Sustainable agriculture is paramount for global prosperity

01 May 2020

5 minute read

As the world’s largest sector, the food industry accounts for around 10% of global GDP1, employing over one billion people2. The widespread adoption of farm machinery, high-yielding crops and synthetic fertilisers in the 1960’s has allowed for increasing food production to feed the world’s rapidly expanding population.

Although this mass industrialisation of the global food system has fuelled economic development and globalisation, the productivity gains have come with enormous costs: from climate change to food waste, wellbeing to biodiversity loss, water unavailability to inequality.

Today’s global food system is no longer a viable model for the world’s long-term needs. While this presents an enormous global challenge, it is also an immense opportunity for sustainable innovation.

Soil degradation

Soil presents one of the most important risks, and opportunities, for the sustainability of our planet. Fertile soil is one of the few natural renewable resources available to us, with the capacity to store more carbon than all the carbon in vegetation and the atmosphere combined3.

However, as a result of large-scale intensive farming practices over the last sixty years, the world’s soil has been eroded faster than it can be replenished, releasing significant amounts of stored carbon in the process.

If current practices continue, the world’s top soil, where 95% of food is grown, is on course to be completely drained of fertility within the next sixty years, depriving us of both the world’s most essential source of nutrients and an important carbon store4.

Biodiversity loss

Between 2000-2010, 73% of global deforestation was caused by the need to make room for commercial agriculture5. More than 50% of all human calories come from just three plants: rice, maize and wheat6. This means we rely on a slender thread of genetic diversity.

This becomes particularly worrisome if a vulnerability to changing climates arises or a new pathogen strain emerges, the lack of genetic variability could leave the entire crop at risk.

Antimicrobial resistance

The inefficacy of many antibiotics against previously treatable diseases is already killing 700,000 people per year and predicted to rise to 10 million by 2050.

Even if the impact of climate change is limited and yields are bolstered, excessive antibiotics use in animal farming means antibiotics are becoming less effective as pathogens develop resistance to treatment. This leaves humanity vulnerable to new highly-resistant super bacteria that we’ll be unequipped to medicate. The inefficacy of many antibiotics against previously treatable diseases is already killing 700,000 people per year and predicted to rise to 10 million by 20507.

Food waste

Nearly one tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions in the West are released by growing food that will never be eaten.

Of the edible food produced, an appalling third is uneaten. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimate that the equivalent of six garbage trucks of food are wasted every second8. Nearly one tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions in the West are released by growing food that will never be eaten9.

And still, 11% of the world’s population is malnourished10.

What’s worse is that the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be nourished on less than a quarter of the wasted food in the US and Europe alone9.

The United Nation’s global food security report found famine was rising again in 201710. Jarringly, the same report exposed the alarming rise in obesity; 815 million people are malnourished while more than 700 million are obese.

More food with more tech

With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, agricultural productivity must increase by over 60% if we’re to be fed – stretching our unsustainable agriculture industry to its very limits11.

Fortunately, the shift to technology-enabled, environmentally-friendly, sustainable farming is already well underway.

Investors’ chance to redraw the world

It’s investors that have a transformative role to play in channelling capital to ingenious companies offering the most radically resource efficient solutions

While the challenge of feeding our growing population may seem formidable, there are tremendous opportunities available to companies pursuing a new sustainable vision of the food system of the future. Ultimately, if there is any sector that is capable of being inherently regenerative, it’s the food system.

Agriculture’s future lies in harnessing intelligent technology and precise farming methods that sustainably enhance climate-resilient, higher quality food production. Currently, this is being driven by large-scale advancement and creativity from the private sector.

The inevitable disruption across every stage of the agricultural industry over the next decade dramatically expands the scope for innovation. And, while leaders are already emerging, the answer will probably not lie with one single solution but rather many being implemented together.

Pertinently, it’s investors that have a transformative role by channelling capital to ingenious companies offering the most radically resource-efficient solutions.

Realising the vision for a sustainably prosperous world depends on realising the opportunities presented to us by the inefficacies of today’s agriculture.

There is everything yet to play for.

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