Why the next Tesla should take on agriculture

There’s a strong business case for climate action in agriculture, says CGIAR climate research programme director Bruce Campbell.

Before the driverless car, we had the driverless tractor. Yet since then, investment and innovation in sustainable transportation has captured the public’s imagination, leaving agriculture in its tracks.

By developing a model that can be powered by renewable energy, Tesla has reimagined the car market and harnessed the advantages of a simple sustainable solution: in batteries, motors and powertrain.

Similar opportunities exist in agriculture. Even the Tesla mogul’s brother Kimbal Musk has recently been championing a reform of North America’s food systems to make wholesome food affordable. But the potential to transform agriculture offers even broader rewards globally to benefit both people and planet.

In start-up terms, there are many minimum viable products at the ready to revolutionise farming worldwide. What is missing are the innovative collaborations between researchers, entrepreneurs and policymakers to scale them up to a make a difference at the same pace and scale of the electric vehicle.

Why does this matter? Like the transport sector, agriculture plays a significant role in climate change, with food systems contributing up to 29 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

And as with the transport sector, the demands on global agriculture are increasing exponentially. With a billion more people to feed by 2030, we will need 13 per cent more food per hectare.

In the meantime, we are facing an increasing number of extreme weather events as the fight continues to limit global warming to less than 2C.

This year alone, almost every continent has suffered from climate-related disasters from droughts across the Horn of Africa to flooding in South Asia. All of these have had an impact on our global food supplies.

But as devastated countries rebuild and others brace themselves for more unpredictable conditions, creating a more sustainable agricultural sector offers the best hope of coping with the impact of climate change.

And climate action through agricultural transformation comes with a whole host of globally beneficial advantages.

For instance, adapting agriculture to climate change through early-maturing and drought-resilient crops helps us to preserve land and water resources without compromising on yield. This will be crucial when it comes to producing more food for a bigger population with finite reserves.

New fertilizer techniques that slow down the conversion of ammonia to nitrogen when applied to crops can also help lower emissions while also improving productivity and sparing the conversion of virgin land to agriculture.