Walking around the supermarket in a developed economy, even with global supply chains disrupted due to the ongoing Covid pandemic, you’d be forgiven for thinking our food system is thriving. Shelves are often well stocked and there’s ample choice. However, beneath the shelves surface, it’s a different story.
The cost of food across all food groups increased between January 2021 and January 2022 in the US. Cereals and bakery products had the largest increase of any food category increasing by 1.8%, whilst dairy increased by 1.1%. Produce items experienced similar price hikes, with fruits and vegetables increasing 0.9% and meat, poultry, fish and egg prices went up 0.3%. Many of these price increases have been put down to ongoing Covid concerns including supply chain disruption, and are reflective of increases in production costs (especially packaging). Some economists are signalling these as temporary and transient cost increases – but are they? What do we really know about the food we eat? What impact does it have on us and our environment, and are all the costs of these impacts priced in? About 21–37% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to our food system. In the face of the growing climate crisis, how secure and equitable is our food supply? Let’s look into some of the facts.
An eroding food ecosystem
What food is grown and how it’s grown is contributing to environmental imbalances that are eroding the stability of our food ecosystem. Every minute, we lose 23 hectares of arable land worldwide to drought and desertification. Top soil and soil health is in chronic decline. Some scientists estimate it takes between 500-1000 years to form just 1 inch of topsoil. Since 1900, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates 75% of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture has been lost. In Thailand, for example, from 16,000 different rice varieties, just 37 remain. In the pursuit of efficiency, convenience and price, agricultural diversity has been significantly reduced and agricultural policies monoculturally informed. To drive crop yield, synthetic fertiliser and pesticide use has increased exponentially. In 1965, the consumption of nitrogen fertilisers was 46.3 million metric tons. By 2019, this amount increased to over 190 million tons. In 2019 the global consumption of agricultural pesticides was 4.19 million metric tons up from 2.3 million tons in 1990.
There are two significant issues with synthetic fertiliser and pesticide. First, the production and use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser accounts for 2.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the top climate polluting industrial chemicals. The synthetic nitrogen fertiliser supply chain was responsible for estimated emissions of 1,250 million tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalency) in 2018, which is roughly 21.5% of the annual direct emissions from agriculture (5,800 million tonnes). And second, widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides caused ‘insectageddon’ – the collapse of the global insect population, including bees. This collapse has been highlighted in research conducted in Germany in 2017 that estimated a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82%, in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study in 63 nature protection areas in Germany.
Food consumption inequality
According to the UN, over 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year. This is against a backdrop of between 720 and 811 million people in the world facing hunger in 2020. From 2019 to 2020, the number of undernourished people grew by 161 million, a crisis driven largely by conflict, climate change, and Covid-19. Worldwide, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020. Conversely, in 2020, over 149 million under-fives were estimated to have been stunted, or too short for their age and more than 45 million children were wasted, or too thin for their height, both as a result of chronic malnutrition and hunger. The intersect between what we eat and health (of both people and planet) are intrinsically linked. When these relationships are broken our food system’s integrity and security erodes.
The rise of regenerative farming
Regenerative and organic farming, reflecting both ecosystem health and shifting consumer sentiment, shows what’s possible when we work with nature. Since 2019, business interest in regenerative agriculture has increased 138% with several big food businesses committing to regenerative agriculture in their supply chains. The global organic farming market is expected to grow from $95.38 billion in 2020 to $103.36 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.4% and to $151.35bn in 2025 at a CAGR of 10%. It’s cited that if every US farmer switched to organic farming, nearly 500 million pounds of residual and toxic pesticides could be prevented annually from entering the atmosphere and our ecosystems.
Despite noticeable increases in both interest and execution, and environmental benefits, organic farming is still marginalised with critics citing crop yield differences as one of the major arguments against a shift. However, there are links between modern agriculture and the climate crisis, both in terms of contribution (agriculture currently generates circa 19–29% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions) and risk. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), maize crop yields are projected to decline by 24%, whilst wheat could potentially see growth of about 17% by 2030 under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario. It’s certain yields are going to be compromised across all food groups if changes aren’t embraced. Research from the University of Berkeley in 2014 found that organic yields are around 19.2% lower than conventional ones, a smaller difference than previous scientific estimates. The researchers found that taking into account methods that optimise the productivity of organic agriculture could further minimise the yield gap. They specifically highlighted two agricultural practices – multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field) and crop rotation – that would substantially reduce the organic-to-conventional yield gap to 9% and 8%, respectively.
