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My take on Bill Gates' take on the food industry and climate change

Bill Gates raises some key challenges and solutions for the food and agriculture industry in his new book 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster'. It's been a fascinating, part daunting - part inspiring read.

The main message is clear: we have an existential problem that will impact everything we do. Smarter and bigger bets, more emission reducing risk taking, innovation and research, and more green investment are needed to shift business practice from net positive carbon to net zero and beyond.

The key points below are from the chapter: 'How We Grow Things'

There is no silver bullet to carbon reduction in food, agriculture and land-use change. It will be a mix of solutions to absorb, remove, and reduce emissions over the next few decades.

Innovation will be crucial and has been in the past. One example used in the book sums this up brilliantly. Before Norman Borlaug, an agronomist, had a breakthrough on feeding the world in 1970, experts predicted population size would cap in the 1980s because of food shortages. This didn't happen. The world produces enough food, but this presents a bigger climate challenge. Populations are demanding more meat, and by the end of the century 40% more people will lead to 70% more food production. That means we need to double down on innovation.

The meat industry faces many challenges to get to net zero:

  • Production needs to get leaner and smarter at capturing emissions. It is so entrenched in food practices and cultures everywhere, it won't be going anywhere any time soon as a protein source for humanity.

  • The overuse of fertilizer for feed stock crops. This causes 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year. Over half of the nitrogen is not used by the crop for growth, but escapes into the atmosphere to form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 265 times more powerful than carbon. This practice makes business sense, but it needs to change.

  • Burps from cows and manure from pigs, which are the 1st and 2nd biggest emitters in the food sector, account for over 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is in the form again of nitrous oxide in manure, but also methane (23 times more potent than carbon) in the cow burps.

  • Lastly, deforestation to clear land for food crops, palm oil, and for animals to graze, accounts for the remaining 30% of emissions from the Food & Agri industry. Deforestation is a bigger problem in the tropics, and planting and protecting trees there is crucial to climate stability.*

So there are billions of tonnes of emissions associated with what we grow, how we grow it, and how we consume it. Not mentioned above is the complex supply chain system that accounts for all the transport, manufacturing, and packaging of the food, let alone the huge amounts of waste that comes from throwing excess food away every day. In Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, over 20% of good food is thrown away, and in the US this goes up to 40%.

So what are the solutions that Bill discusses?

Well, there isn't one catch-all solution to this, but a combination of behaviour change, more efficient use of land and food, and innovation. Importantly, the engagement from the food industry on net zero is growing rapidly. Supermarkets are pledging net zero emissions, and food manufacturers are committing to carbon neutrality in the 2020s to further Net Zero pledges ahead of the UK government target in 2050. The willingness is there, which is vital for all of this to work.

  • Animals need to be managed in a way that captures more of the escaping GHGs. Some scientists are trialing innovative ways to curb cow burps from mixing their diets and breeding more efficient cows (how they breakdown the food in their stomachs). Other experts are looking into better contained methods of managing pig manure to capture the methane for fuels and heating. For now though, serious changes need to occur in the use of fertilizer, which at present needs more research and funding to identify solutions.

  • Meat alternatives and plant based diets need to come to the fore. This will remove some of the carbon intensive inputs that come from rearing animals. Even a small percentage of meat being either synthetic, or grown in a lab, could curb some of the carbon from regular meat. Some of it tastes pretty good, too.

  • Transport needs to get electric or hydrogen powered as soon as it is economically viable to do so, which means governments need to encourage producers to adopt these technologies with favourable economic incentives.

  • Protecting rainforests from further deforestation by putting a price on carbon, and allowing local communities to raise money for the protection of these areas is crucial to keeping carbon stored. An example of this is carbon offsets that businesses and individuals can purchase to support the protection of carbon storage as well as neutralising their own emissions in the process.

Some of the solutions we already have available in practice, some in theory, and others we haven't figured out yet. What we do know is that the way we grow, produce, and consume our food needs to change to reach Net Zero by 2050. Almost every process needs reviewing, tweaking, some times overhauling, and other times just removing altogether.

What I did leave the chapter thinking, was how a lot of the work starts by understanding the challenges we face. This leads to decision makers having the ability to take action and pick solutions that could work for their business, more often than not leading to financial benefit in the process.

Bill Gate's book has many similarities in terms of content with the introductory Net Zero Masterclass that we run at Avon in partnership with Veris Strategies. We also run an in depth and engaging Climate Literacy course that builds on the climate science, mitigation strategies, and solutions at a policy, business, and individual level.

Let's get to work!

  • *Tree cover can actually lead to greater warming in snow-covered regions due to the darker surfaces on the land. However, they work in the opposite way in summer temperate and Mediterranean regions, and most effectively in the tropics where they cool and absorb plenty of carbon. Research is ongoing on the effects of trees in far northern regions based on absorbing carbon compared to the issue of darker land surfaces.

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