealthy countries that have the resources to do so "should move to 100% per cent synthetic beef" in order to meaningfully reduce global emissions from livestock, he told the MIT Technology Review. "You can get used to the taste difference, and the claim is they're going to make it taste even better over time," he said at the time.

"Eventually, that green premium is modest enough that you can sort of change the [behaviour of] people or use regulation to totally shift the demand."

How is Bill Gates supporting plant-based beef?

Plant-based meat sales still represent just a small percentage of the total meat market, and even Gates admits it will be difficult to convince enough people to stop eating real meat to make a significant difference.

One issue is that the still relatively new products are currently more expensive than real meats.

That's why Gates and his foundation have financially backed plant-based and lab-grown meat startups such as Impossible, Beyond Meat and Upside Foods. He's also backed Neutral, a carbon-neutral food startup.

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Speaking to Thompson about the plant-based meat startups, like Impossible, Gates said that "they're doing well, but a lot of people want him to make [the product] even slightly better." "They have a good roadmap, so I'm optimistic," he said.

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