Does Bill Gates Still Believe in a Plant-Based Future?

Bill Gates has long spoken out about how reduced meat consumption could benefit mankind, but now it sounds like he's saying that eating beef might not be so bad.

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Apr 22 2015, 6:00pm

Photo courtesy of Beyond Meat

You may remember hearing some of the hype about Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods, two California startups creating plant-based meat and egg analogs (respectively) that Microsoft founder and richest guy ever Bill Gates took a significant monetary interest in.

"They are creating plant-based alternatives ... that are produced more sustainably, and taste great ... I think you'll discover that you can create a nutritious, protein-rich meal that's good for you and the environment," Gates wrote on his blog in 2013 about the vegan-friendly products in which he had invested.

Over the past three years, he famously ruminated on his website numerous times about the benefits of these substitutes and of reduced meat consumption in general—leading many people to believe that Gates himself was forgoing the beef and chicken that he said was responsible for immeasurable environmental destruction and inefficient agricultural systems. But Gates, who occasionally mentioned his love of hamburgers, never definitively said that he wasn't eating meat.

READ: These Veggie Burgers Taste Like Blood

Now, in his newest blog post from yesterday, Gates' tone seems to have progressed from one of cautionary foreboding about the future of the global meat industry to more of a shrug. Once one of the most powerful voices speaking out about the need to quell our meat obsession, it now seems as though Gates is pretty ambivalent about whether or not we can, or should, cut back on pastrami sandwiches at all.

In the post, Gates reveals that he barely made it as a vegetarian for even one year (and it was decades ago), and calls it a "good thing" that per-capita meat consumption is on the rise worldwide. He even clarifies that "part of [his] foundation's health strategy involves getting more meat, dairy, and eggs into the diets of children in Africa."

He also doubles back on the "conventional wisdom" that meat production requires far more water than plant agriculture—an oft-cited claim of everyone from the United Nations to PETA—in favor of an argument in Vaclav Smil's book Should We Eat Meat? that classifies 90 percent of the water used in the meat industry as "green water," because it evaporates back into the atmosphere and then is "reusable" in the form of rain.

This outlook seems to represent a shift in his ongoing, very public argument that a global trend towards eating less meat would be, almost unequivocally, a good thing.

In a 2013 interview on his blog GatesNotes with The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, Gates' questions were clearly crafted with the intention of highlighting the benefits of a low- or no-meat diet. "Why should people consider replacing meat in their diets?" he asked. "What has limited the success of plant-based meat substitutes in the past?" In another essay on Mashable from that same year, he elaborated on how vegan meat substitutes could greatly benefit the world in terms of minimizing environmental impact and water waste while also alleviating growing rates of obesity and heart disease. And in a post from last August about nutritional deficiency in Africa, Gates also said that fortified wheat flours and vegetable oils may be the best option for improving human health across the continent.

Now, Gates says, "Although it might be possible to get people in richer countries to eat less or shift toward less-intensive meats like chicken, I don't think it's realistic to expect large numbers of people to make drastic reductions. Evolution turned us into omnivores."

Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown, however, doesn't think that Gates is advocating eating the same volume or type of animal products, full-speed ahead. "One of the main ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce the consumption of animal proteins. It's not necessarily the consumption of meat, but the consumption of animal proteins," he explained over the phone. "There's meat that you can arrive at differently, in terms of thinking of meat as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water. Those five parts can all be harvested from plants directly and actually provided to consumers in the form of 'meat.'"

As for Gates' assertions lifted from Should We Eat Meat?, Brown says that they may seem to have a different meaning when taken out of context. "There's a page in that book that describes the physical composition of meat. It gets back to this point that meat is these five things—that's what meat is," he said. "I think Bill is right in that it's saying that it's unrealistic to expect omnivores to suddenly stop consuming meat. But what is realistic is for innovation to create meat directly from plants. So in my view, it's not about telling people not to consume meat, it's offering a new alternative, which is meat made directly from plants."

Brown is adamant that the idea isn't to eradicate the idea of meat, but to replicate it from plant-based sources while maintaining its taste, texture, and nutritional benefits. "I don't think the future is about telling people not to eat meat, it's about providing them with a better alternative for them and for the environment," he said. "But ... the description in that book, I think is critical to understanding [Gates' point]."

Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods are both thriving, with widespread distribution in health food stores nationwide, and both have mission statements that advocate for the replacement of animal products. And Brown vouches that Gates hasn't given up on innovating more sustainable food systems that diverge from the model of large-scale animal agriculture. "Bill has been an enormously helpful person to us," he told MUNCHIES. "He's genuine and really interested in just putting his investment exactly where his passion is."

"With a little moderation and more innovation, I do believe the world can meet its need for meat," Gates argues at the end of his post.

What's less clear is how great that need should and can be—at least by Gates' standards. What was once a vision beyond meat now seems to be one right alongside it—depending, of course, on your definition of "meat."