Elemental Q&A

Trends in Food, Agriculture, and Nature-Based Solutions with Mitch Rubin

March 10, 2022

· 8 min read
The Elemental Team

As we recruit for Elemental’s Cohort 11, we spoke with each of our Directors of Innovation about what they’re looking to fund this year, what motivates them in their work, and much more. If you are an innovator interested in redesigning our food & agriculture systems and developing nature-based solutions with our Director of Innovation Mitch Rubin, learn more about our funding opportunities and apply today!

What inspired you to work fighting climate change?

If I had to chalk it up to concrete moments of inspiration, I would say there are three books that really shaped my path toward working in climate change. The first was The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, which woke me up to just how bad it can get, the different tipping points that can be reached, and the small window of time we have left to turn the tide. I was working at Chobani at the time, managing their incubator programs for food/ag entrepreneurs. Reading this book was kind of like the moment in The Matrix when Neo is given the choice of the red and blue pill. I chose the red pill and have been diving down the rabbit hole ever since :).

While I was at graduate school deepening my knowledge of how climate change impacts agriculture and learning about the possibilities of carbon removal, I read Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Even as it outlined the glaring emissions from our legacy systems, it brought in a sense of optimism grounded in the variety of technologies and solutions to decarbonize, reduce the “green premium,” and reach a net-zero future. It was clear to me that I wanted to be a part of scaling these solutions, which led me to Elemental!

There are amazing, talented people working to redesign all the elements of our emissions-intensive system.

More recently, I finished reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s a treasure trove of wisdom and helped cement my understanding that all life (especially plants) is interconnected, technology can’t solve everything, we need to work with nature rather than against it, and we need to design solutions for, by, and with indigenous communities.

What’s the best part of working with founders?

Throughout my career I’ve worked at several early-stage startups, and I love channeling that energy by getting into the nitty gritty with founders. I think the best part of working with entrepreneurs is the collective problem solving: designing their demonstration projects, diving into their go-to-market strategies, collectively refining their investor pitches. You get to be a part of the team, and with that, get to celebrate their successes and support them through rough patches.

What’s one thing about climate innovation that you wish more people knew?

That there’s hope! There’s so much doom and gloom in the media these days about climate change — and rightly so — but there needs to be more coverage about all the bright spots of climate innovation taking place. There are amazing, talented people working to redesign all the elements of our emissions-intensive system. Learning about things like green hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, carbon capture and removal, and regenerative agriculture brings a sense of hope, and ultimately, individual agency that we should all continue tapping into.

Mitch Rubin at a farm that’s using agroforestry
Mitch at a farm that’s using agroforestry

What areas in food, agriculture, and nature-based solutions are ripe for innovation in 2022?

Food & Agriculture: I’m excited to fund solutions that build a more climate-resilient food system and help farmers transition to regenerative practices that restore land, promote biodiversity, sequester carbon, and improve economic livelihoods. It’s expensive for individual farmers to make this switch — and there is a $700b gap needed to transition the US’s agricultural system to regenerative — so we need to find ways to decrease the “green premium” and increase revenues for those who adopt sustainable systems. At the same time, we need to scale new food technologies that can ensure greater food security. In particular, we’re looking to fund the following solutions (though this list is certainly not exhaustive):

  • Sustainable inputs: Synthetic fertilizer, which is created using fossil fuels and releases powerful nitrous oxide (NO2) into the atmosphere, accounts for 20% of all agricultural emissions, and 2.4% of global GHGs. Not to mention a litany of water quality and ecosystem issues caused by leaching. We need to replace synthetic fertilizers (while matching yields and price) with sustainable inputs, such as biologicals, biochar, manure, and other types of soil amendments.
  • On-farm automation: Agriculture is facing steep labor shortages, low wages, and increasingly harsh working conditions as extreme heat intensifies on the fields. While it’s important to keep in mind challenges to automation technology around job elimination, robotics that help with manual labor like carrying bushels and weeding can support the tasks of many farmworkers, enabling better working conditions and higher productivity. The potential result is higher wages in a more equitable working environment.
  • Measurement, reporting, and verification: To financially reward farmers for enhancing their soil through regenerative practices, we need to help them measure, report, and verify (MRV) the increased soil organic matter, insect and aviary biodiversity, nutrient density, and other indicative metrics of healthy soil. This allows farmers to become eligible for more favorable loans, get compensated through carbon credits, and even better, receive certifications that enable pricing premiums and increased sales.
  • Biodiverse crops: Just four crops provide 60% of the world’s calories. Impacts on any one can have disastrous implications for global food security, which is increasingly likely due to rising heat and drought. We need to build greater climate resilience (and disincentivize deforestation) by creating demand for diverse, low impact, and regeneratively-produced ingredients.
  • Alternative proteins: New methods of producing proteins are a critical piece of the climate resilience equation. One third of crop land in the U.S. is dedicated to feeding livestock, while only a fifth is used for domestic food consumption. That’s extremely inefficient, and land use changes to grow soy and other feed crops contribute significantly to global warming (along with direct livestock emissions). As global demand for meat and dairy grows, we need to support emerging, scalable methods for producing proteins, including fermentation and other plant-based techniques.

Nature-based solutions: Despite uncertainties around measurement, permanence, and greenwashing concerns, nature-based solutions and the co-benefits they provide are essential to our livelihoods and need to be valued accordingly. As we lose forests, coral reefs, wetlands, and healthy soils, we release carbon into the atmosphere and become more exposed to climate-induced hazards, particularly in frontline island communities like Hawai’i. Nature-based solutions like kelp, forests, and soil can protect biodiversity, provide healthy food and clean water, improve coastal and inland resilience to natural disasters, and hold important cultural significance. We need solutions that help sequester carbon and enhance ecosystems.

  • Created by and with indigenous communities: As the original stewards of land, indigenous people know how interconnected natural systems are. At the same time, they are often disproportionately affected by global warming and other unintended consequences from our extractive tendencies. I’m especially interested in solutions that are designed and deployed collectively with indigenous people, tribal organizations, and other frontline communities.
  • Land and ocean-based carbon dioxide removal: Each year the ocean sequesters ~9 GT CO2e, while soils, forests, and vegetation take in another 12 GT CO2e. We need to both protect these natural carbon sinks from releasing more carbon, and enhance their ability to remove and store additional carbon. Nature-based techniques, which can and should be supplemented with emerging technologies, include enhanced weathering, ocean alkalinity enhancement, kelp and blue carbon protection, regenerative agriculture, biochar, reforestation, and more.
  • Innovative conservation business models: Nearly 75% of nature-based solutions rely partially on grant funding, and almost half are entirely dependent on it. We need to funnel more capital into conservation and biodiversity initiatives, particularly through self-sufficient business models. Revenue from carbon credits offer one pathway, but businesses that have additional and/or alternative revenue streams and clear ecosystem benefits are particularly exciting.
Mitch Rubin at the Chobani factory
Mitch at the Chobani factory

⚡️ Lightning round:

Best thing you’ve watched this year? Hip Hop Evolution documentary series. Such a good history lesson.

Favorite way to spend a day off? Making breakfast, reading in the park, winding up near the ocean at some point, and eating fresh pasta for dinner.

Worst job you’ve ever had? While interning for an advertising agency, I once had to design a bike route across the entire U.S. with accompanying Google Street View images.

What’s your superpower? “Superpower” might be a bit strong, but I fancy myself pretty good at Scattergories.

What can you eat an infinite amount of? French fries.

What’s your “dance like nobody’s watching” song? I’ve got too many of these, but a couple of my favorites are “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake and “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé and Jay-Z.