Jeremy Coller FoundationChief Investment Officer of Coller Capital and Chairman of the FAIRR Initiative.
In the aftermath of World War II, the world faced impending catastrophe from a planet unable to produce enough food for its burgeoning population. The answer came in the promise of the Green Revolution: a business-led transformation to more efficient farming methods, which promised much for everyone. But from the start it was a monumental example of the law of unintended consequences.
First came the lavishness: The new methods were so successful that they quickly produced a huge supply of grain in the US, depressing prices and threatening countless farms and related businesses. Then came easy access to antibiotics, allowing mega-farms to confine ever larger numbers of animals to increasingly crowded pastures, on a diet of crops that could have been more efficiently fed to humans.
The Animal Industrial Revolution was born and the abundance made possible by the Green Revolution was wasted. Industrial agriculture is not ending food shortages, but is exacerbating them. Because instead of being used for the 345 million people facing crisis levels of food insecurity, most of the huge surpluses generated by the Green Revolution are used to feed the 70 billion animals that end up on our plates every year.
Over the world, 77% of agricultural land is now transferred to animal production, including crops to feed them. Yet it produces only 18% of the global supply of calories for humans. We use more than three-quarters of our resources to produce less than one-fifth of our output. The numbers just don’t add up. And that’s before you consider that intensive agriculture is responsible for that 14.5% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, is the largest cause of deforestationis one of the largest consumers of fresh water And antibiotics and, as we see with the current avian flu concerns, is fuel the risk of a new deadly pandemic.
Business leaders at the wheel
Something has to change, soon. And it is innovative business leaders and investors best placed to spark another green revolution. In fact, many already are, with pioneers in everything from plant-based protein to net-zero agriculture cultivating not only tomorrow’s dinner, but the future of food.
• Vegetable pioneers: The past two years saw a 43% sales increase in the US in food products using plants imitates the taste, texture and appearance of meat. This is important because switching from a conventional beef burger to, say, the plant-based equivalent of Beyond Meat can reduce your burger’s greenhouse gas emissions by 89%.
• Pure meat: Investment in “clean” meat, that is, the actual animal protein produced by culturing animal cells (usually in a lab) has increased by 425% between 2019 and 2021 (from $50 million to $1.4 billion), according to Good Food Institute facts. Singapore is the first country to allow the commercial sale of this animal protein. The US is one step closer to seeing clean meat on the menu following the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Upside Foods lab-grown chicken.
• Sustainable feed: The collapse of grain supplies from Ukraine after the Russian invasion was a stark reminder that no aspect of the livestock production system is as vulnerable as feed. That’s why some animal protein producers are focusing on developing more sustainable options, including Cranswick, a UK-based pig and poultry producer trialling insect proteins, and the Millennial Salmon Projectthat tests algae-based feed.
• Net-zero farming: Many farmers have committed to net zero and are innovating with carbon storage, renewables and bioenergy to power their farms and local areas.
An evergreen revolution
I recently celebrated my 65th birthday and found myself reflecting on how completely the business world has changed in my lifetime. New jobs and technologies mean that tasks that would once take an entire team weeks are now an afternoon’s work. But when it comes to the most basic need, feeding ourselves, we still rely on a failing model that was created before I was born.
It just doesn’t make any sense. A new green revolution – one always green revolution – one aimed at feeding the world more efficiently and effectively while taking better care of the planet and farm animals alone could not solve the very real problem of food insecurity. It can also create countless new opportunities for farmers, consumers and investors alike. In IsraelFor example, start-ups are already creating entirely new industries based on new fermentation technologies and meat from the laboratories, while strategies such as promoting crop rotation and better soil management in the The EU’s Green Deal can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and make it more resilient.
There is no reason why we cannot achieve this on a global scale. It’s in our hands and there are three key steps business leaders can take to help make it happen.
1. Influencing policy. First, we must use our influence to ensure that policymakers level the playing field in the food industry. Worldwide, around 87% of annual grants is given to agricultural practices that undermine the goal of net zero. Meanwhile, tax regimes such as VAT are in Italy and Germany making sustainable options like plant-based milks more expensive than animal-based options, and labeling regulations threaten to ban the use of terms like “oat milk.”
2. Invest in skills. We need to invest in the skills needed in every phase of tomorrow’s food industry – from data management to safety testing to the science of agritech.
3. Collaborate. Finally, we need to work together, across the public and private sectors and across the value chain. The challenge of building a net-zero, sustainable food system is huge and offers plenty of opportunity for everyone, but siled thinking is unlikely to get us there.
The human race has a long history of innovating and working its way into trouble. Fortunately, it also has a long history of innovation. We are at a pivotal moment for food production around the world – and it’s important for business leaders to get on the right track.