If Bill Gates has his way, the food in our future will little resemble what’s on our plates today. It will be replaced by a menu of GMOs, fake lab-made “meat’ and artificial cheese — all made with patented technologies from which he’ll make millions.
If Bill Gates has his way, the food in our future will little resemble what’s on our plates today. Gates and his agribusiness industry partners are proposing to transform our food and how it is produced.
To the techno-food industrialists, hunger and climate change are problems to be solved with data and engineering. The core ingredients of their revolutionary plan: genetic engineering — and patenting — of everything from seeds and food animals, to microbes in the soil, to the processes we use to make food. Local food cultures and traditional diets could fade away as food production moves indoors to labs that cultivate fake meat and ultra-processed foods.
Gates says rich countries should shift entirely to synthetic beef. And he has the intellectual property rights to sell them. As a food that can help fix the climate, Gates touts the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty made from genetically engineered soy and textured with engineered yeast. Its manufacturer, the Gates-funded Impossible Foods, has two dozen patents and more than 100 patents pending to artificially replicate cheese, beef and chicken and permeate these products with manufactured flavors, scents and textures.
Ginkgo Bioworks, a Gates-backed start-up that makes “custom organisms,” just went public in a $17.5 billion deal. The company uses its “cell programming” technology to genetically engineer flavors and scents into commercial strains of engineered yeast and bacteria to create “natural” ingredients, including vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and flavors for ultra-processed foods.
According to its investor presentation, Ginkgo plans to create up to 20,000 engineered “cell programs” (it now has five) for food products and many other uses. Axios reports that the company plans to charge customers to use its “biological platform” like Amazon charges for its data center, and will take royalties like apps in the Apple Store. Ginkgo’s customers, the investor pitch makes clear, are not consumers or farmers, but rather the world’s largest chemical, food and pharmaceutical companies.
If techno-food products are not high on most consumers’ shopping lists, this is a menu investors can get behind. The market for genetically engineered products has the potential to reach $2-4 trillion in the next 20 years. And Bill and Melinda Gates are positioned to reap the rewards. The Gates back “a multitude of agrifood tech startups,” reports AgFunder News, either through private investment vehicles or through the Gates Foundation Trust, which funds the foundation’s charitable activities.
Gates and the tech start-ups pitch their products as solutions for our most challenging environmental and social issues. But are they really?
Doubling down on monocultures
Gates’ “winning strategy for food and farming,” according to a recent Fortune magazine article by Shawn Tully, “is finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre … while substantially lowering carbon emissions.” Gates believes that “genetically modified seeds and chemical herbicides, in the right doses — and not land-intensive organic farming — are crucial to curbing carbon emissions.”
Since 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent over $5 billion on efforts to transform African agriculture — its flagship program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, works to transition farmers to high-input industrial agriculture and scale up markets for commercial seeds and agrichemicals. Gates says these methods can boost production and lift farmers out of poverty.
Many critics, including African faith leaders and hundreds of civil society groups around the world, say the foundation’s agricultural development strategies are failing to deliver on promises and benefitting multinational corporations over small farmers and communities in Africa. The foundation did not respond to our requests for comment.
“Gates has influenced the direction of agriculture to benefit the corporates,” said Million Belay, coordinator of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of 50 Africa-based groups. “His foundation has contributed hugely in weakening our seed, biosafety and agrichemical related regulations … it will take years to undo what they have done.”
Gates also influences how governments and academic institutions think about the future of agriculture in Africa, Belay said. “The narrative now is you need to use agrichemicals, high-yield varieties, GMOs and a host of other farm management techniques to feed yourself,” he said. “It will also take years to convince our elites the future is agroecology. As one of the most rich and powerful people on the planet, the doors of our governments are open (to Gates) while it is ajar for African citizens. He has to be called out and has to change direction.”
Leading experts in food security and nutrition are calling for a paradigm shift away from green revolution-style industrial agriculture and toward agroecology, which promotes biodiversity instead of monocultures, integrates animals to rebuild soils, and advocates for political and economic reforms to address inequities and social divisions. Diversified agroecological systems are more resilient, they say, and have a greater capacity to recover from disturbances including extreme weather events, pests and disease.
Recent science shows that chemical-intensive industrial agriculture is a key driver of climate change, soil erosion and the worldwide decline of insects. Corn and soy monocultures are especially problematic; they deplete the soil and rely on synthetic fertilizers that emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. These are problems Bill Gates is hoping technology can fix.
A climate solution?
Fortune describes Gates’ plans to intensify corn and soy production as a “pivotal campaign in the war against global warming.” How so? Syngenta, the world’s second largest agrichemical company, is “deploying big data, gene editing, DNA analysis and other groundbreaking technologies in pursuit of growing bumper harvests while lowering CO2.” Bayer, the leading chemical and seed firm, is making a similar pitch, and claims its new sustainability technologies will “empower 100 million smallholder farmers around the world.”
For 30 years, agrichemical companies promised GMOs could feed the poor and help small farmers, but it hasn’t yet worked out that way. Most GMO crops in the ground today are engineered to survive weed-killing chemicals or kill insects. While these crops provided short-term benefits to farmers, they provided no benefits to consumers, nor did they deliver on promises to boost yields but they did increase herbicide use. Evidence now indicates the crops are failing as weeds and bugs evolve around the technology.
As a solution to meet the climate crisis, and enable “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture, Gates and Bayer point to experimental projects to genetically engineer microbes to fix nitrogen to plants. “If these approaches work,” Gates writes in his climate book, “they’ll dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and all the emissions it’s responsible for.” In 2017, Ginkgo Bioworks teamed up with Bayer to launch JoynBio, a microbe company that is working to create self-fertilizing plants.
This, too, is a promise Bayer has made before. As far back as 1897, Bayer promoted a product that could reportedly assimilate atmospheric nitrogen, according to Mark Finlay, a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University. Bayer said its product could “conceivably make all agricultural lands permanently fertile,” Finlay wrote in a 2015 book about the history of agriculture. “Although early results were disappointing, many popular press writers hailed the potential of this discovery.”