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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Alex Soros should deploy big bucks against climate change

When George Soros announced his plan to cede control of his philanthropic empire, his 37-year-old son Alex inherited a $25 billion war chest. In the US, Democrats cheered and Republicans sneered when the scion said he would be “more political" than his father in his leadership of family’s Open Society Foundation, which for decades has funded causes from abortion rights to voting access and climate change.

There’s no question that this young firebrand can wield influence over American politics and other endeavours. His father contributed to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, ‘broke’ the Bank of England, committed hundreds of millions to fight racial inequality and is a big donor to Democratic campaigns. But the most effective path forward for the Soros heir would be to achieve his grand goals in a way that is less politically divisive, and he can start by focusing on a forgotten part of his father’s portfolio that will play a big role in solving the climate crisis: agriculture.

In the past two decades, George Soros invested in vast tracts of farmland worldwide, from a 70,000-acre soybean plantation in Louisiana to roughly half a million acres of cattle, grain, dairy and ethanol production across South America via Adecoagro SA, an Argentinian company in which Soros once owned a 23% stake. And Soros Fund Management has been a significant stakeholder in agriculture and food giants like Archer-Daniels-Midland, General Mills and Kellogg. But in recent years, the elder Soros reduced or sold many of these land ventures and stock holdings.

Agriculture is now on the brink of a shift toward sustainable practices and climate-smart technologies, and Alex Soros has an opportunity to revive his father’s role here. He can leverage his clout to help transform an industry that conservatives hold dear and that badly needs to be modernized. Shrewd investments in both large-scale agribusiness and community farms could help Soros address the growing crises of hunger and poverty, while also supporting development in US agricultural states that tend to vote Republican. Such a focus would help rural voters prosper and build bipartisan goodwill, which will be essential to the future of US democracy.

Alex must also recognize that the single biggest threat of climate change is the collapse of food systems. And while agriculture is a contributor to the climate crisis, it is poised to help with carbon sequestration. The elder Soros has expressed concerns over climate change. He recently called it, together with AI and Russia’s Ukraine invasion, part of a “polycrisis" that could threaten democracy. At the recent Munich Security Conference, he said that “our civilization is in danger of collapsing because of the inexorable advance of climate change." He went on to promote a strategy of cooling the Arctic using an unproven process known as “marine cloud brightening" that would deflect the sun’s rays and shield melting ice.

Before young Soros goes headlong down the inchoate path of geoengineering, he should consider solutions that are safer, proven and affordable—many of them in agriculture. If managed wisely, the world’s farmland may be able to draw down as much CO2 as the total amount emitted by transport or nearly as much as the global electricity industry. He could also support climate-smart measures in the 2023 Farm Bill, pushing for tax credits for sustainable and smaller-scale farming and meat processing. He could also advocate bold immigration law reforms to protect legions of undocumented workers on US farms.

There are also high-tech investment opportunities that could help modernize farming. Soros could fund research and startups working on the development of next-level, climate-smart technologies such as drones, cellular agriculture and vertical farms. He could back gene-editing tools like Crispr that are giving us climate-resilient crop varieties and ‘blue tech’ innovations such as recycled wastewater, desalination plants and hyper-efficient irrigation technologies.

About 30% of US farmland is owned by landlords who aren’t farmers, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (who is now the largest private farmland owner in the country). While Gates has done important work advancing sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia through his foundation, he has done little to model climate-smart strategies on his own land. Such landowners are so far removed from the land itself and often don’t have much incentive to value the planet over profit.

If Alex Soros wants to shake up politics, he’ll be guided by his father’s words: Democracy and our planet cannot survive problems stemming from negligence. The heir could lead the way with a strategy that unites people.

Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate.


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Updated: 20 Jun 2023, 12:45 AM IST
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