In December 2020, Project Drawdown released a new report titled “Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis.” Their latest publication extensively details critical aspects of climate change mitigation through agriculture, including changing land-use patterns, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration, and best agricultural practices.
Why Address Food, Agriculture, and Land Use?
For impact investors looking to support climate change mitigation, this extensive report concludes that affecting change within our agricultural system is crucial for future prosperity. While investors have long focused their attention on sectors like energy or industry, food, agriculture, and land use together are a top contributor to the greenhouse effect. Contributing roughly 24% of total emissions, food, agriculture, and land use are nearly tied with electricity (25%).
However, unlike electricity, addressing climate change through land use does not just reduce emissions. Agricultural lands can also act as “sinks” that capture and store excess atmospheric carbon dioxide. This phenomenon of carbon sequestration occurs when plants and healthy ecosystems absorb carbon through photosynthesis and store it in living biomass.
Project Drawdown uses the analogy of an overflowing bathtub to describe agriculture’s dual role in the climate crisis. If you turn off the faucet (akin to cutting emissions), the direct contributor to the problem, you can stop more water from damaging your home. But after addressing the immediate issue, you also want to use a mop (carbon sinks) to clean up the water overflow.
Therefore, agriculture is both a contributor and a potential solution for climate change. As emission-releasing activities come to a halt, such as deforestation, land sinks become more effective in their ability to promote further healing and emission-absorbing activities. In this way, agriculture differs from electricity, whose only benefit will result in turning off the faucet of emission. By understanding the different approaches to addressing climate change through our food and agricultural system, investors can support climate change mitigation in more ways than one.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions created through food, agriculture, and land use are crucial to mitigating climate change. Project Drawdown names the following four emissions-reduction areas as urgent in this sector:
- Tropical Forest Conservation and Protection: halt deforestation, conserve and restore forests, especially in Brazil and Indonesia
- Sustainable Animal Agriculture: new feed additives to lower methane emissions, better manure management
- Sustainable Rice Cultivation: implement techniques to reduce methane emissions from paddies
- Reduce Fertilizer Inputs: reduces nitrous oxide emissions and water contamination
Aside from direct emissions reduction, addressing food waste, transitioning to plant-rich diets, and intensifying agricultural production on current land all have a high potential for affecting change. Food-consumer change and land sparing would significantly reduce demand for more agricultural production and more agricultural land.
Creating Carbon Sinks
Sustainable land use and agricultural practices can also create and enhance carbon sinks on working lands. The Earth’s carbon sinks, most notably forests and oceans, absorb 55% of our carbon dioxide emissions. If the forests and oceans were not already acting as a buffer, climate change would be much worse.
Additionally, our working lands, including replanted forests, croplands, and pastures, can also be managed in a way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The following practices can support carbon sequestration:
- Planting Trees: increase forest cover in suitable ecosystems
- Regenerative Cropping Techniques: limited tillage, cover cropping, compost application to increase soil fertility
- Perennial Cropping: agroforestry systems, silvopasture, and multistrada systems with multiple opportunities for harvesting that reduces planting and soil disruption
- Regenerative Grazing Techniques: stimulate grass productivity and root growth
However, it is imperative to note that there are limits to carbon sequestration, and these agricultural practices cannot singularly fix climate change. Realistically, the amount of carbon sequestered depends on the amount of available land as well as the unique capacity of that land to store carbon.
Agriculture For the Future
Agriculture holds a dual status as a contributor and mitigator of climate change. This positions it to be the most impactful sector to transform the future on a global scale through impact investing, particularly in the area of sustainable agriculture. Project Drawdown reports that, in theory, improving our food and agriculture system can both reduce almost a quarter of global emissions while also removing already-emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
If investors deploy capital in short term emissions-reduction strategies as well as long-term land sinks, a momentous change will arise. No silver bullets to solving climate change exist, but implementing the myriad of solutions within food and agriculture would unquestionably reshape the future of our planet while providing priceless economic and social co-benefits.