Four ways to invest sustainably in farmland

8 minute read

Bianca McMillan

Associate Director

Agriculture is almost as old as time. Around 12,000 years ago, when the Ice Age came to an end, human beings changed from being nomadic foragers to settlers who grew their own food. Crops and livestock can be traced back to this First Agricultural Revolution - civilisations and their social, economic and political structures then followed.

The Second Agricultural Revolution didn’t occur until thousands of years later, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, when farming became more about business rather than just subsistence. Low-yielding crops were replaced with high-yielding alternatives, chemical fertilisers were developed, and innovative machinery helped increase productivity.

More recently, in the mid-1900s, we experienced the Third Agricultural Revolution – when populations began to focus on self-sufficiency, using modern irrigation systems, pesticides and synthetic fertilsers, as well as genetically engineered crops, to increase yields and reduce the impact of climate and disease.

Today, many argue that we are on the brink of a Fourth Agricultural Revolution, driven by artificial intelligence. But is AI the only answer to the problems we face today?

The Fourth Agricultural Revolution

Since the mid-twentieth century the global population has more than doubled and by 2050, the world needs to increase food production by about 70% to feed a global population of 9.8 billion people. At current levels of productivity, to feed the increased population will require almost 600 million hectares of land to be transformed into agricultural land – roughly double the size of India*.

As solutions go, it’s not idea given agriculture is responsible for c.12% of global greenhouse gas emissions** and is the root cause of 80% of tropical deforestation*** - not to mention being a significant contributor to environmental issues such as water resource depletion, climate change, and land degradation. Increasing agriculture on this scale would also result in many essential ecosystems being destroyed.

So, what should the Fourth Agricultural Revolution achieve? Both food and land sustainability. Here are four examples of investment solutions we’ve investigated at Gravis, to help us achieve that combined goal.

Replacing artificial fertiliser

While anaerobic digestion (AD) is widely seen as a source of renewable energy, as early movers into this space, we’ve also witnessed other potential uses of its by-products.

With a farm-based AD, you take energy crops like maize or grass silage, and manure from livestock, and feed them into a digestor. As the plant and animal matter is digested, a biogas is created, along with a fibrous material known as digestate. The digestate is often seen as a waste byproduct, however it contains valuable nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The digestate can be separated into a solid, which is the undigested fibrous material, and a liquid, which contains the valuable nutrients. The solid is known to be good soil conditioner, adding carbon and material back into the earth, and the liquid can be used as an artificial fertiliser, so reducing or replacing previously used artificial fertilisers that are generally imported, and which use fossil fuels in their production.

What’s more, you can create a virtuous circle – returning the digestate to the same farmers who provide the feed crop in the first place, improving their soils and increasing crop yields whilst avoiding fossil fuel-based fertilisers. Not only do the farmers receive a reliable income by providing feed stock to AD plants, they can also operate the plant giving them diversification and the security of income that comes with long term contracts and visibility of cash flows.

There are ongoing studies looking at increasing the nutrient recovery of the digestate produced, with the potential to further dry the material to produce organic pellets.

Growing sustainable packaging

Miscanthus Giganteas, or Elephant Grass, is a tall, dry and very hardy crop that can grow on low grade land. It has numerous high value applications. As a permanent crop, its root systems can act as a carbon sink. The crop that is harvested every year can be used to make sustainable packing, replacing single-use plastics. Such sustainable packaging is already in use – but much of it is currently imported from the Middle and Far East, so locally grown miscanthus can help further reduce the carbon footprint of sustainable packaging. The fibrous pulp can also be used in the paper industry and the miscanthus fibres can be used in the construction and built environment sectors.

Its fast-growing and perennial nature means that cane growth can be harvested annually without the need for lifting and replanting of crops and with minimal maintenance and irrigation requirements. Using miscanthus to create sustainable packaging or within the construction sector means the carbon is locked up in the final end-products until they are either recycled, composted or processed as waste.

Hydroponic farming

Growing cress on cotton wool in an eggshell is a popular lesson at primary school and one that arguably has evolved on an industrial scale with the invention of hydroponic farming: a method of growing food with water, nutrients, and light, but no soil.

Because it takes place in a controlled environment, you can get the right nutrients to the right roots at the right time and in the right volume. Considerably less water and fertiliser is used, there is no soil degradation or biodiversity loss (in fact large areas of land could potentially be restored to natural landscape in the future), the growing season can be increased from one or two harvests a year to year-round food production and the need for large-scale use of pesticides and herbicides could be eliminated.

Hydroponic farming was already gaining traction, but interest has increased considerably since food security became more of an issue and consumers have become more concerned about food miles. Due to the benefits of hydroponic farming, with its greater control of water and nutrients, it is possible to combine it with other forms of controlled environment agriculture, such as glasshouses with LED lighting to enhance natural light, or vertical farms which rely solely on LED lighting. In this way, it is possible to increase the number of growing cycles in a year, producing sustainable crops at anytime and anywhere.

Biodiversity credits

A global land grab has been underway for some time now, as countries around the world look to increase their farmland and house a growing population. Not only have rainforests been sacrificed, but also hedge rows, meadow lands and peat bogs. The resulting deforestation has been a key driver in the global loss of habitats and biodiversity and it’s only now that it is beginning to dawn on people that food or no food, without biodiversity there is no human race anyway.

Just as it took government support and consumer demand to jump start renewable energy, so the same is needed for biodiversity. In the UK, for example, the Environment Act 2021 created the obligation for building developers to increase biodiversity on land they develop. For anything more than a single dwelling, the developer has to first benchmark the existing biodiversity and deliver and maintain a 10% biodiversity net gain as part of the development.

In effect, the government is creating a market, which leads to investment opportunities. Housing developers don’t want to have an obligation to create, manage and maintain biodiversity for the next 30 years, particularly if they have to do so on scale. Instead, they can buy credits and outsource the responsibility. This market came into effect in February this year, so is still very nascent.

Find out more about Gravis’s investment products, including Gravis Net Zero Capital, here.

Important Information

This article has been prepared by Gravis Capital Management Ltd (the “Investment Manager” or “Gravis”) and is for information purposes only. 

This article is not intended for distribution to, or use by, any person or entity in any jurisdiction or country where such distribution or use would be contrary to local law or regulation. Any recipients of this article outside the UK should inform themselves of and observe any applicable legal or regulatory requirements in their jurisdiction, and are treated as having represented that they are able to receive this article without contravention of any law or regulation in the jurisdiction in which they reside or conduct business.

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Gravis Capital Management Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority; registered in England and Wales No: 10471852 and its principal place of business is at 24 Savile Row, London W1S 2ES.


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