It’s no secret that cattle — the kind raised for beef and milk products — are bad for the environment. Various efforts have been introduced to address this problem, including encouraging the public to eat less beef, potential feed changes to reduce emissions, and more. In a recent interview, Bill Gates took things one step farther by calling on wealthy countries to switch entirely to synthetic beef.
Gates was the subject of a newly published interview from MIT’s Technology Review. During the lengthy interview, the philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder talked about his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, including topics from the book and the wider issue of climate change.
The interview naturally included a conversation about food, the role it plays in climate change, and steps to reduce its impact. Livestock was one topic during this conversation, which noted that dealing with this particular aspect of the climate crisis is ‘very difficult.’ Gates points out a number of efforts to reduce these emissions, including utilizing a compound to reduce methane emissions and using different food.
However, the necessary bacteria found in cows’ digestive systems means there will always be some methane emissions as a result of raising cattle. Gates said during the interview, addressing the issue of livestock, ‘I don’t know if there’ll be some natural approach there. I’m afraid the synthetic will be required for at least the beef thing.’
What is ‘synthetic’ beef? Perhaps the best known and readily available examples are plant-based ‘meats,’ such as the ones from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. More futuristic alternatives may involve meat grown in a lab.
Perhaps his most divisive comment during the interview was his view of the need for wealthy countries to completely switch to synthetic beef over the cattle version:
You can get used to the taste difference, and the claim is they’re going to make it taste even better over time. Eventually, that green premium is modest enough that you can sort of change the [behavior of] people or use regulation to totally shift the demand.
Gates is aware of the cultural and political backlash such efforts could have, however, noting the role cattle play in both economies and consumer preferences. He briefly touched on the issue of the cattle industry lobbying to ban the use of terms like ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ for plant-based alternative products, for example.
So for meat in the middle-income-and-above countries, I do think it’s possible. But it’s one of those ones where, wow, you have to track it every year and see, and the politics [are challenging]. There are all these bills that say it’s got to be called, basically, lab garbage to be sold. They don’t want us to use the beef label.