Over the next 30 years, the world’s population will grow from 7 billion to roughly 9 billion people. The thought of feeding another 2 billion people is daunting. The idea of doing so while simultaneously driving greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero? Seemingly impossible. Yet, this is what must happen by 2050 if we are going to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and avoid the most significant climate change impacts predicted by scientists. In our book The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050, we explore the technologies that offer the most promise in decarbonizing critical industry sectors. For agriculture, the only way to get there is to think radically different about the foods we produce and consume.
Let’s start with the facts. The agriculture and land use sector represents nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.1 The main culprits are methane and nitrous oxide, potent greenhouse gases that together represent more than 80% of agriculture emissions.2 While much of the focus of climate change mitigation has been on carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide gases make up 22% of global greenhouse emissions3 and have higher global warming potential ratings than carbon dioxide.
The primary source of methane in agriculture is cattle. A byproduct of digestion, the gas is released into the air through belching and long-term manure storage. Efforts to reduce methane production in cattle include feed additives, probiotics, and genetic breeding. These efforts could reduce methane anywhere from 25 to 80%. Methane capture isn’t new, but utilities like Dominion Energy are piloting projects that use anaerobic digestors to repurpose methane to be an energy source for heat and electricity, replacing natural gas. These new approaches are encouraging but would not fully decarbonize beef and dairy production.
What if we removed the cow from the equation? Plant-based proteins are exploding in supermarkets across the US. Once a novelty, alternative milks now make up almost 40% of the dairy market. Plant-based beef options may not be far behind with brands like Impossible and Beyond Meat appearing on restaurant menus and in major retailer refrigerated display cases. For those not convinced that these options taste like beef, scientists have found a way to produce beef cuts using cell-lines. Dubbed “clean meat”, this option not only results in zeroing out methane emissions, but it also addresses animal welfare concerns and frees up pasture to turn into carbon sinks.
Soil mismanagement drives nitrous oxide emissions, a result of nitrogen fertilizers. For more than a century, US farming has focused on boosting crop yields at the cost of long-term land sustainability. According to one UN report, 40% of soils used for agriculture globally are degraded and 70% of topsoil critical to plant growth has vanished. The blanket application of nitrogen fertilizers to fields as well as monocrop, till-focused farming is the primary source of nitrous oxide emissions. Opportunities to reduce nitrous oxide lie in the timing, rate, and placement of nitrogen fertilizers. The emergence of AI in farming is allowing for more precise crop management. Coupled with regenerative farming practices (e.g., no-till, cover crops), such approaches could significantly reduce emissions. Encouraging, but not zero.
Some interesting new technologies are emerging that could result in zero-carbon farming. One is indoor vertical farming, where crops are grown in a highly controlled hydroponic environment, avoiding soil management altogether and reducing water consumption by 95% in the process. Vertical farming brings the food to the community bringing with it a whole host of benefits and could free up currently cultivated land to be turned into carbon sinks like forests. Another is gene editing. We’re not talking about the controversial GMOs of the 1990s but rather, the science of making a small change in the native DNA of the plant to alter a gene expression, which normally happens over time in nature. Gene editing could increase crop yields and resilience, critical in a warming environment, and even design crops to make their own nitrogen.
Food is a highly democratized industry driven by consumer choice. Organic, antibiotic-free, farm to table – all these trends happened in response to demand. Accelerating the shift needed in agriculture to decarbonize by 2050 will require a shift in the way we think about nutrition and ultimately, a significant change in behavior. We need to rethink industrialized food production so that we can scale in a sustainable way. This will take time, education, investment, and most of all commitment to a greater good. What can you do today? As a consumer, you can seek out alternatives and view consumption through a sustainable, carbon-free lens. We all have the purchasing power to make change in this industry. And in doing so, maybe we can help save the planet and feed the world.
Michael Lenox is the Taylor Murphy Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean and Chief Strategy Officer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and co-author of The Decarbonization Imperative and Can Business Save the Earth?. His work has been cited by the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Economist. He has been recognized as a Faculty Pioneer by the Aspen Institute, as the top strategy professor under 40 by the Strategic Management Society, and one of the top 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants.
Rebecca Duff is co-author of The Decarbonization Imperative and Senior Research Associate at the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She also serves as the managing director for the Institute’s Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative.
1 US EPA, Global Greenhouse Emissions Data, Global Emissions by
Sector, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data (accessed March 2019).
2 Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Climate Basics: Energy/Emissions Data, Global Emissions, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Major Economies 1990–2020,” https://www.c2es.org/content/international-
emissions/ (accessed Oct. 2018).
3 US EPA, Global Greenhouse Emissions Data, Global Emissions by Gas https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data (accessed March 2019).
Michael Lenox is the Tayloe Murphy Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean and Chief Strategy Officer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and co-author of The Decarbonization Imperative and Can Business Save the Earth? His work has been cited by the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Economist. He has been recognized as a Faculty Pioneer by the Aspen Institute, as the top strategy professor under 40 by the Strategic Management Society, and one of the top 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants.