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Climate Change
February 13, 2020

Agriculture is a solution to Climate Change: 3 critical lessons from DAVOS

Written By:
Karn Manhas

Addressing climate change and supporting human health — and doing so with environmental, social and economic sustainability in mind — are big parts of why we started Terramera. So it was incredibly rewarding to take part in this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where climate, “stakeholder capitalism,” and environmental, social and governance (ESG) took centre stage.  

My first impressions? Davos felt a lot more like a cold, clean Burning Man with suits than one might expect. I don’t mean the exclusive or promotional aspects of Davos. But the difficulty in getting there, combined with the engagement of those in attendance, brought erstwhile strangers together as equal global citizens to discuss ideas and learn from each other — not unlike Burning Man.

There was a palpable energy, a willingness and interest in human connection and stories, a sense of spontaneity, and a backdrop of spaces that allowed for a flow of ideas and people. You might just find yourself chatting with the Princess of Luxembourg at a luncheon (true story!) or bumping into the CEO of IKEA on a break (below).

But the beauty of these encounters — random or otherwise — is the ability to build connections with people who have the resources, knowledge and energy to get stuff done and make important progress on the pressing issues facing our world.

Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on the week, there are some major takeaways that stood out to me, which will certainly inform the action I take, both in my business and in my personal life, going forward.  

Agriculture is an overlooked climate ally

At this year’s conference, climate change was identified as one of the top economic concerns facing the planet for the first time. This is a positive step, yet the conversation left me wanting more. Much of the discussion on climate hinged on harm-reduction: doing “something” to decrease carbon emissions (without specifics on what that would exactly be, other than reducing our consumption of fossil fuels), preparing communities to withstand the potential devastation brought on by an increasingly unpredictable climate, and using artificial intelligence and increased efficiencies to help (again, with some level of specificity lacking).

Critically, I found agriculture was largely absent from the conversation. When it did come up, it was mentioned primarily in regard to the harm agriculture has done to the planet through deforestation and methane production.

This made me realize two important things:

  • First, we need to focus on climate solutions just as much as climate problems and discuss ways to draw carbon out of the atmosphere alongside steps to curtail carbon emissions.  
  • Second, agriculture is a potential solution — yet it’s not firmly on our collective radar, yet.

Few people making decisions on climate policy are aware that farming practices, such as no-till, cover crops and regenerative agriculture, have the potential to turn farms into carbon sinks and pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

My takeaway? We, in this industry, have work to do in raising awareness and repositioning agriculture as a climate solution to global power brokers and decision-makers.

Momentum is building for a “new capitalism”

When I started Terramera 10 years ago, the concept of serving stakeholders in anything but financial terms was largely foreign in most business circles. Today, that’s quite different.

Talking to business leaders at the WEF, many agreed that business needs to adapt to serve a broader purpose and consider the impact on employees, communities affected by things like transportation routes and supply chains, and even the earth itself. Among the people I spoke to, there was widespread consensus that capitalism must evolve to meet this new, broader definition of “stakeholder,” yet significant barriers remain.

Concepts like environmental, social and governance (ESG) have gained popularity over the last few years, with investors starting to take these factors into consideration when assessing the financial fitness of businesses. But there remains confusion about how to objectively measure whether businesses are meeting their obligations towards non-financial stakeholders.

In fact, in many places, companies can still be penalized for putting social or environmental aims ahead of profits. That needs to change more broadly so we can move ahead with a better, healthier version of capitalism.

We owe a livable future to the next generation

Of course, one of the biggest draws at Davos this year was Greta Thunberg and her firebrand speeches calling the world to account for its failure, thus far, to address climate change in a meaningful way.

But one of Greta’s most powerful acts took place off-stage. Outside in the cold on the last day of WEF, she gathered with around 100 children. Each took turns speaking — in a beautiful, heartfelt way — about their fears and feelings about the present and future on a planet at real risk of disaster.

