A grim U.N. report detailing the effects of climate change on food production warns that without large-scale change, food across the globe will become scarcer, more expensive, and contain less nutritional value.
To break down the findings from the 1,400-page report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change we’ve pulled together five key takeaways, and these should help social impact investors prepare and understand which sustainable solutions to support.
We’re Living in a Vicious Cycle of Land Degradation and Climate Change
Land degradation and climate change are locked together in a worsening cycle that, in order to break it, will require an overhaul of our food supply system.
As humans try to keep up with global demand for food, we’re taking charge of an unprecedented 72% of our ice-free land. Along with causing an 11% drop in biodiversity, the effects of industrial and mechanized agriculture are accelerating deforestation and the draining of carbon-capturing peatlands.
The vicious cycle part means that some of that land takeover has happened because of climate change. Severe temperatures, extreme weather, and changing rainfall patterns are forcing people out of their homes. They’re also forcing industrial agriculture companies to come up with new ways to farm.
When ag companies resort to those new ways — such as cropland expansion that uses nitrogen-based fertilizers that eventually lead to harmful algae blooms and the development of wetlands — emissions rise. Right now, human-driven changes to land are causing about 23% of man-made emissions. Here’s how the report puts it:
“Expansion of areas under agriculture and forestry, including commercial production, and enhanced agriculture and forestry productivity have supported consumption and food availability for a growing population … With large regional variation, these changes have contributed to increasing net GHG emissions … loss of natural ecosystems (e.g. forests, savannahs, natural grasslands and wetlands) and declining biodiversity.”
Severe Weather From Climate Change Is Making Food Scarcer, More Expensive, and Less Nutritious
The report highlights the urgency of the situation for our global food supply, said Brian Trelstad, partner of the U.S. sustainable growth fund at Bridges Fund Management.
“The UN Climate Report reinforces what many in the sustainable and impact investing fields have known for a long time: that the way we grow, distribute, consume, and waste food on the planet is neither efficient, sustainable, nor equitable,” he told Karma.
Overhauling the current system is a complex and technical challenge. But the report makes it clear that if we don’t act now, the four pillars of food security — availability, access, utilization, and stability — are all threatened. A warming climate is changing the crops that farmers can plant, making certain foods more scarce and more expensive, and higher levels of carbon can make vital crops including rice less nutritious. The report also highlighted the need to minimize waste, as a staggering one-third of food is currently lost or wasted.
Solutions are Available, But Drastic
The more than 100 experts worldwide who compiled the report did come to bleak conclusions, but they haven’t given up. They dedicated more than 300 pages of the report to a range of potential solutions for adapting to a changing climate. Many rely on drastic and immediate changes to behavior, including wealthy countries cutting red meat consumption. To impact investors, these suggest vast opportunities for growth in a burgeoning green economy.
Trelstad pointed to impact investment strategies from companies including Fall Line Capital, which is working to improve farm management practices in the American Midwest, to Beyond Meat and Good Catch, which are taking on the challenge of scaling plant-based protein and marketing it to a consumer base that is often skeptical.
Sustainable Solutions Need to Stop Climate Change. But First, They Need to Meet Immediate Needs
The challenge for impact investors is connecting the concept of climate change to the food security issues that millions around the globe are already experiencing, said Moe Odele, a lawyer and impact investor.
“They are worried about food security in terms of transportation and preservation, not climate change as a high level problem,” she said. “It’s possible to have investments that have solutions to multiple problems running concurrently, and that’s the only way that these investments can work. We have to think about how to make it real for people.”
Impact Investors Must Leverage Their Power
But as successful as those initiatives can be, they alone can’t work to mitigate the global climate, land, and food crises, said Eric Maltzer, director of impact investments at Medora Ventures.
“Mitigation banks, forest carbon sequestration, and Winrock’s latest TREES standard are great starts to putting a price on land degradation, but companies and investors alone cannot solve our land management crisis. Only the people and their democratically elected representatives can solve it,” Maltzer noted.
(The Winrock standard is designed to help foresters and ecologists quantify the amount of carbon stored within a landscape.)
It can be frustrating to watch as policy makers around the globe fail to deliver on green promises, but that’s all the more reason that impact investors must leverage their power to get leaders to take action, said Odele.
“In terms of policy governments are typically reactive,” she said. “But when it comes to foreign investments in sustainable land management, the government needs us as much as we need them. Big investors need to figure out different leverage points and how to actually use those to apply pressure.”