Friday, February 23, 2024

Science-based targets could hold the key to feeding the world

Accounting 14% to the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, it lags only the energy and construction and manufacturing sectors.

Decarbonizing farming, therefore, is absolutely crucial to India’s ambitions to hit the net zero mark by 2070.

However, it is easier said than done.

Catch-22

Agriculture is a key part of India’s economy. Accounting for roughly 18% of GDP, nearly two-thirds of the country’s population of 1.4 billion depend on it for their livelihoods.

But, with the population of world’s most populous country still growing, India’s farmlands, dairy sector and meat producers are being called upon to produce more food than ever before.

With the country being a key exporter, it places further strain on the sector to produce enough to keep pace with surging global food demand. Rice exports from India, for instance, typically account for 40% of the global rice trade.

However, producing enough food for its domestic needs and the global market together is already proving tricky. Hence, to keep a lid on inflation at home amid a drop in yields, the government placed export curbs on crops like rice, wheat, sugarcane and onions.

India, thus, needs to drastically boost its farmland yields. At the same time, it also needs to keep pace with surging demand for milk, dairy and meat, which it is struggling to do despite having the largest livestock population in the world. 

Livestock is the biggest contributor to agricultural emissions. So, producing more milk and meat from livestock together with more food from the fields will require increasingly greater use of greenhouse-gas emitting solutions. This would lead to more emissions and thereby put the country’s agriculture sector in a catch-22 situation. 

Science-based targets could be the key to resolving it.

Pathway to emissions reductions

Science-based targets, defined by the Science Based Targets institute (SBTi), lay down a pathway for companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

They set out a glide slope of gradual emissions reductions that companies can follow on their way to meeting their emissions-reduction targets. 

These targets are set in consultation with SBTi which, following a vetting process based on the latest climate science, certifies them as being consistent with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement – to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In 2022, the SBTi unveiled its Forest, Land and Agriculture Guidance (FLAG), dedicated to helping companies in sectors like agriculture set reduction targets specifically for their land-based emissions. 

The benefits of committing to SBTi’s FLAG targets are manifold, certainly contributing significantly to reducing agricultural emissions, but also for businesses themselves.

The payoff

To begin with, there’s the reputational payoff.

The world we live in today is growing increasingly more aware and conscious. Companies can no longer just stand for profit. They must also stand for the people and the planet. 

Consumers today are more likely to choose products or services made by a company that has a purpose beyond just profits. Similarly, such companies are also more attractive to investors and lenders, while being less likely to fall foul of regulatory upheavals.

As a result, businesses that have committed to SBTi targets gain an edge over competitors when it comes to access to consumers, investors as well as lenders, in addition to having their operations future-proofed from a regulatory point of view.

In today’s world, therefore, standing for a purpose is directly linked to increased profitability.

At the same time, a commitment to SBTi targets also spurs innovation. Companies have been setting their emissions reduction targets. They have to innovate to figure out how to get there. 

In the agricultural context, such innovation could spur the adoption of low-carbon technologies and approaches to farming. 

Take direct seeding of paddy, one of the most carbon-intensive crops, for instance. The direct seeding method not only drastically slashes water consumption but also significantly reduces methane emissions.

Similarly, dairy producing companies will have to figure out different ways in which to improve the productivity of their heads of cattle. 

In the absence of targets, the easy solution would have been simply to increase the head of cattle to boost milk production. But that adds to emissions. So, companies will have to come up with innovative methods to boost productivity instead. 

This could be in the form of developing more nutritious formulations of feed, an increased focus on animal health and even genetic matching, to ensure each head of cattle has the best genetic combination possible, by means of artificial insemination.

The greater good

But most importantly, committing to SBTi targets is important for the greater good. Land, especially farmland, is a finite resource, growing scarcer by the day. 

While agriculture is among the biggest contributors to overall emissions, it is also among the most vulnerable to the consequences of a warming planet. 

We’re all already witnessing it. With farmlands increasingly at the mercy of climate-change-induced, fickle vagaries of the weather continue to impact the crops.

Thus, if we want to feed our people and the world for decades to come, we must commit to science-based targets and adopt sustainable solutions.

Burjis Godrej, Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer – Crop Protection Business, Godrej Agrovet Ltd

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