Climate technology and women

Thomas Mucha, Geopolitical Strategist
Molly Breiner, Sector Lead, Private Climate Investing (Sector focus: Food & Agriculture)
2024-03-08T11:30:00-05:00  | S3:E3  | 25:40

The views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk.

Episode notes

Given the outsized effects of climate change on women and families, climate technology may be an avenue to better outcomes. Sector lead Molly Breiner joins host Thomas Mucha to break down the growing market and investment case for private climate tech.

2:00 Professional background
5:00 Climate, women, and agriculture
7:25 Founders and the gravity of climate change
10:00 Promising agriculture technologies
14:00 Benefits to women and families
18;50 Rise of female leaders in venture
20:20 ESG integration and women
21:50 Personal role models and mentors


MOLLY BREINER: At the end of the day, if we continue with the practices that we have, and we currently do some people believe that we only have 60 harvests left. And that's a pretty daunting number to look out on. So, it's more of a necessity than anything else. When you think about the word "sustainable," that means long-term and enduring, and that's what we need to be able to continue to feed a population over the next handful of decades.

THOMAS MUCHA: "While climate change affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally." That's a quote from the United Nations, and an aphorism that isn't as widely appreciated as it should be. Emerging markets in agriculture-dependent economies are affected to a greater extent than developed markets, for example. And women, broadly speaking, face more acute climate challenges than men, as women are often responsible for supplying household food, water, energy, and health care, all of which of course are affected by climate change. As more and more technological innovations to help us adapt to climate change emerge, private investors are often the first to understand the potential. So joining me today to talk about climate risk, gender disparities, and how all of this intersects with innovation, is Molly Breiner, sector lead for food and agriculture on Wellington's private climate investing team. Molly, it's great to have you here, and welcome to WellSaid.

MOLLY BREINER: Thomas, it's great to be here.

THOMAS MUCHA: All right, Molly. Let's start with the big picture. So how did you decide to focus on climate technology investing?

MOLLY BREINER: It’s a great question. I'd say I definitely took an atypical approach to landing myself in venture. I started out as an equity analyst at Franklin Templeton. And I think while that was a great foundation for me to learn about public companies, how to invest and underwrite into different types of business models, I really wanted to go deep in a sector. And that sector for me for a long time has been in the food systems. Food, sits at the intersection of two major crises and opportunities that we have, right? Like you think about our health care crisis, really the foundation of that is what we put in our bodies and the food we eat. And we've got a population with shorter life expectancies than previous generations. And we've got a rising obesity crisis, as a lot of people are talking about in this current market. And then we've got the crisis we have with our planet. So over half of our arable land is used for agriculture. We've created an extractive process in agriculture. And as we continue to see a growing population that we need to feed, those practices are no longer sustainable. So, I really wanted to be part of the change and the opportunity in that space. I worked in major multinationals like Unilever and Danone, worked at startups that were really on the cutting edge, and that's where I really cut my teeth in a venture-backed startup world. And then ended up at Danone's venture arm, investing in the intersection of people health and planet health.

THOMAS MUCHA: So you like to be in the middle of things?

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah, I like to be where the action is.

THOMAS MUCHA: So, how'd that translate into a career at Wellington?

MOLLY BREINER: Ah, great question. I believe that our expertise at Wellington around climate change and the physical risks are bar none. So in working with Woodwell Climate Research Center and with some large institutional partners that we have in understanding the physical risks of climate change, and leveraging that, both into understanding how it impacts the public markets, all asset classes, really, and how we can invest into solutions, both for mitigation and adaptation have been really validated, both in my process in evaluating and coming here. I'd say also I have the opportunity to work with investors who I'm honored to learn from, day-in and day-out. And I'd be remiss not to mention the leadership here. So the month that I joined, which was coming up on three years ago, was also the month that Jean officially took the reins as CEO.


MOLLY BREINER: The one and only. And that I think is just an incredible indicator for me of the forward-thinking and commitment that this organization has to things like gender equality. Fast-forward a year later, we also have a female CFO. And as a woman in finance, who as we'll talk about, there's still certainly a minority there, I think these are great beacons for me from an institutional standpoint. And then lastly would be joining the private climate investment platform, a pretty foundational privates platform, is really exciting.

THOMAS MUCHA: So that brings us to today's topic, climate change, and why its outsized impacts on women are so important to understand. So, let's start, of course, with your main area of expertise, agriculture. Molly, give us some more insight on the challenges that climate change presents for agriculture worldwide. I mean, what are the main impacts here?

