In some ways, it must be great to be Bill Gates.
The multi-billionaire only has to open his mouth about any subject he chooses, and media rush to report his latest utterance—especially if it’s about a business deal or a potential investment idea.
After all, if he takes a shine to somebody’s new product or some promising start-up, that same day the principals could be rolling in dough.
Lots of dough.
Of course, being a billionaire also means you have to deal with hordes of people relentlessly banging on you for funding, but I’m sure Mr. Gates employs plenty of people whose primary job responsibility is to insulate the man from all that noise.
(By the way, I’ll be with a group that gets to tour the Gates Foundation offices in Seattle in a couple weeks—and possibly cross paths with the man himself. If so, you’ll be able to read all the details right here).
One of Gates’ latest investments is in a company claiming to have developed a fully functional meat alternative, a vegan-approved protein concoction that the founders of Beyond Meat claim is “freakishly similar” to meat.
Yes, it’s freakish all right.
So far, Beyond Meat has managed to market veggie “chicken” strips and “beef” crumbles. The principals, including Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, have tried to walk back the criticism that they’re really just manufacturing glorified soy protein products, but in fact, their limited product mix is suitable only for the truly diehard vegetarian.
And, apparently, Bill Gates.
On his blog, The Gates Notes, he stated that he sees meat alternatives as “a big part of the future of food,” and shared his belief that food scientists are “starting to reinvent meat,” a development that he said “could help the whole world.”
Personally, I don’t take such statements all that seriously. That’s just the $66 billion-dollar portfolio talking.
The sustainability question
Of course, the Gates Foundation has been at the forefront of investing in agricultural productivity and has been a big supporter of biotechnology as a tool to accelerate food production. And yes, global meat consumption has doubled over the past two decades, due mainly to the expansion of Asian economies and the desirability of meat and poultry as a dietary upgrade for people who can afford it.
At the expected rate of growth, “The world will need millions of tons more meat than it does today,” Gates wrote. The obvious implication is that ramping up global meat production will require a lot more resources such as farmland, water and energy, which he feels is unsustainable.
“Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people,” Gates wrote. “Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. We need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.”
The solution? Alternatives to meat and eggs.
Seems straightforward—if you accept that meat production is simply not sustainable, while a massive increase in food crops needed replace all that animal protein is. But here’s the problem: Even the companies Gates is touting are basing their business model and marketing strategy not on convincing consumers that animal agriculture is unsustainable, but on appeals to environmental concerns and animal welfare.
For example: Hampton Creek Foods, one of Gates’ identified stars and a company that offers a “Beyond Eggs” product, states on its website that, “When our founder’s lifelong best friend told him that eggs contribute to higher cholesterol and come from chickens crowded in small spaces, he brought together a team to create something that is just, well, better.”
Heartwarming. And fictional.
Eggs no more cause high cholesterol than couches cause obesity. Yes, if you lived on nothing but eggs you could develop nutritional issues, high cholesterol being the least of them. And yes, if you did nothing other than sit on your couch, you’d increase the odds of becoming obese. But even under those extreme conditions, not everyone eating an egg-only diet would end up with hypercholesterolemia—because the typical human produces twice as much cholesterol internally as one might ever consume via one’s diet.
Now, could a case be made that the housing in which most egg-laying hens are raised might be less-than ideal in terms of welfare? Sure, but that’s not a justification for the touting the urgency of developing alternative to animal foods, as Gates argued, so that the world has “more options” for animal foods “without depleting its resources.”
Either we cannot sustain livestock and animal food production due to resource constraints, land use issues and potential environmental consequences—which would be an economic issue of some urgency—or we should consider investing in meat and egg alternatives because it’s a great marketing opportunity, based on people’s concerns about animal welfare.
I say it’s the latter—without question—and that Gates’ and other’s enthusiasm for these as-yet unproven analogs is little more than the shrewd recognition of the chance to cash in on a marketplace trend that’s no different from any company rolling out new products in response to consumer demand.
Along those lines, it’s ironic that Gates in his blog post claimed that, “The farm to table process hasn’t changed in 100 years.”
C’mon, Bill. That’s like saying Microsoft hasn’t developed any new innovations in the last decade.
Oh, wait. That would be right, wouldn’t it?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.