Beyond COP21 — Innovations in Agtech and Food to mitigate Climate Change
The Earth is in a very lonely space. If we ask the question, “Are we alone in the Universe?” the answer today is undoubtedly a Yes. However, who knows the future, right? Never say Never. With all the movies about Aliens and advanced civilisations and how they are most likely going to annihilate us, today we fear self-extinction much more than annihilation by an Alien race. Our way of life, today, is unsustainable. Latest projections by experts show that we will be 10 Billion by 2050. We will compete and crave for the limited natural resources. Suddenly self-extinction does not seem too far-fetched an idea.
Climate change is just a subset of the universal set that I’d like to call “Earth Change”. It is not just global warming that affects us. It is what we are doing to the whole Earth. We consume from the Earth’s Natural resources at a rate faster than the rate at which natural processes replenish. Human activity has induced permanent changes to the earth’s mass distribution and composition. It is a one-way ticket now.
Back in 2010, at the UN climate change conference in Cancún, world leaders agreed to limit the average global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The year 2015 became a landmark year when 174 countries agreed to sign the Paris Agreement at the COP21 conference on climate change in Paris. As comprehensive as the Paris Agreement was in establishing policy/measures to curb emissions so that we meet the 2°C target, experts and data scientists are already pointing out these measures outlined at the COP21 are not going to be enough. To my disappointment, they left out one of the most crucial contributors of Greenhouse gases or GHG, the Agriculture and Livestock industry. The livestock industry is already responsible for 7.1 Gt CO2e a year of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is just under 15 per cent of the global total, and equivalent to global vehicle emissions. Agriculture has a similar contribution to global emissions. The production of animals and of crops alone accounts for nearly a third of global deforestation and associated carbon dioxide emissions: it is a primary source of methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most potent GHGs; Food production is a highly resource-intensive operation.
Disruptive innovations in food production (Agriculture and Livestock) are the need of the hour. They become as relevant and significant as technologies that reduce emissions from cars and industries.
Luckily, there are people who are very serious in reinventing these industries or retrofitting them to reduce emissions significantly. Initiatives like smart farming that use advanced monitoring and diagnostic systems in farms to regulate the consumption of resources and increase yield per hectare have become ever important to increase efficiency in this highly resource intensive activity. Drones are being used to monitor farms, IOT (internet of things) is being used to acquire real-time data of climate and soil conditions and crops, process this data via cloud and then help adjust variables(such as irrigation rate) in the farm that improve yield and quality.
Plant Genomes are available at our fingertips that help us understand the characteristic of plant and the factors that affect them. Revolutionary techniques are available, today, like the CRISPR/CAS9 that help us to edit plant genomes and make them more resistant to bugs and climatic conditions. On the other hand, efforts are also ongoing to reduce the usage of chemical fertilisers by substituting them with bugs that develop a symbiotic association with the crops. These bugs with the help of atmospheric nitrogen fix nutrients in the soil required by the crops. This also protects the soil and prevents leaching of chemicals into water bodies that is becoming an often debated and sometimes a serious health hazard. Companies like Novozymes and Taxon Biosciences are collaborating with big companies like Monsanto, DSM and Dupont respectively to create vast repositories of knowledge of these microbes and their benefits to specific crops. This area has now become a rapidly researched area in agriculture biotechnology. Growing Vegetables indoors is also one of the crazy low-resource ideas. Caleb Harper from the MIT Media lab initiative did just that. By providing precise resources that the crop needs for growth Caleb and his team were able to grow vegetables indoors. What is more interesting is that they carefully studied the conditions required for growth such as Light, CO2, nutrients and water and gave these to the crop. Turns out, they were able to grow natural vegetables in such a way that it consumed 90% less water.
This initiative now has fully developed into the OpeaAG initiative ( http://openag.media.mit.edu/ ) where the vision has become bolder; Caleb intends to make the process of growing vegetables as simple as pulling out a specific crop recipe from the software platform and then the robotic hardware automatically grows that particular crop. The recipe contains all the information regarding the water, nutrients, wavelength of light, amount of CO2 and O2, etc almost like 3D Printing.