It’s easy to intellectualize the impact of climate change on future generations — yes, it’s a real concern; yes, we should act; but, what can we really do? Standing there, however, the gravity of the situation was impossible to ignore. We’ve left our children in an unenviable, even unconscionable, position — and it’s up to us to work together to fix the damage before it’s too late.

Going to Davos has long been a goal, and I was thrilled to be there around this year’s event. I certainly didn’t come out of it feeling like all the world’s problems would be solved in a week — far from it. But it inspired me to focus on where hope comes from, to double down on my commitments, both personally and professionally, and to redouble efforts to create a better world through innovation, inspiration and collaboration.

With Parliament recalled last week, the pressure is on for Trudeau to achieve what many see as a near-impossible task: making significant progress on Canada’s climate goals without threatening the economy or further alienating oil-producing provinces.

But these goals needn’t be mutually exclusive. For too long, conversations around climate policy in Canada have framed the issue as a choice between lesser evils — a struggling economy or a critically ill planet. In reality, the choice is not so extreme. There are solutions the government could enact that have the potential to meet Canadians’ demand for real action on climate change while also bolstering the economy. Trudeau would do well to look to Canada’s innovation sector to find them.

Innovating our way out of climate change

Fully 63% of Canadians who voted in the federal election cast their ballots for parties with strong climate policies centred around cutting emissions through a carbon tax. Reducing emissions is a laudable goal, and one we should continue to pursue through initiatives like investing in public transit, greening our buildings and incentivizing people to use fewer fossil fuels, but we simply will not meet our climate targets by cutting emissions alone. We are far too late in the game to avoid the worst of potential climate change perils through harm reduction alone. We need to foster solutions.

Even under a best-case scenario, current projections show Canada will miss its Paris Agreement target of reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 by more than 10%. Given that reality, Trudeau’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050 is all but impossible if we stay the current course. And even if Canada could meet its targets, it is still a blip on the radar of what’s needed to solve the problems facing the planet on a global level.

To truly reduce Canada’s carbon footprint and make a global impact, we need solutions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere — and ideally in a way that benefits the earth and the economy. This is possible, and we can do this by applying made-in-Canada technologies to better manage a natural resource as ubiquitous as it is overlooked — not oil or coal, but our farmlands and soils.

Agriculture is ground zero for climate action

For all the focus on cutting Canada’s carbon output, little attention has been paid to the fact that this country, including heavier emitting provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, is literally covered in farmland that has one of the best carbon-storage substances available: soil.

The earth’s soil can store more carbon than the earth’s atmosphere can hold. Importantly, increasing carbon content in soil is hardly out of reach. In Canada, a simple change to the way we farm could have an outsized impact on our carbon storage in soil. If scaled globally, it could be enough to turn back the clock on climate change by years.

After all, when you think of highly productive farmland, one of the first things you think about is rich, black soil. Healthy soil is black because of the high carbon content, or soil organic carbon (“SOC”), a key building block to plant life and plant health. Dark, rich soils can be very high in soil carbon, as much as 10% SOC or more. In poor or heavily exploited soils, SOC can be less than 1%. The average across global conventional farms is estimated to be 2%.  

According to author and researcher Paul Hawken and Project Drawdown, currently an estimated 108 million acres of farmland are organic or regenerative. Good organic farms can get up to SOC to 5-6%. Impressive regenerative farms can have be north of 10-12%. Improving the global SOC average from 2% to 4% on the world’s farmland, could reduce 78.5 billion tons of CO2-equivalents from the atmosphere, and that would be just getting started.

Those are big numbers in comparison with Canada’s total annual carbon emissions of 716 million tons of annual emissions of 37 billion tons. If this could be scaled across all global farmland, the impact would be many times that—enough to turn back the clock on climate change by years.

And the value is not only sustainability, the economic impact is significant. Each 1% increase in the carbon content of soil accounts for 8.5 tons of carbon stored per acre. And each ton of carbon sequestered in soils significantly increases farm yields, for wheat that would mean 8-16 kilograms more yield for the farmer, and 4-16 kilograms more per acre for corn, increasing farm profits and productivity. Converting 100 million acres to soil regenerative practices is estimated to cost up to C$8-10 Billion, yet that could generate around $280-300 billion CAD in returns by 2050 -- not a bad investment.

