No industry will be impacted by climate change worse than agriculture

No industry will be impacted by climate change worse than agriculture
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As the IPCC’s report released recently highlighted, no other industry is so directly impacted by climate change than agriculture. Significant shifts in temperature, weather patterns, water accessibility, and pest populations put stress on agriculture production.

There are signs of these shifts in countries like Australia, where persistent hot and dry conditions have contributed to deterioration of pasture conditions, rising grain prices, and low water supplies. In Queensland, where farmers were already battling years of drought, record-breaking rains flooded the region early in 2019, leaving 500,000 cattle dead in their wake. Here in the United States, 1 million acres of crop land were damaged in the Midwest after a cyclone storm in Spring of 2019.

Agriculture is on the front line of the climate change battle. It is also one of the reasons why we find ourselves racing against the clock to mitigate it. Agriculture, forestry  and other land use account for 24 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with agriculture representing the majority of them. In particular, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions represent 82 percent of total agriculture GHG emissions and 22 percent of global GHGs. CHand N2O are potent GHGs. Global warming potential (GWP), which is the energy that a gas will absorb over a 100-year time frame relative to 1 ton of CO2, is 28 for CHand 265 for N2O. 

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Complicating matters is that demand for food will grow as the global population continues to grow. In 2017, the world population reached nearly 7.6 billion people. The UN predicts there will be 8.6 billion people by 2030 and 9.8 billion by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that by 2050, 49 percent more food will need to be produced compared to 2012 global production. Add to this the fact that as developing countries grow in wealth, they tend to shift to more protein-rich diets. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) FAO Agricultural Outlook 2018–2027, rising per capita income in developing countries will drive demand for beef and dairy products potentially increasing livestock-sourced methane by 60 percent by 2030. How will farming operations and distribution scale to effectively and sustainably meet these growing needs?

Fortunately, there are opportunities to significantly reduce agriculture emissions. According to the FAO, livestock farming, including manure application and management, represents 66 percent of global agriculture emissions. Innovators are exploring everything from synthetic meat to feed alternatives to reduce cattle belching. Of course, the simplest way to reduce livestock emissions is to substitute other, less impactful food.

Synthetic fertilizers, mainly nitrogen-based, represent another 13 percent of emissions. New strains of grains, better farming practices, and new digital solutions are helping improve yields and reduce the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. “AgTech” is a booming sector with numerous innovators and entrepreneurs devising novel solutions. A handful of other sources contribute to the remaining 34 percent of emissions including rice cultivation, burning crops and Savanah, crop residues, and cultivation of organic soils. Again, more sustainable farming practices could help reduce these emissions.

Yet, change will not be easy. There are literally millions of farms around the world. Unlike sectors such as transportation and energy, there are no obvious emerging technologies, such as electric vehicles and renewable energy, that seem poised to radically disrupt the status quo. Rather, a sustainable transformation will likely require a combination of the diffusion of best practices, changes in consumer preferences, and the emergence of a portfolio of novel solutions that leverage technology to lower the agricultural carbon footprint. All of this will have to happen in a global industry made up of millions of enterprises, from large multinationals to small family farmers.

A viable path to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture seems unlikely yet no other sector is as critical to human survival. Decarbonization will likely necessitate a worldwide effort led by individual nation-states to create significant incentives and programs to dramatically change agricultural practices at the local level. Such a wholesale change seems daunting and unrealistic within the time frame needed to avoid the worst of impacts climate change.

We choose optimism, however. Agriculture is one of the few sectors with a high potential to serve as a carbon sink. Improved land-management practices and the conversion of lands to forests and other carbon sinks could greatly offset agricultural emissions. Only if we pursue all the levers available to us can we achieve decarbonization.

Mike Lenox is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.