A recent report from McKinsey finds that agriculture has the single largest impact on the environment of any economic sector. The report lays out 47 concrete actions that agriculture businesses can take to restore Earth’s ecological balance— while maintaining a positive return-on-investment.
The report uses the planetary-boundaries framework, which was first introduced in 2009 by Earth systems scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Center. The concept recognizes that in addition to climate change, there are eight other Earth systems that, if destabilized beyond a certain threshold, could trigger irreversible environmental changes.
“We are operating our world economy beyond a safe operating space. There is not enough focus on climate change, and there is certainly not enough focus on the eight other planetary boundaries. The climate crisis is not a standalone crisis,” Duko Hopman, a partner at McKinsey and co-author of the report, tells Food Tank.
The report analyzes six planetary boundaries. McKinsey finds that human activity has already extended beyond the “safe operating space” for four of these boundaries: biodiversity loss, chemical and plastic pollution, nutrient pollution, and greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. As a sector, agriculture has the single largest direct impact on planetary boundaries.
McKinsey researchers conclude that food systems actors have an enormous role to play in bringing civilization back within planetary bounds. Targeting the private sector, the 47 actions offer guidance to help corporations address specific planetary boundaries.
For agriculture companies, these include implementing “regenerative agriculture, precision agriculture, agroforestry, new delivery models, biological pest control, drip irrigation, biodegradable packaging, and reducing food waste,” the report says.
Almost half of the impact of these nature-positive actions provide a positive return-on-investment (ROI). And if corporations fully implement just twelve of these levers, the report estimates these actions can amount to “an annual benefit of US$700 billion.”
According to Hopman, agri-food companies are facing real threats to their profits because of factors like declining soil health and nutrient pollution. With soil depletion progressing at its current rate, “there are only a few dozen harvest cycles left, so agribusiness is taking those predictions very seriously,” Hopman reports to Food Tank.
Hopman tells Food Tank that “the emitters right now might not be feeling the effect of carbon emissions on their operations. However, compared to climate, other planetary boundaries are much more of a localized issue. So these companies are feeling these effects faster.”
“It is one thing to argue against cutting down a forest because of climate change, but it’s an additionally interesting point to argue how cutting down a forest would reduce precipitation in the same region which may reduce crop yields in the area,” Hopman continues. “The more you can make those dynamics between environmental destruction and revenue loss transparent, the more you can affect decision making.”
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