Can ‘Farmer Bill’ fix our food and climate crises?
If farming and computer software seem like unlikely bedfellows, consider: Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder is now the owner of 242,000 acres of U.S. farmland, more than anyone else in America, according to the Land Report.
The world’s fourth richest person, Bill Gates, and his wife Melinda, own land holdings in more than a dozen states, with more than 150,000 acres spread across Louisiana, Arkansas, Nebraska, Arizona, and Washington state.
What’s a tech guru doing with a bunch of dirt?
The short answer is the Gates’ are diversifying their assets through the investments. (And, if you’re looking to parallel, at its core, farming is one of our earliest forms of technology — seeds + dirt + sunlight + water = food, is undoubtedly a bit of programming, is it not?)
But this isn’t just about distributing holdings. There are lots of ways to do that. The Gates’ have been investing in agriculture in other ways for years. For nearly two decades they’ve been assisting farmers in developing countries. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to small farmers across Africa and around the world. They’re not just interested in helping the farmers thrive, but they want to see it done in a sustainable way.
Last year, the couple created the nonprofit Gates Ag One, which also works to support agriculture efforts in developing countries. The organization notes its mission is to help “small-holder farmers adapt to climate change and make food production in low- and middle-income countries more productive, resilient, and sustainable.”
Cascade Investment, the Gates’-run holding company, says it’s supportive of sustainable farming, which has been at the crux of the Gates Foundation’s poverty-relief efforts. As well, Gates has invested in a number of sustainable food projects, too, including Bay Area vegan meat producer, Impossible Foods.
What will Gates do with all that farmland?
For all his support of vegan food, Gates has also been a vocal supporter of raising livestock.
“If you care about the poor, you should care about agriculture. And if you care about agriculture, you care about livestock,” Gates told an audience at the University of Edinburgh in 2018.
“What that means in this context is helping poor farmers get as much as possible out of their animals.”
He also invested in tech developing “higher yield” dairy cows in an effort to help developing countries move out of poverty.
Of course, that was all pre-pandemic, and some even pre-Paris Agreement. A lot has changed since then. The virus exposed vulnerabilities in the livestock industry that may alter it permanently. Interest in plant-based food is skyrocketing. What’s more, the Paris Agreement targets can’t be met with our continued dependence on livestock industries.
A study published last November found that if we don’t address the massive global meat and dairy problem, there’s no way of meeting the Paris targets of keeping global temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees [Celsius]. This means that even if all other emissions-producing human activities ceased, we will still not meet targets until we stop eating animals. That’s a whopper of a problem.
The World Health Organization has been warning against the consumption of animal products for more than a decade. It flagged antibiotic resistance and other zoonotic diseases as potentially devastating in 2014, warning of the “post-antibiotic era”. Coronavirus, it turns out, could be just the tip of the pandemic iceberg if we continue eating animals.
There are other health risks, too — the WHO now categorizes processed meat as likely carcinogens alongside tobacco and asbestos, for example. The list of issues with animal products runs long and deep. At the same time, the benefits of a vegan diet for our health and the planet keep bubbling to the surface.
Could Gates become America’s largest vegan protein farmer?
It’s not entirely impossible. And, when all said and done, it could actually be Impossible. Impossible Foods, that is.
Gates led a $75 million investment in Impossible Foods in 2017. Could he now help supply the company, too?
Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown is not shy about the company’s role in ushering in the “end of meat”. And it’s going to need a lot more beans to reach its goal.
“[P]eople are increasingly aware plant-based products are going to completely replace the animal-based products in the food world within the next 15 years. That’s our mission. That transformation is inevitable,” Brown told CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer last June.
“From a nutritional standpoint our products match the protein quality and content of the animal products that they replace” and “ours is a clear winner from a health and nutrition standpoint,” he said.
It isn’t clear what’s on all of the land Gates now owns, but all of it is classified as farmland. So that means, quite simply, it’s farmable. (By comparison, the largest landowner in the U.S. is Liberty Media Chair John Malone, who owns 2.2 million acres of ranches and forests, not all of which is farmable.)
Today’s meat and dairy industries, while technically classified as farmland, are, more often than not, nothing remotely resembling what we think of farms looking like. Certainly not the sustainable farming Gates is so keen on. Much of it is metal sheds housing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of animals, all shadowed by waste lagoons. These concentrated animal feeding operations are devastating for the animals, the land, and local communities.
If Gates wants to use his land to support a sustainable food system, livestock isn’t the way.
Even if Gates doesn’t turn his farmland into Impossible Burger “software,” he could keep it from being used for livestock. And that’s just as important. Maybe even more so than what he puts on the land. Rewilding, studies show, is just as beneficial as growing carbon-sequestering plants.
Gates has even moved away from promoting livestock, recently.
“Cows alone account for about six percent of global emissions so we need to change [that],” Gates said in 2019 during an interview on The David Rubenstein Show.
Gates then praised the Impossible Burger.
“It’s slightly healthier for you in terms of less cholesterol, it’s, of course, a dramatic reduction in methane emissions, you know, animal cruelty, manure management, and the pressure meat consumption puts on land use,” he said.
Last year, in a video with YouTuber Mark Rober, Gates took issue with livestock production once again.
“The agriculture sector is about 18 percent of overall emissions, but livestock is about half of that 18 percent. Almost all of that is beef,” Gates said.
This time he also pointed to the strains on developing countries and the impact climate change is having.
“One of the great tragedies about climate is that it’s the poorest in the world, the farmers who live barely near to the equator, that all this heat and flooding and droughts – they’re going to suffer by far the most.”
Whatever he’s planning for that farmland, it looks like he’ll be weighing the consequences heavily.
“If you’re just trying to get people to cut back [on emissions-intensive activity], don’t eat meat, don’t drive to work, don’t take trips,” he said. “[I]t’s such a dramatic set of sacrifices that everybody has to engage in that without innovation we’re probably going to go way past the [Paris Agreement] two degrees.”