US Senator Pat Roberts, quoting a former colleague, summed it up nicely: "More carbon in the atmosphere: bad. More carbon in the soil: good."

Introducing efficient, reliable, real-time methods to measure SOC coupled with an economic incentive for farmers to sequester more carbon and invest in soil regenerative agriculture practices could turn Canadian farms into carbon sinks, while at the same time increasing the nutrient content of our soils and fostering a more sustainable, healthier and profitable food system.

Farmers have the opportunity to be saviours in turning the world back from climate change, while improving the productivity of their farmlands. Enabling this transition comes down to bolstering Canadian farms with Canadian innovation. Using cleantech to transform agriculture and food production is a concrete solution—one Canada can lead the world in, while making a significant global impact. If Canada can demonstrate success across our 160 million acres of farmland, we can lead by example and help the world scale this globally.

Already, companies across the country are developing sophisticated technologies designed to help us work with nature to improve our agricultural output while reducing our environmental impact. Tools like smart sensors, imaging and algorithms informed by data science and machine learning can suggest better interventions for blight, pests and diseases. These technologies enable us to manage farms more efficiently and intelligently, a marked change from disruptive interventions that bathe the land in harmful chemicals, deplete soils, and leave fields barren — all of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

But applying home-grown technologies to Canada’s agricultural sector could do far more than just make a serious dent in Canada’s carbon footprint. It's an opportunity to diversify and revive the economy in provinces struggling to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. Deeper still, it promises to reconcile the planet vs. progress debate and help unite a country in the midst of a bitter political divide.

Applying Canadian tech on a world stage

Beyond that, investing in Canada’s clean technologies has the potential to establish us as climate leaders on the world stage. Agriculture is just one example of an area where Canadian innovation can make an outsized impact on our economic and environmental goals. Other companies are working on technologies to better manage our forests, our oceans, and even pull carbon from the air to produce clean transportation fuels.

There is no Silicon Valley of cleantech. If we play our cards right, it could be Canada. We have the potential, right now, to become a world leader in agriculture tech and clean technologies writ broad, and create an economy based on cultivating our intellectual properties rather than just tapping our natural resources. To get there we need consistent, concerted investment and support from the Canadian government.

As Trudeau looks ahead to his next term as Prime Minister, the time is right to take bold action to support made-in-Canada solutions that have global applications. He can do this in concrete ways by:  

  • Deciding Canada will be the global leader in technology and innovations to solve climate change;
  • Investing in a Canadian agriculture modernization program to develop and introduce real-time soil carbon measurement on farmland, and incentivizing farmers to permanently increase SOC through soil regenerative practices;
  • Laying out a path to make the carbon tax go both ways: If carbon emissions are taxed at $20/ton, then pay for every ton of carbon sequestered, and build a program that incentivizes farmers to sequester carbon from the atmosphere;
  • Supporting Canada’s cleantech industry to prototype and demonstrate our technologies on a national scale, turning Canada into an international model for clean technology in action;
  • Investing in cleantech companies on a performance-basis and ensuring funds flow efficiently to those who can yield effective results;
  • Helping Canadian cleantech companies partner with established industries like agriculture, forestry and energy to demonstrate and scale our innovations;
  • Making Agriculture and Climate Change solutions issues of national security, national unity and utmost importance.

Taking bold action now, backed by government support, will not only help us meet our climate goals, it could help us come together and unify as a country and provide much needed global leadership. Ultimately, it will determine whether Canada will be seen as a leader or a follower on what is certain to be not just the defining issue of the next federal government, but of our lifetimes.

The irony is that capitalizing on this opportunity will take a very “un-Canadian” approach. We don’t have time to sit back and cautiously observe what the rest of the world is doing to mitigate climate disaster. We need to move now, with conviction, to establish a market presence in a world that is rapidly acknowledging it must find alternatives to business as usual if we are to preserve a high quality of life.

Originally published on Karn's LinkedIN.

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