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          Why We Need A Pragmatic Approach To Food

          Putin’s war in Ukraine is the latest in a long list of events that have exposed the precariousness of our food system.

          The consequences of Russia’s invasion have raised deep questions about how we tackle our food crisis. In particular, do we continue down the path of endless symposiums and navel-gazing? Or as a society do we adopt a pragmatic path forward and take actionable steps to address the system’s various challenges (as we’re doing in energy)?

          Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already pushed many parts of the world toward famine. As our food supply chains have come undone due to the pandemic and as its aftermath, the impact has been felt most acutely by our world’s most vulnerable. Countries of the global south are no longer guaranteed their annual calorific intake.

          Needless to say, these attributes aren’t indicative of a “sustainable” food system. Something needs to change.

          crops, man holding crops

          The inflection point

          The good news is that we now appear to be at an inflection point. NGOs, policymakers, and investors are waking up to the fact that interconnected supply chains aren’t the most resilient and that we must reimagine their centralised and inflexible nature. Food sustainability even seized a full day at COP27 with government officials recognising that any goal setting around sustainability can’t come at the expense of safety and security.

          We believe this is the beginning of our pragmatic transition in food. One that is able to simultaneously ensure that the world’s expanding population is fed, with healthy calories and carbohydrates, but in a way that maximises renewable resource use in a way that is climate-adapted, localised and minimises the large-scale negative externalities of industrial agriculture. At the same time, however, we believe society must come to terms with the trade-offs required to achieve not just a sustainable transition which seeks to maximise our environmental objectives but also a just transition that ensures our social objectives are met too.

          Practically speaking, for example, on the one hand, we cannot simply halt protein production, or ban chemical fertiliser use, or say no to crop science (e.g. gene editing). On the other, ecologically speaking the world can’t afford to scale these industries in unfettered, unregulated ways.

          The solution lies in the pragmatic middle. Here, we examine what a pragmatic approach to food could look like.

           

          Our history with food is steeped in pragmatism

          It’s worth taking a step back and considering just how far our food system has come in the past one hundred years.

          It often comes as a shock to people to learn that our Earth’s annual biocapacity for food is for about 4 billion people.[1] Meaning that, without humanmade support, in normal circumstances, Earth can feed just about 4 billion people. This means that, somewhere along the line, a smart group of people came together and conceived of ways in which this limit could be broken. As we’ve just hit 8 billion people around the world, the solution they found clearly worked.[2]

          German scientists by the name of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch

          This group of two were two German scientists by the name of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. Both eventually won Nobel prizes for their work and are crucially credited today for their invention of the Haber-Bosch process – a process for converting hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia at extremely high temperatures close to 500°C.

          Indeed, the Haber-Bosch process may be one of the most important chemical reactions ever synthesised.

          Why?

          Because it made ammonia widely available.

           

          Why ammonia is important

          Ammonia is the world’s most commonly used fertiliser. About 50% of the world’s food production relies on ammonia.[3] Fertilisation improves plant nutrition, promotes plant growth, improves crop quality and ultimately maintains and even enhances soil fertility.

          Without ammonia, food production would (within our current system) rapidly collapse. Indeed, some historians maintain that the invention of Haber-Bosch in the mid-20th century is the reason why civilization didn’t collapse in the mid-50s – a time where the world was heavily reliant on imported manure from Latin America for fertilisation, the availability of which wasn’t keeping pace with our ever-expanding global population.[4]

          Haber-Bosch allowed us to feed our planet then and has allowed us to continue feeding our growing population in the past century. It’s a true testament to human ingenuity and its ability to thrive in times of distress.

           

          Fuel, fertilisers and food

          What often comes as a shock to people is that ammonia is made from natural gas.

          A typical modern ammonia-producing plant will first convert natural gas into gaseous hydrogen. The method for producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons is known as steam reforming. The hydrogen will then be combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process.

          Flow diagram of the Haber-Bosch process

          Free-flowing natural gas, therefore, guarantees ammonia production each year, which in turn guarantees half of our global food availability.[5]

          Our sustainable food transition must therefore recognise the complex interplay between fuel, fertiliser and food. By recognising this interplay, we can also start thinking pragmatically about the types of solutions that are needed to address our food challenges.

          Because the challenges of the next century won’t be the same as the challenges of the last century. As we transition our food system, we need to be considerate about which levers to pull (and when) so as to manage a prudent transition, as opposed to a foolhardy one.

           

          Sri Lanka Case Study: How not to transition

          We’ve seen what happens when a pragmatic approach isn’t followed.

          Sri Lanka is a case in point.

