Bill Gates “Cancels” Burgers

Bill Gates wants us to abandon beef and go whole hog on plant-based meat to substantially curb greenhouse gases, a major cause of climate change. “All rich countries should move to 100 [percent] synthetic beef,” Gates said in a interview in the February issue of MIT Technology Review. By synthetic, Gates is specifically referring to plant-based meats.

Is he right?

It’s no secret that most agricultural greenhouse gases come from badly-managed soil and badly-managed cattle diets. Conventional cattle farming relies on monocropped corn to feed cattle. Monocrops wreak havoc on soil by robbing it of nutrients that a diversity of plantlife would otherwise provide. (Further, the barren land from the harvested corn releases carbon into the air, where it becomes a greenhouse gas). Cows don’t digest corn well, it’s not a natural diet for them, so they burp a lot. When they burp, they release methane, an extremely potent, heat-trapping gas.

Gates, who founded and chairs the clean energy tech fund Breakthrough Energy, is gravely concerned about this, which is why he has suggested we all need to hop off the beef-eating bus, and hop on the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger for a plant-based meat ride. (And hey, these aren’t meats, even though we call them that. I mean, c’mon, I could sleep on a bed of rocks, but that doesn’t make those rocks a mattress.) These non-beef patties imitate the taste of a burger, and are touted as being a beef alternative. Or as Gates sees it, a beef replacement.

There are two key problems with what Gates proposes: One is the nutritional value of plant-based alternatives. Both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger are loaded with salt — 370 mg in just one patty. That’s nearly a quarter of what should be your daily intake of sodium, according to the American Heart Association.

But there are more pressing concerns about plant-based meat than simply the amount of salt they contain. Chris Kresser, king of the Paleo Diet, points to SLH, a soy-based protein additive that is responsible for the beef-like taste and texture of patties in the Impossible Burger. It turns out, SLH is not FDA approved. The FDA hasn’t yet determined if people should be eating it. It may not be bad for us, we just don’t know yet. The Beyond Burger doesn’t contain SLH, but both brands have a list of ingredients as long as my forearm, and I’m not sure I’d want to be pushing that kind of food as a staple for the American diet, much less as a full-on replacement for beef. How will compelling billions of people to eat a steady diet of food with questionable ingredients going to save us?

But the other problem I see with Gates’ proposal is this: Despite the ruination caused by the cattle industry over the last several decades — and it has been severe — livestock are actually vital to a healthy planet. They are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Yes, we’ve massively tipped the balance of the ecosystem in one direction over the last several decades, but the answer isn’t to massively tip it in the other direction. That’s not balance, that’s a seriously rocking boat.

I’m a strong believer that regenerative farming will be the great balancer. Regenerative can do what tech cannot. As Bobby Gill, a leader in the regenerative farm movement puts it: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”

Regenerative farming focuses on soil health. Animals are allowed to eat what comes naturally to them — in the case of cattle, that’s grass — and they are grazed on a tight rotation. They don’t forage in one place too long before being moved to a fresh pasture with fresh grass. There are no pesticides. Everything is done in an organic, holistic way. This method works wonders. The plants grow back rapidly and get the the carbon out of the air and back into the soil, thanks to the miracle of photosynthesis. Meanwhile, they’re also naturally fertilized by the healthy dung the cows drop.

Humans are not bystanders in this biologiocal community. We are an essential part of the ecosystem. Livestock are an essential part of the ecosystem. We must repair it, not abandon it for a lab. In a balanced ecosystem, the planet thrives.