MOLLY BREINER: You and I have talked about in the past that climate change is the biggest threat multiplier in everything from socioeconomic stability to political stability, to kind of social uprise and upheaval. And typically, when you see that level of unrest, it tends to have a disproportionate effect on gender and gender inequalities. And that comes front-and-center in agriculture. So in lower-income countries, agriculture is actually the biggest employment sector for women. And as you see climate change wreaking havoc in so many different ways; so you've got crop failure, you've got wildfires, droughts, excessive heat all making for challenges around how we grow and harvest, the women who do this in lower-income countries really bear the brunt of that. And then you mentioned earlier, women are also responsible for the collection of food and water and fuel for their families, or their villages. And this is obviously very closely overlapped in how they're able to do their jobs in agriculture and also able to tend and support their families.

THOMAS MUCHA: So why is it so important to keep women and children in the mix in this discussion? Is this part of the business case?

MOLLY BREINER: I would say, I think keeping women in mind the technologies that we have today, and the technologies that we're looking to invest in, often they're not at the forefront. But what we need are these innovations and technologies to scale so that we can take them from developed countries, and get them down a cost curve, or up a productivity curve, so that we can then scale them into developing markets. That's very much part of our thesis and our focus.

THOMAS MUCHA: And women are consumers of these technologies?

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah, certainly. I mean, look, the way we think about climate change and climate tech is that it's in every sector, and everywhere. And so in a lot of ways, we take an agnostic approach to a gender focus on who the ultimate consumer is. But knowing that they are often so much the driving force in things like agriculture and in things particularly in the consumer sector as well, driving the majority of household purchases, et cetera, they are often part of the consideration set.

THOMAS MUCHA: So, you just mentioned threat multiplier. And yes, you and I talk about this all the time. This intersection of climate change and national security is a key part of my geopolitical research. Obviously, there's a bunch of national security implications here. But the policymakers that I'm speaking with are particularly concerned about climate migration. And we're already seeing rising tensions as people are fleeing climate-challenged regions, either because they can no longer make a living in agriculture, as you say, or they're worried about having enough food to feed their family. So, I'm curious, as you work with founders of companies focused on climate adaptation technologies, how are they thinking about the gravity of this situation?

MOLLY BREINER: I think this is what's so inspiring for so many founders in this space. Which is, we have a massive opportunity, and it really sits in the foundations of our needs, right? Like at the core of human condition, we need water, shelter, and food. And so, food is, as you mentioned, a great concern to so many sovereign states on food production and sourcing. And we see this happening real-time with things like Russia/Ukraine, and global wheat prices, importing and exporting. I think this is all going to continue to play a bigger role as we've talked about. And I think founders see the opportunity here. And that opportunity manifests in a number of different ways and shapes and forms, whether it's complete disruption of how we grow things or the evolution of things like agriculture. So if you look at what we've brought into the industrialization of agriculture, it's now the “4.0” of ag in terms of, how do we take data and digitalization and analytics, and use those to continue to drive yield and productivity up while being less extractive in our processes as well.

THOMAS MUCHA: So there's an opportunity to do well and do good at the same time, and that's a driver for founder motivations?

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah, at the end of the day, if we continue with the practices that we have, and we currently do some people believe that we only have 60 harvests left.1 And that's a pretty daunting number to look out on. So, it's more of a necessity than anything else. When you think about the word "sustainable," that means long-term and enduring, and that's what we need to be able to continue to feed a population over the next handful of decades.

THOMAS MUCHA: So Molly, let's dig a little bit more into some of these promising solutions that are in development, or on the horizon. I mean which ones to you offer the most promise when we're thinking about alleviating some of these significant challenges?

MOLLY BREINER: I sort of look at the space and break it up into three key buckets. The first would be, what I'll call the livestock transition, or the protein transition. Not only do we need to feed a growing population, which means we have an expected increase of 50 percent more food demands and caloric demands by 2050, but a 70 percent increase in protein over that same time horizon. And today, livestock takes up actually 80 percent of all the agricultural land that we use today. And that's unsustainable. So, our options are continue to grow acreage, which usually comes at the expense of things like the rainforest, which has additional knock-on effects to climate change and only exacerbates that problem. And we're seeing a yield drag, right? So as we start to approach yield productivity in things like major row crops, which are the core feed stock for animals, we need to start to look at other solutions, and other technologies.

THOMAS MUCHA: What are some of those substitutes, then?

MOLLY BREINER: I think the world of alternative proteins is certainly in the trough of disillusionment right now, on the hype cycle. I think consumers have a lot of expectations of what they want and need out of their protein consumption, and it's deeply embedded in culture and in family, in how we think about and consume our protein. But you like to use the analogy of carbonated soft drinks, and 20 years ago, people were drinking soda regularly and frequently. And if you fast forward to today, the decline in a lot of carbonated soft drinks and the rise in carbonated waters has shown that we can shift behaviors, and we can shift habits quite dramatically. So as we continue to see a rise in inflation costs in things, like beef and poultry, et cetera we will see consumer demands need to shift into other alternatives. And so, I'm still quite positive on some of the technologies that exist in alternative proteins.

