Bill Gates has spent years, and billions of dollars, working to combat climate change.
The billionaire’s foundation has invested vast sums in various climate tech solutions while regularly raising the alarm about the leading contributors to climate change, like the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from major energy and manufacturing companies burning fossil fuels at prodigious rates.
But, according to Gates, most people are still unaware of the role played by one of the biggest contributors to climate change: agriculture, specifically methane emissions from livestock and fertilizers.
“Of all the climate areas, the one that people are probably least aware of is all the fertilizer 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, NotCo and Neutral Foods.
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.
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.
Gates has pointed out in the past that the agricultural industry contributes roughly 24% 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.
In fact, if cattle “were a country,” Gates wrote in 2018, “they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases [in the world].”
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% 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 [behavior of] people or use regulation to totally shift the demand.”
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. Still, Gates has a positive outlook that plant-based meat companies will continue to improve their products, and reduce their costs, helping them to eventually become more popular.
That’s why Gates and his foundation have financially backed plant-based and lab-grown meat startups such as Impossible, Beyond Meat, Neutral Foods and Upside Foods. 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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