Agriculture accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and thus to contributes heavily to climate change. Deforestation for agriculture is particularly damaging. It is responsible for 11% of all GHG emissions, as it releases carbon stored in the soil and eliminates carbon sinks in forests and grasslands. GHG are also released when fertilizer, either natural or synthetic comes in contact with soil.
Obviously we have to eat. And everyone is going to become vegan, they just aren’t. Thus, new solutions are needed. The Gates Foundation is now funding and investing in multiple ways to reduce emissions per product in agriculture. They’ve already put tens of billions into eliminating malaria and improving third world sanitation. Hopefully this initiative will help create major advances in agriculture too.
I’m involved with a group called Breakthrough Energy Ventures that is backing a number of creative solutions to tackle the problem. Because every country and every culture approaches food production differently, there are a lot of different ways to do that. Here are some of the ones I find most interesting:
Microscopic nitrogen factories that replace fertilizer. Genetically modified microbes to provide plants with the nitrogen they need without the excess greenhouse gases that synthetic alternatives produce.
Longer roots that store more carbon. Kernza has developed a new strain of wheat with longer and denser roots, so it can absorb more carbon dioxide from soil
Lab-grown palm oil brewed from microbes.
Palm oil has earned its bad environmental reputation. C16 Biosciences has created an alternative to natural palm oil by using fermentation to brew a synthetic version.
An invisible barrier that helps food stay fresh longer.
Approximately one-third of all food produced gets lost or wasted every year. Apeel and Cambridge Crops—are working on protective skins that keep food fresh longer. The coating is invisible and doesn’t affect the taste at all.
Collective crop storage. Not all innovations are technological: Babban Gona is a novel business model in Nigeria that helps farmers hold onto their crops longer.
I wish agricultural innovation got as much attention as the impact on climate change from electricity, because its success is just as critical to stopping climate change. Future changes in income and population may come close to doubling the current environmental impacts of the food system. I believe creative, scalable solutions to this challenge are out there, and now is the time to invest in their R&D.