Bill Gates made headlines earlier this year for saying that “all rich countries should switch to 100% synthetic beef” in an interview with MIT Technology Review about the release of his new book, How to avoid a climate catastrophe. While he acknowledged the political difficulty of telling Americans they can no longer eat red meat, Gates said he sees real potential in plant-based alternatives from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Nonetheless, the world is expected to eat more meat in 2021 than ever before. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that global meat consumption will increase by more than 1% this year. The fastest growth will occur in low- and middle-income countries, where incomes rise steadily.
However, trying to turn people’s tastes away from meat is unlikely to reverse this trend. After decades of public health campaigns in the United States, per capita beef consumption has declined dramatically, but stay higher than in almost all other countries.
Instead, policymakers and environmental groups should support efforts to develop alternative protein sources. and low impact animal production methods. Innovation in these two areas will give us the best chance to rapidly reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while allowing people everywhere to eat what they want.
Meat substitutes can only get us so far
Gates is right that alternative meats can alleviate some of the problems associated with raising livestock. The carbon footprint of vegetable meats is smaller than that of beef and pork and comparable to that of chicken and other poultry. The carbon footprint of cell culture meat (also known as cultured, lab, or cell-based meat) is still unclear, but early evidence suggests this food source will be less carbon intensive than beef. and could be comparable to chicken. if it is produced with clean energy.
There are also other advantages. Alternative meats, in general, reduce land use and deforestation, protect biodiversity, produce less air and water pollution, mitigate the risks of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic pandemics, reduce public health burdens associated with red meat consumption and reduce animal welfare concerns.
However, alternative meats like the Beyond Sausage and Impossible Burger can only moderately reduce animal production. There are simply no plant or cell-based substitutes that taste, look and feel similar to whole cuts of meat like pork chops or sirloin. And these whole cuts represent a significant portion of meat consumption. In the United States, for example, whole cuts represent about 40% of beef consumption and most chickens people eat.
Public- and private sector investments in alternative meats could stimulate the development of whole alternatives. Countries such as Canada, Singapore and Israel have already devoted public funds to this research. While alternative proteins are still fairly new, their early success suggests that they could have a positive long-term impact, especially as technological advances reduce prices and improve quality.