Sustainable Agriculture

Size of the Problem

Food systems: land use (particularly for agriculture), processing, packaging, shipping, consumption, account in aggregate for 25% to 33% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, food systems are becoming more energy intensive, and increasingly so in emerging economies.

Agricultural emissions are a wicked problem, therefore any solution requires a systems approach to deal with it. About 24% of global emissions are attributed to agriculture. Within agriculture, 50% of the emissions relate to crops (soil management, tilling, fertilizers, crop rotation, draining, etc.), 25% concern live-stocks (feeding, associated methane emissions), 12% to manure management.

The environmental impact of food and agriculture are significant. According to Our Word in Data, half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture.

Policies – Market Reform – Incentives

Biden’s government has big plans to address climate change, including a prominent role for agriculture in the government’s push to lessen the sector’s carbon footprint. Biden’s plans include the possibility of paying pay farmers to curb their carbon footprint by implementing sustainable practices and capturing carbon in their soil and a carbon bank based on a cap and trade system. There is an Agricultural Resilience bill pending in the US Congress.

In the case of the EU, direct payments already exist. From 2015 onwards, the Common Agricultural Policy, introduced a new policy instrument, the Green Direct Payment. This ‘green payment’ is granted for implementing three compulsory practices, namely: crop diversification, ecological focus areas and permanent grassland. Furthermore, the EU rural development policy objectives directly concern the environment and climate change, and are: 

  • Restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems dependent on agriculture and forestry;
  • Promoting resource efficiency and supporting the shift towards a low carbon and climate resilient economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors.

China produces about 20% of the world’s food. The government of China is still concentrated in promoting the efficiency in food production, by means of automatization, digital technology, etc. It is focused on feeding China, rather than on exploring new ways of farming sustainably. China still uses three times more pesticide relative to land size than the United States and Europe. It is to be expected that in the next years, China will increasingly focus on sustainable farming.

Ton of solutions

There is a great interest in the private sector for investments in green agriculture. Venture Capital investments in Ag Tech have recently accelerated. Since 2013, investment in AgTech increased by 900%. According to Crunchbase, 420 AgTech startups raised $5.15B in venture capital in 2020. This represents a 35% increase in venture funding focused on AgTech startups from 2019. In turn, VC fund AgFunder (probably using a much broader defintion) estimates that between $26-30bn. were raised by AgTech startups in 2020 from all different type of funding sources. Investments went into drones, packaging, soil management, fertilizers, etc. and a considerable part of these investments wasn’t necessarily climate focused.

The following are some of the most interesting AgTech that could contribute to the reduction of GHG emissions:

  • Food waste technologies basically reduce crop loss or extend the shelf life of products (e.g., Apeel. Agrimetis, Marrone Bio, Certis USA, Redag Crop, Acidophil, Berkeley Biolabs,  Naturex, S&W Seed Company, Lam International, Valent BioSciences, Gingko Bioworks, Naprogenix).
  • Biochar produced from biomass (including its storage), zero-carbon fertilizers.
  • Regenerative agriculture: farming practices that include no-tillage, covered crops, crop rotation, manure management, compost, planting perennials.
  • Blue tech (everything ocean-related): aquaculture (feed, fish health, energy).
  • Alternative proteins (Beyond Meats, The Scottish Salmon Company and Memphis Meats)
  • Ag-biotech (Indigo Ag working with plant microbes to increase yields, PivotBio first in-field solution to biological nitrogen fixation).

“Agriculture comes out of nature, our standard for a sustainable world should be nature’s own ecosystem.”

Wes Jackson

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