Bill Gates made headlines earlier this year for saying that “all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef” in an interview with MIT Technology Review about the release of his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Although he recognized the political difficulty of telling Americans they can’t eat any more red meat, Gates said he sees real potential in plant-based alternatives from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Nevertheless, the world is expected to eat more meat in 2021 than ever before. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projects that global meat consumption will rise by more than 1% this year. The fastest growth will occur in low- and middle-income countries, where incomes are steadily climbing.
However, trying to steer people’s tastes away from meat is unlikely to reverse this trend. After decades of public health campaigns in the US, beef consumption per capita has fallen substantially but still remains higher than in nearly any other country.
Instead, policymakers and environmental groups should support efforts to develop alternative protein sources and low-impact methods of livestock production. Innovation in both of these areas will give us the best shot at quickly reducing agriculture’s environmental impact while still allowing people everywhere to eat what they want.
Meat replacements can only take us so far
Gates is right that alternative meats can alleviate some of the problems that come from raising livestock. The carbon footprint of plant-based meats is lower than that of beef and pork and comparable to that of chicken and other poultry. The carbon footprint of cell-cultured meat (also referred to as cultivated, lab-grown, 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 produced with clean energy.
There are other benefits, too. 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, lower public health burdens associated with red-meat consumption, and reduce concerns about animal welfare.
However, alternative meats like the Beyond Sausage and Impossible Burger can only moderately reduce livestock production. There are simply no plant- or cell-based substitutes that taste, look, and feel similar to whole meat cuts like pork chops or sirloin. And these whole cuts make up a large share of meat consumption. In the US, for instance, whole cuts account for about 40% of beef consumption and most of the chicken that people eat.
Public- and private-sector investments in alternative meats could spur the development of whole-cut alternatives. Countries such as Canada, Singapore, and Israel have already devoted government funds to such research. While alternative proteins are still quite new, their early success suggests they could make a positive long-term impact, especially as technological advances reduce prices and improve quality.