THOMAS MUCHA: So what are some of these? I mean which ones taste good?

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah, so, we're particularly excited with technology around mycelium, which is the root of a mushroom. And that infrastructure; the way a mushroom grows, it's actually the fibers are long and filamentous. And that has a much better analogue to animal protein than plants. Plants proteins are actually round and mushroom proteins are long and filamentous. And so, we need to take consumers along on a journey with taste and texture mirroring what they're most familiar with. I think there's a lot of opportunity in the world of mycelium.

THOMAS MUCHA: I love mycelium on pizza. What about insect? In my field, I hear a lot about the push for eating other creatures that are out there that are more sustainable. How does that play out in this context?

MOLLY BREINER: Calorie conversion for a cow, is for every 40 calories we feed a cow, give or take, it's one calorie of human consumption in terms of protein. It's highly inefficient in how we grow and scale our livestock. I don't actually know the calorie conversion for insects, but suffice to say, it is significantly lower. And usually the feed stock for those insects, whether it's mealworms or black soldier flies, it's usually waste, or their feedstock can be a byproduct of a lot of other categories. And so I think there's great potential there. It has necessitated some real scale on the infrastructure side. And while I don't think the adoption will come first and foremost necessarily in human consumption. I don't think we'll all be eating cricket bars in the next five years, I do think there are a lot of ways in which we can leverage that protein for fisheries and for pets as two key areas. And I know there's a handful of other ways in which they're testing parts of the carbohydrates and the protein or the insect meal for other categories and usages.

THOMAS MUCHA: Now on this point of protein transition, are there benefits to women and families? Does this mean lower prices? Does this mean better nutrition, better health? I mean, how does that fit into it?

MOLLY BREINER: It absolutely does. I think we need to make more healthier food, and we need to make that affordably. And, when you think about the cornerstone of nutrition, it so often actually starts with mom thinking about her children. That’s when you see the largest inflection of investment in organic, and in natural, and in whole foods. And as we move away from a diet that is 60, 70 percent processed foods. The standard American diet, which the acronym is actually SAD is a real problem here, and it's a problem for the 50 percent of women who are sole breadwinners and managers of their family, and of their budgets, and how to feed their children sustainably. So, yes, as we think about the need to feed people more healthily, we also need to do that more affordably, and continue to scale that.

THOMAS MUCHA: So, you mentioned that there were three categories here when we're talking about technologies. We've covered protein.


THOMAS MUCHA: What's the next one?

MOLLY BREINER: The next one would be food waste. And so, if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter after the US and China. We waste anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of all our food. And a majority of that happens upstream on the farm, and also downstream in consumer behavior, so whether that's in food service, restaurant, or at home. We are quite excited about a lot of opportunity, both in helping shrink that supply chain, so how do we get food from the farmer, more directly into the world of consumption, in retail, and in grocery, and in food service? And through that, we've seen a handful of different innovations that we're excited about.

THOMAS MUCHA: And what about the third?

MOLLY BREINER: And the third we've talked a lot about agriculture, but agriculture 4.0, so what does precision farming look like? How do we take digitization and connectivity, so things like remote sensing and crop analytics. There’s a lot of interest there. I think we're in many ways just seeing the wave of taking that data collection and really building those actions into insights. One great example of that would be see-and-spray. So as we have more sensors on the tractors, those sensors are enabling, real-time, much more precision around things like herbicides and pesticides. To be able to use less chemicals and use them more effectively.

THOMAS MUCHA: So changing what we eat, making the farmers more efficient, and wasting less of it, those are the three categories?

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah, I mean it's essentially, how do we grow it, how do we move it, and how do we eat it?

THOMAS MUCHA: Perfect. All right, so you know, the private climate team's opportunity set here goes beyond that, right? It also includes consumer goods. Can you give us an example of a climate-related innovation that could benefit women? You know, back to our topic.

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah, so, one of the areas that we see a lot of issues in, is in the linear economy in retail and apparel. Ninety percent of all the textiles that we produce end up in a landfill.2 And those landfills are increasingly in low-income countries. And so, you know, we here in the developed countries have actually moved our problem. We are, in fact, running out of landfill area domestically and are shipping those textiles and those wastes to areas in which largely women are having to move and transport and manage these massive landfills. And so I think just from an international perspective, what we do with the linear economy touches so many different regions globally. And so with that, you know, the counter to that is, A, consume less. But consumers are headed in the opposite direction. We've seen the massive rise of fast fashion. We've seen an increase in consumption. Whereas 30 years ago, we used to buy, call it 30 garments, we now buy 10x that amount in a year. And so this very high consumptive behavior. Yes, we can work on ways to consume less, but I think we also need to drive a circular economy. And so we are quite excited about the opportunity in resale, and in identifying ways in which we can activate a consumer's closet. We can bring that back out into an economy and transact for people. And we're definitely seeing a population, so millennials and Gen Zs who have a much higher interest in this resale thrifting world. A, because it costs less, so you're able to buy higher, better-quality products at a discount. And then B, I think there's this this treasure-trove idea, and this way of being able to find products that you're bringing new life to.

