It is not often that the mug shot of Microsoft founder Bill Gates appears in a presentation on agriculture.
But that’s what happened during a recent Global Grain webinar about the narrowing of the protein gap in China.
Jean-Yves Chow, vice-president of food and beverage with Mizuho Bank Ltd., one of Japan’s largest financial institutions, had a slide showing the notable investors of the top meat alternative companies.
“It’s really interesting to see who is behind some of these,” he said.
The photo of Gates, the world’s second richest person, according to Forbes, appeared next to the names of the most prominent companies in the meat alternatives industry.
He was listed as one of the initial investors in Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats. A little further research revealed Gates was also an early backer of Hampton Creek Foods, which became JUST Inc.
Other billionaire investors in the alternative meat business include Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and the co-founders of Twitter.
“There is a lot of big names who have been supporting the alternative meat industry and those big names have been supporting some of them since day one,” said Chow.
Some of those billionaire investors also sit on boards of major grocery retailers and used their power and influence to get meat alternative products out of the tofu aisle and into the butcher aisle, he said.
Cathy Sharp, chair of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s food policy committee, thinks the motivation behind their interest in the alternative meat sector is the traditional one.
“If they can see there is money to be made, they invest,” she said.
But in the case of Gates, there appears to be a philosophical bent as well.
In a 2013 blog post, the man who revolutionized the computer software business said he had recently sampled a chicken taco made from plants.
“It was a taste of the future of food,” he wrote.
Gates said he is not a vegetarian, in fact he loves hamburgers, but raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and there isn’t enough meat production to feed the world.
In a 2015 blog, he noted that raising animals takes a “big toll” on the environment.
“You have to feed the animal far more calories than you extract when you eat it,” he said.
“It’s especially problematic as we convert large swaths of land from crops that feed people to crops that feed cows and pigs.”
Gates said he was hopeful about the future of meat substitutes and acknowledged he has invested in some companies working on developing the products.
Sharp said she wishes he had invested more time researching the livestock sector.
He would have learned that 86 percent of the calories cattle consume are inedible to humans because they are grass-based forages.
“Cattle are converting the inedible cellulose into edible protein for human consumption,” she said.
And the “large swaths” of land they graze are in many cases native grasslands unsuitable for farming.
“You can’t grow anything else on it but grass,” said Sharp.
She noted there is plenty of research showing that cattle roaming the native prairies helps rejuvenate endangered native grassland.
“The cattle works with the ecosystem to make everything thrive,” said Sharp.
Improved genetics means beef cattle can be finished sooner, which means they are using less water, she said.
Even Gates noted in his blog that nearly 90 percent of the water needed for livestock production is green water that eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere, so it is not really consumed.
Sharp is disheartened by the spread of misinformation about the livestock industry, whether it comes from one of the world’s richest people or some average Joe with a social media account.
She is also tired of the war of words between the beef sector and the alternative meat sector.
More than 60 percent of Canada’s beef operations are mixed farms that grow crops, some of which are used by manufacturers of alternative meat products.
“We can all work together to be a part of the food chain. We don’t need to put each other down,” said Sharp.