Open letter to Bill Gates | Viva!

Open letter to Bill Gates

In an open letter to Bill Gates, Viva! asks Bill Gates to put his mouth where his money is and support going vegan for the planet.

In an open letter to Bill Gates, Viva! asks Bill Gates to put his mouth where his money is and support going vegan for the planet.

I read, with some dismay, your blog Is There Enough Meat for Everyone? I see that this was written some time ago and hope that you have since changed your position to one more in keeping with current thinking.

It’s a shame you didn't stick at your vegetarian (or vegan) diet of your twenties as there is a huge body of evidence showing that vegans have an almost 20 per cent lower risk of cancer, 30 per cent lower risk of heart disease and are generally healthier with a lower overall risk of all major non-communicable diseases.

It is true that globally, as income rises, so does meat consumption. As you say, China’s meat intake increased rapidly in the 1990s. However, that could be as much to do with a perceived notion of affluence as a desire to be healthier. In 2016, new dietary guidelines in China recommend that the nation's 1.3 billion population should halve their intake of meat to improve public health and combat the country’s problems with obesity and diabetes.

You said that increasing meat consumption is a good thing but it really isn't – in fact increasing it is the worst thing that could happen for very reasons you describe in you blog (deforestation and global warming). Sure, meat does contain protein, vitamins and minerals but so do plant foods that don’t present such a drain on the environment. In terms of human health – all major health bodies agree that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can support good health at all ages.

I had a look at Vaclav Smil’s book Should We Eat Meat? Since writing, it seems China and Australia have surpassed the US in terms of being the global top meat consumers coming in at 119, 116 and 115 kg per person per year respectively. This compares to a world average of 43 kg. Given the rising population (expected to exceed nine billion by 2050) there simply aren't enough resources to feed everyone meat – but there would be enough plant food for us all.

Smil questions conventional wisdom you say, looking at water use in livestock farming. Well, two-thirds of the world's population (over four billion people) live with severe water scarcity for at least one month every year. Even if a large proportion of the water used for livestock farming was green water as you say, it is a wasteful and inefficient use of other, valuable water. If animals are considered as ‘food production machines’, they turn out to be extremely high-consuming, polluting and inefficient.

I was surprised by your quoting a study from Smil's book saying that (excluding green water) found it takes just 44 litres – not thousands – to produce a kilo of beef. You admired Smil's ability to use facts and analysis to examine widely held beliefs. However, I looked up the study (Ridoutt et al., 2012) and it wasn't beef – it was pasture-raised lamb in Victoria, Australia.

The global average water footprint of beef is 15,415 litre per kg. Sure, much of that is green water but the rest still amounts to substantially more than 44 litres per kg. Beef farming is unsustainable and is consistently cited as the worst culprit on food carbon footprint tables; the water footprint of beef is (15,400 litre/kg as a global average) is much larger than the footprints of lamb (10,400 litre/kg), pig (6,000 litre/kg), goat (5,500 litre/kg) or chicken (4,300 litre/kg).

This is a moot point as the food fed to livestock could be fed to many more people than the meat from them would sustain. Currently in Europe, we grow enough plant food to feed all the people here – but not all the animals.

I'm disappointed that at the time of writing, you felt a push to reduce meat consumption would fall on deaf ears among the populations of rich countries – it has already started! Meat consumption in the UK has been in a gradual but steady decline since the 1970s. Since you wrote your blog, the number of meat-reducers has increased tremendously. The meat-free market is booming! China has just signed a $300m deal to purchase laboratory-grown meat from Israel – a clear commitment to reducing emissions and investing in the future.

Available technologies for reducing emissions from livestock would reduce them by less than 20 per cent. Changing the way we farm animals will not be enough, a decrease in agriculture-related emissions can only be achieved by a reduction in demand for animal foods. The bottom line is we do have to choose between feeding animals and feeding people.

I am delighted to hear that you have invested in companies working on meat replacements and sincerely hope that as a global population, we can act together to reduce animal food consumption and protect future generations.

With a little compassion and imagination, I believe the world can cut out its hunger for meat.