Is Food Security Causing Climate Emergency or Vice-Versa?

Our pursuit of food security has led us to deforest our forests to grow livestock and its feed has been pushing the boundaries.

May 31, 2022 | By Daniel Rajesh
rice plant
Image: Akin Cakiner/Unsplash

We share the world with the living world — the most remarkable life-support system imaginable, constructed over billions of years. The planet’s stability has wavered just as its biodiversity has declined — these two things are bound together. To restore our planet’s stability, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we have created. We must rewild the world. Such were the words of David Attenborough in his recent book.

In our attempt for comfort and stability, we have gradually and unconsciously shaken the very steadiness of our home. Climate scientists have been searching for the silver bullet to resolve the crisis. One of the best models today is the planet boundary model led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This model predicts the planetary boundaries at length and the triggering of irreversible tipping points that Rockstöm says would occur if the Earth surpasses 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Finding balance and creating a reversal process is key.

The model highlights high risks on a few fronts from its nine thresholds of stability: climate change, ocean acidification, fertiliser use, land conversion, and biodiversity loss. Agriculture plays a significant role in our food security; however, 77 per cent of global agricultural land today (i.e., 40 million km2) is used in livestock production. To put our reliance into perspective, 96 per cent of mammals on Earth are for food, and only four per cent represent the mice to whales. Global food system emissions were 18 Gigatonne Carbon in 2015, contributing to 34 per cent of global GHG emissions. Our pursuit for food security has led us to deforest our forests to grow livestock and its feed pushing the boundaries. Since the 1950s, the death of our trees and conversion to industrial farming has led to fertiliser dumping degrading our soil, removal of natural root systems breaking our natural water cycles, monoculture crops eliminating our biodiversity, and an increase in CO2 leading to our ocean’s acidifications. Earth’s stewardship is key.

Our desire for more animal-based protein is only expected to double by 2050, baseline from 2000, impacting land, water, climate, biodiversity, and human and animal health. Sayris Capital believes that the Restoration & Conservation of our Forest, combined with an Alternative Protein transformation strategy and responsible agriculture can be a major solution to the major crisis. Food may well become a commodity that’s scarce for, long before oil dries up, is the thesis that led them to work this investment mandate. Progressively more organisations are becoming increasingly aware and placing their bets on these transformations. In 2021 alone — Alternative protein raised US$5 billion and Restoration & Conservation approximately US$113 billion.

Is demonising the meat industry another attempt to weaponise public shame for private gains? Products such as Beyond meat, source their ingredients from chemical-intensive, therefore fossil fuel-intensive, monocultures and rely on heavy processing, which impacts human health, biodiversity, and climate change too. A transition to alternative proteins can sequestrate 332 – 547 Gt CO2 by 2050 (i.e., approximately equal to the past 9 – 16 years of CO2 emissions), and Plant-based products can reduce carbon emissions by 10 – 50 times compared with most animal products. Hence, a balanced strategy of both upstream and downstream impact investment on this front is needed, as well as diversified agroecological localised food chain, based on regenerative farming practices and active rejuvenation. A responsible regenerative supply chain can be built as plant-based companies are just scaling up. Rejuvenation strategies work best with forest restoration and conservation plans.

Nature-based solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits. These cover a broad range of habitats and activities, such as mangroves and corals protecting coastlines from erosion and flooding, wetlands filtering nutrients from freshwater supplies, and restoration of habitats to mitigate the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Over the last decade, these models have received increasing recognition as emerging opportunities to unlock investment into markets that benefit nature and society.

An estimated US$845 billion of annual investment is required to safeguard the natural environment, but current annual spending is only around US$134 billion. This annual investment need of over US$700 billion cannot be met by public and philanthropic funding alone. As of 2019, only US$20.75 billion of private capital is estimated to have flowed into nature-positive activity and conservation investments. Existing levels of private investment must be dramatically scaled to meet the conservation funding gap. A recent staggering find is that the private sector represents around 60 per cent of the countries’ GDP in most countries. But we have only found US$14 billion per year in private investment. The investment case is clear, but the investment gap is, a healthy blend of restoration and conservation work can be a major solution.

Emerging products, such as carbon credits, have seen buyers or beneficiaries investing in project development in return for verified carbon credits. However, carbon buyers must demonstrate clear net-zero strategies (for example, against the Science-Based Targets) to ensure offsetting is only used with quality carbon abatement strategies and avoid damaging consumer confidence in the impact of the carbon market. Accusations of greenwashing have been hurled — in many cases, not because there was intent to deceive but because there was a difference in philosophy about what “doing” ESG should mean.

How can we leverage one of the greatest opportunities of the century to build an ecosystem of rejuvenating food supply chain, reversing the 50-year intensive consequences to our environment? Some investors are interested in companies with well-managed ESG risks, while others will be more inspired to roll up their sleeves to make material improvements to companies with largely unmitigated risks. It may be helpful to break down the spectrum of ESG perspectives into three philosophies — purist, pragmatist, and pluralist — to clarify and simplify the major differences and their implications for implementation and substantiation. As the Alternative Protein industry is working towards price parity and gaining market share, a pragmatist approach can be a wise approach to focus on, as a similar awareness is building in the nature-based solution space.

In today’s stakeholder capitalism popularisation, it is important to ensure all products in the market are sustainable with the participation of government, people, and companies on our journey to rejuvenate the agriculture systems. An ecological movement by Sadhguru, an Indian mystic, recently reached over two billion people, generating awareness on conservation and preservation of our soil, ensuring policies are consistent internationally. The black soil in China that ended the famine during the Mao era has also been compromised. Organic matter in the soil has fallen by 75 per cent, and in some areas, the black soil layer is decreasing by one to two millimetres a year. President Xi promised to “protect and make good use of ‘the giant panda of the cultivated land,’” drawing an analogy to the much-loved national animal, which, after dedicated conservation efforts, was removed from global endangered lists last year. This soil health awareness will be a key driver to the future conservation of our biodiversity, focusing on scaling up available solutions.

Better-tasting products and greater consumer acceptance are fuelling the demand for plant-based protein. Cost continues to be an issue, but price relief is in sight. Asia remains an untapped attractive agriculture hub for solving the challenge, with a conscious partnership of multiple stakeholders for a stable new food system. Developing a proactive and comprehensive protein category strategy will be mandatory for success. Old-style meat merchandisers need to learn to see alternative proteins as an ally instead of the enemy and find ways to work alongside the alternative meat industry. The supply chain needs to focus on long-term growth rather than short-term profits. As we free up land- we can restore forests and turn that into a vicious cycle. A successful example of this from another industry is Tesla. Tesla has been receiving emission credits from various local regulations sources like California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle program. These credits are then sold, which helps the company’s bottom line.

Planning for peak human population is critical for our success in this attempt. UN projections are between 9.4 billion to 12.7 billion by 2100. By reducing the impact of our consumption, we can make significant strides in rejuvenating, rewilding our ecosystem. At the current rate, it may take alternative proteins five to seven years to reach price parity, but there’s no reason why that timeline can’t be shortened, if manufacturers and retailers can agree to put consumer needs and preferences ahead of margin. Investments focused on increasing processing capacity, supply chain efficiency, and infrastructure should be balanced with R&D investments in taste and nutrition. It is time to focus on restoring nature to a balance creating surplus room for rejuvenation and biodiversity growth. We need to find more links between industries that are creating negative consequences to the threshold and build strategies to reverse the damages. If we wait for the government, it will be too late and if we act as individuals, it will be too little, but it might just be enough if we act as a community. The time to act is now, let’s make it happen.

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