Damian Reilly

What’s Bill Gates’ beef with flatulent cows?

What's Bill Gates' beef with flatulent cows?
Image: Getty
Text settings

'Fart for freedom, fart for liberty – and fart proudly', was how Benjamin Franklin put it shortly after founding the United States. It’s an injunction the cows of the developed world appear to have taken seriously: a strategy for liberation, executed brilliantly you have to say, that seems finally to have brought them to the brink of emancipation.

Last week, billionaire and long-time committed burger eater Bill Gates became the latest champion of the cows’ cause (namely: please stop eating us). He said the time had come for inhabitants of all wealthy nations to cease enjoying beef and instead to make do with a synthetic substitute. According to him, it’s the only way to prevent civilisation ending in a cow-fart fireball apocalypse. Or something like that.

Peaceful resistance has taken many forms over the course of history – Indians once spooked the British Army, for example, by doing nothing more than secretively passing chapattis to one another, and the simple act of communal singing in the Baltic states is said to have been the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin – but you’ve got to hand it to the cows for the genius of their strategy. The long fart to freedom, as Nelson Mandela, another master of non-violent protest, might have put it.

Methane in the atmosphere – 28 times more effective than carbon when it comes to trapping heat and causing global warming – would apparently be reduced by a third if we’d just stop farming cows. According to NASA, a ruminant cow burps and farts out 120 kilogrammes of methane annually – thereby, in her own way, mightily contributing to methane emissions equivalent to 3.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide livestock every year puts into the skies. For comparison, the most flatulent human (a friend of mine called Dave, I believe) manages only 0.12 kilogrammes a year.

Gates says we won’t much miss the taste of a good steak after making the switch, or not for long anyway. 'You can get used to the taste difference,' he told MIT Technology Review, 'and the claim is they’re going to make it taste even better over time.' Is he right? Have we really reached the point in human evolution at which we can create a juicy Porterhouse in a lab? Or, more realistically, are we just looking at chewier tofu?

The many millions of people for whom eating meat is a pleasure informed, but not heightened, by guilt (non-psychopaths, in other words), will dearly hope Gates is right. The contrast between how horrifically we now understand animals bred for slaughter are treated - whatever advertisers try to tell us - and how delicious meat tastes, has long seemed one of life’s cruellest paradoxes. We know pigs are as clever and playful as dogs, and that, like cows and sheep and chickens, and us, they care deeply for their progeny - but these are thoughts we will out of our minds when we’re applying olive oil and garlic, and setting the oven to 180 degrees. Obviously, if livestock could only talk the whole gruesome business would end tomorrow.

But credit to Gates for taking up the animals’ cause, if only indirectly. Clearly, he’s not a man frightened of putting in the hard yards for the least fashionable of issues. 'I watched the pile of [human] faeces go up the conveyor belt and drop into a large bin', he wrote in 2015. 'They made their way through the machine, getting boiled and treated. A few minutes later I took a long taste of the end result: a glass of delicious drinking water… I would happily drink it every day.' With a $100 billion in the bank, is this how you’d spend your time, even if you thought you were saving Africa?

A good portion of the global populace seems lately prepared to believe the very worst of Gates, a man who for the better part of the last decade used his platform in society repeatedly to warn the world of the potential for a devastating pandemic. His thanks? Legions of mouthbreathers now taking to Twitter to allege insane conspiracies in which he and his Illuminati confreres are either responsible for creating and disseminating Covid-19, or are using the crisis to inject microchips into every one of us in order to track our movements and thoughts (close to thirty percent of Americans believe this, according to YouGov). There’s even a theory the current circumstances in which mankind finds itself are merely the early stages of a Gates scheme in which he will soon somehow profit massively by firing dust missiles at the sun in order to bring about the next Ice Age.

The emergence of Bill Gates into the global consciousness during the eighties marked the beginning of what collectively we now think of as the era of Big Tech – aka the revenge of the nerds. But are we seriously supposed to believe he is not just sinister, rather the most sinister of the current cabal of internet goliaths in Silicon Valley - unelected men and women capable not just of silencing anyone on Earth, but of cancelling them, too? And given the information these people now hold on virtually all of us – who we are, where we live, what we do, what we think – doesn’t a microchip in the bloodstream anyway by comparison seem positively quaint… like Dr Evil thinking a millllllion dollars is still an enormous amount of money?

Gates’ track record of being right when it counts is hard to ignore. First, he democratised home computing and now through his charitable foundation has done a vast amount of good where it is needed most in the world. He saw the pandemic coming before the rest of us, too. If he says artificial meat is 'the future of food', then perhaps we should listen to him – especially if the alternative is death by cow fart.