          In the spring of 2021, the country banned farmers from using chemical fertilisers on their farms in an effort to advance agri-sustainability. The move forced farmers to immediately switch to organic fertilisers overnight.

          The result?

          Production of rice – the country’s staple calorie – collapsed by nearly 40% in the ensuing 8 months. At the same time, inflation shot up, forcing the country’s treasury to spend an extra $USD 450 million importing rice to make up for the shortfall at home, collapsing confidence in the incumbent government. A social crisis took hold as Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves rapidly depleted resulting, ultimately, in the famed escape by President Rajapaksa this summer.

          Today, the country faces its worst economic crisis in decades with around 30% of the Sri Lankans coping with food insecurity.[6]

           

          The road to hell is paved with good intentions

          The case of Sri Lanka shows that, even where intentions are benign, light-switch policymaking can have catastrophic consequences were based in moralist decree versus hard science. It’s an example that makes clear the fact that transitions, whether they’re in energy or food, must be executed with care and level-headedness.

          So how do we carve a path forward in food? Especially with the frailty and fragility we’re now witnessing across our food system?

           

          One of the answers lies in decentralisation/localisation.

          Consider that Russia and Ukraine account for nearly 27% of the world’s wheat exports and 16% of the world’s corn exports. Consider that Russia accounts for almost 60% of the world’s sunflower oil exports. Imagine the level of interdependency this creates.

          Russia dominates nitrogen fertilizer exports

          Then, there’s the issue of fertilisers. Consider that Russia practically dominates the global ammonia market. Together with Belarus, it provides for nearly 20% of the world’s fertiliser demand. China, too, provides for around 15% (China banned exports of fertilisers in July 2021). What we’re talking about here is one-third of the world’s demand provided for by just three countries.

          Global fertilizer exports from Russia 2019

          Transitioning to greater decentralisation/localisation can address this “exposure”. By solving for less external reliance and greater internal autonomy, we can solve for everything from unsustainable costs/inflation, the security of our food supply (and the ability of others to weaponize the same) and greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) to the protection of our Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity. We also solve for our own health and well-being.

          Another answer is adaptation.

          What we eat is a major driver of our changing climate and the rapid degradation of our environment. The global food system is estimated to account for around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than half of those are attributable just to meat production.[7]

          Adopting diets that deliver good nutrition to us all without transgressing planetary boundaries can significantly reduce the amount of land we use now (especially) for animal agriculture, and this land could be returned to nature for the purposes of eventual sequestration.

          Consider that agriculture currently uses about one-third of all ice-free land; three-quarters of which is taken up by livestock grazing and/or livestock feed production.[8]

          Without significant adaptation in our diets, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

           

          Conclusion

          We are confident that science and technology will be able to solve some of today’s food challenges just like Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch were able to conceive of a paradigm-shattering invention in the mid-20th century.

          As long as we have human ingenuity, we will have ways to scale food (in particular healthy food) and create an abundance of it for everybody on our planet.

          However, unlike in the mid-50s, our challenge today is dual in nature. This is because we’re solving not just for security, but also for sustainability.

          The latter cannot happen without a sensible degree of adaptation, not just on the part of governments and businesses, but also on the part of consumers. With rising food costs this year, we’re already seeing the convergence of ‘sustainable’ diets with ‘pragmatic’ diets.

          And as our consumption patterns begin to reflect our Earth’s biological limits, our sustainable food transition starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

           

          Related ETF

          FOOD: Rize Sustainable Future of Food UCITS ETF

           

          References:

          [1] Footprint Network, “Food security in a world of overshoot”, July 2022. Available at: https://www.footprintnetwork.org/2022/07/13/food-security-in-a-world-of-overshoot/

          [2] United Nations, “World population to reach 8 billion on 15 November 2022”, 2022. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/desa/world-population-reach-8-billion-15-november-2022

          [3] Research Gate, “The uses of ammonia by percentage”, 2022. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-uses-of-ammonia-by-percentage-99_fig1_294579196

          [4] Resilience, “The nitrogen fertilizer monkey trap”, July 2022. Available at: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-07-31/the-nitrogen-fertilizer-monkey-trap/

          [5] Research Gate, “The uses of ammonia by percentage”, 2022. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-uses-of-ammonia-by-percentage-99_fig1_294579196

          [6] DW, “Sri Lanka on brink of food crisis”, September 2022. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/sri-lanka-on-brink-of-food-crisis-after-economic-meltdown/a-63139193

          [7] Our World In Data, “How much of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food?”, March 2021. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/greenhouse-gas-emissions-food

          [8] Our World In Data, “Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture”, November 2019. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/global-land-for-agriculture

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