To put it together, as the population of earth increases but the land utilized for agriculture reduces, we need to reinvent agriculture in such a way that it gives us the required high output at high resource efficiency and lower carbon and emission footprint. In short, Agriculture needs to become more like manufacturing if we have to feed 10 billion people by 2050 and save the planet at the same time.
As mentioned earlier, food systems ( Agriculture and Livestock ) together contribute to a third of global greenhouse emissions. Emissions from breeding cattle and sheep, chickens, pigs and other animals account for as great a share of global GHGs as vehicle emissions; each contributes around 14.5 per cent of total emissions. Methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are released along the length of the value chain, from the conversion of new land necessary to meet growing demand for animal feed, through the processing of animal products, to emissions from the digestive processes and manure of the animals themselves, and finally the transport of products to the consumer.
Then how do you disrupt the livestock industry?
This chart gives us some clues.
One can then logically infer from the chart that the way to reduce emissions in the livestock sector is by moving from ruminating cattle meat to plant based alternatives or chicken meat is a more sustainable option. However, to convince hardcore meat eaters to go vegan, it is a near-impossible task. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs have a knack of doing the impossible. One such daring group of entrepreneurs is Beyond Meat. With their veggie burger that bleeds, they have been able to develop a secret recipe of making burger patty from plant-based alternatives. The patty looks like meat, cooks like meat and even leaks blood like meat. Hell it tastes like meat as well (ok honest reviews say almost).
The global meat industry is worth $48 trillion and Beyond Meat aims to take the market by storm. They have garnered much hype from vegetarians, meat-eaters, and a long list of investors, including Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, the Humane Society, and Bill Gates. Another similar startup, called Impossible Foods, will soon launch a plant-based “cheeseburger,” which has already raised a VC backing to the tune of $108 million. It has also received rave reviews, including one from world-renowned chef and Momofuku founder David Chang.
We cannot leave any stone unturned if we are to limit the rise in global temperature to 2°C. This means that industries allied to food systems will also have to be disrupted. One such industry closely linked to cattle is the leather industry. We all like our leather from shoes to car seats to purses to sofas and clothes. The industry has not changed significantly until date and there have only been incremental technological changes over the years. It remains, till today, a high resource industry in terms of consumption of water, carbon dioxide emissions and usage of hazardous chemicals to disinfect and preserve the properties of the leather. Considerable resources need to be spent to clean the animal skin. But what if you could avoid this process altogether. What if instead of skinning animals, which is a horrendous process, you could manufacture leather, real leather, kind of like how OpenAg grew plants indoors. This is precisely what Modern Meadow — a NYC based biotech company is trying to do. Modern meadow is a biofabrication company that grows animal-free leather from living cells. Fundamentally the animal skin, leather, is made from a protein called Collagen. We can decode the complex constituents of animal skin and then use this knowledge to synthesize the protein through biotechnology. Using this collagen and other building blocks Modern Meadow is able to make leather. The technology doesn’t eliminate the tanning operation but what they are able to do is minimize the consumption of water by almost 80% compared to traditional leather. Modern Meadow has already raised close to 55 million dollars till date and are poised to disrupt the 100 Billion Dollar leather industry.
One can hardly imagine that rethinking the way we eat, what we eat and how we produce what we eat is going to be one of the most important ways to save the earth. There is a dire need to rethink all traditional practices whether it is manufacturing or fast food or the shoes you wear. Scientific and technological progress have made tools available to us that were never there 50 years back. We are going to need even more daring entrepreneurs than we have today to bring to reality seemingly impossible tasks. Whether you are an entrepreneur or an individual deciding to go Vegan or an investor supporting entrepreneurs the bottom line remains that each one of us will have to contribute if we are to save our future from the perils of global warming.