Agriculture has been a fundamental aspect of human civilization since ancient times, playing a critical role in providing food and other essential resources necessary for human survival. The sector has been a driver of economic growth, food security and employment for many people, particularly in developing countries, where a significant portion of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, agriculture remains a weighty contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, a potent greenhouse gas responsible for a significant proportion of global warming.  

A new report, “Global Innovation Needs Assessment: Food Systems Methane” funded by the Global Methane Hub and ClimateWorks Foundation revealed that the food system currently accounts for an estimated 60% of global human-caused methane emissions, with most resulting from agricultural activities. The potent greenhouse gas will continue to have outsized climate impacts on the three billion people who work in the agriculture sector.

So limiting climate change to no more than 1.5°C warming requires rapid and ambitious reductions in agricultural methane. The new report details innovations in three key sectors of the global food system – livestock (including diet shifts), food loss and waste, and rice cultivation – that can eliminate over 5.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050. 

In the livestock sector, direct mitigation technologies such as methane-inhibiting feeding additives and vaccinations have shown a potential to reduce methane emissions with cost-saving benefits. In the food loss and waste sector, waste tracking and analytics advancements, like cold chain interventions encompass on- and off-grid refrigeration and chain management techniques, can help. 

Regarding rice cultivation, management practices that focus on water and straw management in paddy fields are crucial. Direct mitigation practices like replacing urea fertilizers with ammonium sulfate, or using alternative methane-inhibiting compounds, can also be effective in reducing emissions.

The report reveals that a high level of investment is needed to research, develop, and commercialize these innovations in regions where new technologies can offer standout results.

According to Hayden Montgomery, Agriculture Program Director at the Global Methane Hub, investing in improved productivity to reduce methane emissions is a win-win opportunity for our global economy and farmers and is essential in the short term. “Philanthropy can play a role in catalyzing public and private investment in breakthrough R&D—and the return on investment is shared by all,” he said. 

The report shows that a five-fold increase in annual investment by 2035 could yield 12 times larger benefits to develop and commercialize long-term innovation. Food system innovations from the report could collectively reduce the costs of achieving a 1.5°C climate objective by $100 billion in 2030 and $1 trillion in 2050.

“Reducing methane emissions from agriculture will spark a wide net of benefits like greater food security, improved human health, nature conservation, and better support for farmers,” said Avery Cohn, director of the Food and Agriculture Program at ClimateWorks Foundation. “Investing in new technologies and widening access to existing methods can grow our global economy and reduce pollution to ensure a thriving climate for all.”

Methane innovations can support wider food system decarbonization by reducing other greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide savings through avoided land use change and increased carbon sequestration potential. Reducing pollution, sustainable product offerings and improving productivity are three key opportunities.

“Rice farmers are facing ever-growing adverse impacts of climate change felt on a daily basis, yet the adoption of low-carbon innovations is slow due to lack of incentives and capacity,” said Vu Duong Quynh, vice head of the Environmental Chemistry Division at the Vietnam Institute for Agriculture Environment (IAE). “This report helps Vietnam prioritize our efforts to reduce methane emissions as we implement our National Action Plan for the Global Methane Pledge.”

“Transformative, rapid food system changes are needed to achieve a 1.5ºC future, many of which are directly related to methane,” said Carlos Gonzalez Fischer, research associate in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University. “This report provides the blueprint for tackling food system methane before it worsens. Innovations to lower agriculture’s climate footprint and address food insecurity are necessary to uplift our global community.”

Vivid Economics performed the report analysis under the guidance of a seven-member advisory board that provided peer review. The committee also authored a brief on policy recommendations available for download.

The African challenge.

While investments in food system methane innovations are increasing, they are still insufficient to unlock the full potential of mitigation, economic benefits, and co-benefits. In Africa, for instance, the food system sector is largely perceived as high-risk, resulting in a low investment rate.

Talking about this during the press briefing, Avery Cohn, emphasised the need for a synergy between public investment and private investment. “Public investments can help de-risk private investments. Part of what we showed through the report is that there are major returns on public investments. But we also think is very important that these public investments are linked to transition plans for the agricultural sector that address food security, climate change, adaptation and climate change, and mitigation. We have seen some excellent examples of this coming out of the UN Food System Summit and turned into a bankable project, such as in the case of Rwanda.”

According to the report, the World Bank has also committed to financing over $2.5 billion in projects aligned with climate-smart agriculture. The Global Methane Pledge launched methane-reducing investment platforms in the food system in late 2022, coordinating over $900 million of dedicated funds to be deployed in the coming years across the agriculture and waste sectors. This funding comes from national and multilateral organizations.

Avery Cohn explained that “as we begin to build coherence and understanding of the transition plans for economies in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, it can help light the path for public investments,.which in turn can help to de-risk and unlock private investment.”

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