Here’s a seemingly obvious quote from Bill Gates about how to sustain life on earth: “[A]t the end of the day, people have to eat.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out–except that with all the planet-threatening complications that growing food is responsible for, it may be not be so simple after all.
As Gates explains in a recent post on his GatesNotes blog, agriculture is, by sector, the second largest supplier of greenhouse gasses. It generates 24% of the harmful fumes associated with climate change, just 1% less than energy generation:
Here’s a mind-blowing fact: there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. That’s not a big deal when left to its own devices. But when soil gets disturbed–like it does when you convert a forest into cropland–all that stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That’s one reason why deforestation alone is responsible for 11% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. (Another reason is that forests and grasslands are natural carbon sinks. Clearing them reduces the planet’s capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.)
In short, food suppliers can’t just grow less food. But they could optimize production in ways that reduce the “emissions per product” of what’s edible. Gates has been trying to do that through an investing fund called Breakthrough Energy Ventures that has backed several different kinds of innovation.
For instance, both synthetic and natural fertilizers provide plants with nitrogen to help grow, but at an enormous cost from off gassing. Pivot Bio is trying to do the same thing through genetically modified soil microbes. Most crops also get replanted annually, a cycle that strips soils of their nutrients and stops roots from growing long enough to start sucking up carbon dioxide. The Land Institute is helping to develop Kernza, a perennial strain of wheat that helps replenish the soil and is already being planted in some places.
Two other ventures, Apeel and Cambridge Crops, address food availability from a different perspective. After all, much of what’s grown now spoils before it can be consumed. These companies create protective, edible coatings that can boost the shelf life of to which they’re applied, and that changes how far the food can travel to reach hungry people, and how long it’ll be available in different markets.
In his post, Gates shares a couple other concepts like the collective grain storage initiative from Babban Gona in Nigeria that allows farmers to hold onto their harvests longer with less spoilage and eventually sell them at better rates, and the creation of synthetic palm oil from C16Biosciences using fermentation instead of traditional palm plantations that require massive deforestation. He admits that none of these are a “silver bullet,” but show the kind of thinking that hopefully more philanthropists and companies will back to save the planet.
Nothing will taste great if the entire world becomes an oven. “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,” he says.