The Technicalities Part 3: The things we consume

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

This op-ed is part 3 in a series on how we lessen the impact of climate change. To read the other op-eds, click here.

We’ve talked about electricity, and transportation so far; both things that one could rightfully argue are indispensable to modern society. Eating, however, is something that has always been, and will continue to be a necessity for human life. At a current population of 7.7 billion and counting, how we feed ourselves will inevitably have a gigantic impact on planet Earth. In this op-ed we’re going to talk about the things we eat and the materials we use, and how we might possibly maintain all that without wrecking the planet.

Agriculture is the largest source of greenhouse gases that are not carbon dioxide (note the plural ‘gases’ — there are more than one of them), like methane. We’ll keep on-trend by again stating the maybe obvious: all greenhouse gases are not created equally, and although methane disappears faster from the atmosphere, it warms the environment twenty times more effectively than carbon dioxide. If you want to see a full list of greenhouse gases and their so-called global warming potential, here you go, but spoiler alert: the others, like nitrous oxide, are even worse.

The sources of methane and nitrous oxide in agriculture are various and range from the purely biological to more of that handy “combustion as a solution” practice: things like livestock being naturally gassy creatures, to industrial farming practices that result in the loss of nitrogen from soil — too much fertilizer, unchecked manure management — and generate nitrous oxide, to burning biomass that is considered farm waste (think corn stalks).

More than in other sectors we’ve talked about, reversing our bad agricultural habits might be more attainable simply because the fixes are lower cost and more straightforward in theory. The question to answer is not “How do we electrify air travel?” Instead, it’s “How can we get cows to digest more efficiently?” and “How can we prevent soil and manure from degassing into the atmosphere?”

Getting cows and sheep to fart less seems easier until we realize someone is going to have to find a way to do that first. In other words, farming needs its own innovations. But it is worth it: making efforts to lower emissions from the agricultural sector could result in a reduction of 1.4 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent per year.

Additionally, if people in over-consuming countries changed their diets, that number could climb as high as 2 gigatonnes CO2 equivalents per year.

The types of innovations that would help reduce emissions include precision agriculture, which can be described as a way to use satellite imagery, weather prediction, smart application of fertilizers, and eventually machine learning and sensing to enable lower carbon, more responsible farming.

Using artificial intelligence and an internet of things approach to make precision farming a reality clearly involves some technological innovation. However, there are other strategies for cleaning up agriculture that have already been demonstrated as technically viable but that suffer from low adoption. A handful of biochar startups, for example, offer an alternative to burning biomass by instead turning it into a product that traps carbon and can improve crop yields. As much of a holy grail as this seems, there is a catch: the costs required for farmers to start a biochar operation are high enough to prevent them from doing it. Business model innovations that improve adoption of practices can be just as important in this sector.

As mentioned above, another strategy to dropping the emissions from our food is for us to consume less. We’ve all heard about how eating less red meat can drop our own carbon footprint, and, by application of the economic principle of supply and demand, shrink the cattle farming industry. There are other ways that we can, through innovation, tackle the carbon footprints of our food choices — here are a few of them.

One way of dropping the emissions from over-consumption is to reduce food waste. This startup is developing a biomaterial coating that keeps food fresher for longer, so that people throw away less produce.

Another way is to stop deforestation for the sake of raising new crops. Deforestation releases nearly 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture is responsible for at least 80% of this. One startup working to lessen this impact, specifically from the $60 billion dollar palm oil industry, by developing a way of brewing sustainable palm oil from microbes.

Speaking of brewing sustainable foods: the holy grail in terms of reducing the impact of our food is to reduce or eliminate the need to farm animals for the protein that people need in their diets. The impossible burger is the latest step in a pathway towards a meat replacement, and generates almost 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than a traditional burger. But to get to something that looks like a real piece of meat requires a bit more innovation than that. Companies like this one are growing and using mycellium, a type of fungus, as a source of sustainable protein that can be used to make something that looks and tastes like a real piece of meat, with less ingredients.

In short, the ways in which we can clean up the way we grow and consume food are vast, and the more we can support, the more reductions in emissions we can acheive.

So by now you’ve heard about how we use electricity at home, on the move, and as part of how we eat! Nearly every part of modern society consumes electricity and generates greenhouse gases, but that also means there are a myriad of opportunities to fundamentally change the way we power, move, and grow. We can change not just individually, but on a systemic level, putting a priority in researching, developing, and deploying some of the cleantech solutions we’ve highlighted in these op-eds. The fact is that there is no silver bullet here. If we’re going to reverse catastrophic climate change, we need an approach that boldly embraces these solutions on all fronts, and empowers the creators making breakthroughs in batteries, synthetic fuels, renewables and other technologies. It is big ideas that will move us forward, but the technicalities have the potential to change us for the better. Beam has plans to help make this a reality — stay tuned!

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