Investment opportunities in organic and regenerative agriculture are compelling. It provides a range of opportunities from investing in regenerative and organic farming directly, investing in businesses that sell regenerative and organic food, to the use of technology in agriculture (AgTech).
Another area of focus is water stress. 72% of all water withdrawals globally are used by agriculture with 3.2 billion people living in agricultural areas with high to very high water shortages or scarcity, and 1.2 billion people living in severely water-constrained agricultural areas. How much water we use, and where we use it are becoming critical factors in our decision making. Advances in AgTech mean there are more opportunities for precision application in agriculture – not just in watering but also in pest management. AgTech provides unique investment opportunities for tackling food security issues including hydroponics (growing plants without using soil, feeding them on mineral nutrient salts dissolved in water) and vertical farming – increasingly attractive for town planners and investors looking to provide more localised food production in urban environments.
Reducing carbon through food choices
Tackling food security issues means taking a holistic approach. Studies relating to the carbon footprint of organic food point to the yield difference and requirement for more land as the main contributors of driving up the greenhouse gas emissions associated with organic food production. However, organically farmed soils store up to 44% more carbon and support 50% more wildlife. Whilst debate continues as to the best way to farm, it’s clear that to tackle these issues our relationship with food needs to be reimagined including what we eat and how much of it. In the developed world we’ve become used to having whatever we want, whenever we want. We can afford much so we buy much – which is one of the main drivers of food waste globally, contributing to between 8-10% of total human made greenhouse gas emissions with a concentration in the developed countries. At the same time as pivoting to regenerative and organic farming, there needs to be a reduction in meat consumption in our diets to drive down greenhouse gas emissions, whilst tackling food waste and the inexorable rise of ultra-processed foods in our diets. Investment opportunities in plant-based food manufacturers and distributors provide unique and growing investment opportunities. US retail sales of plant-based foods increased 11% from 2018 to 2019, hitting a plant-based market value of $4.5 billion during 2019. The global plant milk market was worth over $12 billion in 2019 and is expected to exceed $21 billion by 2024 with an estimated 11% CAGR between 2020 and 2026.
Investing in food
There are opportunities in microfinance for those wanting to support smallholder farmers in emerging economies. These investment opportunities also bring a gender lens to tackling the issues we have with food security. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “empowering women and rights-based approaches to decision-making can create synergies among household food security, adaptation, and mitigation”. Technology also plays a crucial role in reducing food waste and promoting the sharing economy. More apps and technologies are saving unwanted food from going into the rubbish, providing opportunities for investors interested in tackling food waste. As well as the direct investment opportunities outlined above there are more strategic investment opportunities to help drive food security including:
- investments in scaling up climate resilience across food systems (e.g. water distribution and flood defences);
- strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity (e.g. investments in microfinance and job creation);
- calling for and supporting developments in accounting to ensure the true cost of food production is reflected on balance sheets. These serve to intervene along the food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods; and
- tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring interventions are inclusive and support those living in poverty (e.g. access to clean and affordable energy).
The intersectionality between the environment, food, and human health provides investors with a range of investment opportunities to help transition our food system to future fitness. Capital needs to be allocated to these opportunities to halt the looming crisis in our food system and increase its security. Our new food system needs to be based on the principles of post industrialisation and be anchored in more localised, equitable, health oriented and nature sensitive policies and practices.
Important Information: Tribe Impact Capital LLP is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”). Our FCA registration details are set out in the FCA Register under Firm Reference number 756411 (www.fca.org.uk). Tribe Impact Capital LLP is registered in England and Wales (registered number OC411984) and our registered office is 52 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6LX. This document does not provide you with enough information to make an informed investment decision. Neither does it constitute advice or a personal recommendation or take into account the particular investment objectives, financial situations or needs of individual clients. If you are not an existing client of Tribe Impact Capital LLP, this document is considered to be marketing material. Whilst this document may contain information about specific companies it is not an investment research report as defined by the FCA. This document is not intended and should not be construed as an offer, solicitation or recommendation to buy or sell any investments. You are recommended to seek advice concerning suitability of any intended investment decision from your investment adviser. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance; and the value of investments, as well as the income from them can go down as well as up. Investors may get back less than the original amount invested. Any type of impact investment will involve risk to investors capital and the expected environmental or social return may not be achieved. The information and opinions expressed herein are based on current public information we believe to be reliable; but we do not represent that they are accurate or complete, and they should not be relied upon as such. Any information herein is given in good faith but is subject to change without notice. No liability is accepted whatsoever by Tribe Impact Capital LLP or its employees and associated companies for any direct or consequential loss arising from this document. This document is not for distribution outside the European Economic Area.