THOMAS MUCHA: And it's cool too.

MOLLY BREINER: Totally cool.

THOMAS MUCHA: All right, so given the potential benefits to women of climate technology, what are you seeing in terms of female leaders in this space? Is this becoming, you know, less of a boy's club?

MOLLY BREINER: Look, I think that if you take a macro perspective, I'd say climate tech is similar to what's happening in broader venture. And then what's happening more broadly in the economy, which is more and more women are the majority of graduates from undergraduate degrees, and from graduate degrees. And I think you will find more women in climate tech because they see, just like you and I, that this is a massive problem with a lot of areas of opportunity. I'd also say that climate tech isn't just one sector. And so as we look out, it's any industry. And the opportunity exists, not just clean tech 1.0 and renewable energy. And in fact, I worked at a solar startup before business school, and semiconductors and German subsidies were not exactly lighting my fire. So, I've found my way into climate tech through a different sector and a different industry, and I think we'll continue to see that. And we'll see solutions and founders and entrepreneurs, and female GPs and investors come into this category, because the opportunity is quite large.

THOMAS MUCHA: Is there an equivalent to tech bros?

MOLLY BREINER: You know, all I can say is I'm very glad that I don't hear, you know, mom-preneurship and She-EO anymore. I'm glad we can put those to bed. So maybe we'll come up with the cool verbiage...

THOMAS MUCHA: We'll work on that.

MOLLY BREINER: ...sometime soon, yeah.

THOMAS MUCHA: Okay Molly, I know ESG integration is also part of your investment process, mainly because of the financial risks these issues can pose for companies, for investors. There's lot of E,S, and G issues in agriculture and consumer-sector supply chains that are specific to women. What do you see as the most financially material gender-related ESG issue that can trip companies up? And how does your team engage on those with boards and management teams?

MOLLY BREINER: Our partners within the firm and more broadly recognize and understand that I think diversity in the governance level is really where so much of this starts. And you need to have board diversification, management team diversification, because those lead to higher and better outcomes. And that has been proven in the public markets, as well as the private markets. And so as think about taking our companies on a journey towards scale and growth and into the public markets, we are very much working with them on how they can bring that diversification to get the highest best use out of a board, and out of a management team.

THOMAS MUCHA: What kind of reception do you get?

MOLLY BREINER: Very positive. Especially when you look at the intersection of climate solutions, and thinking about the potential impact, and as we've mentioned, who is largely exposed to that? It is women, it is people in emerging markets. The two tend to go hand in hand in wanting to solve for and enable at the management level, and at the output and operational level.

THOMAS MUCHA: So you're pushing on an open door, so to speak?


THOMAS MUCHA: All right, last question, Molly. And I'll stick to the theme here. Who have been some of your most important female role models, or mentors? And what are the biggest lessons that you've learned from them?

MOLLY BREINER: I guess I'd start with my mom. She is still practicing as a sole practitioner and a doctor. And I've seen what she's been able to do, and how she's managed her career and changed and touched the lives of so many people, while also caring and continuing to care for her children and her grandchildren, all while also having hobbies and passions. So it definitely kind of started there. And my two sisters, one of whom is a marketing executive, and the other an entrepreneur. I would say also, being a female athlete in college it teaches you grit. It teaches you mental toughness. There's a really interesting stat. I think it's like 50 percent of all female CEOs played high school and college sports.

THOMAS MUCHA: What sport?

MOLLY BREINER: I played lacrosse in college. And, I think it prepares you for the working world. A coach is like a boss in many ways, your teammates. We also call them teammates here, and I look around and see where so many of those women that I went to college with and business school with who are today doctors, lawyers, CFOs, heads of marketing, and entrepreneurs, and they fuel me. They fuel me to continue to do what I want to do, and drive and make change and be successful, and model that for another generation.

THOMAS MUCHA: And it's collaborative, right? And that's one of the great things about the Wellington culture, so that's a really good answer for this podcast, Molly.

MOLLY BREINER: Yeah. Exactly.

THOMAS MUCHA: All right, well once again, Molly Breiner, sector lead for food and agriculture on Wellington's private climate investing team. Thanks for being with us on WellSaid.

MOLLY BREINER: Thanks, Thomas.

1 Philip Lambey. Sixty Harvests Left: How to reach a nature-friendly future. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.; Chris Arsenault. “Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues,” Scientific American, 14 December 2014.
2 “Europe dumps 90% of used clothes in Africa & Asia,” Business Insider Africa, 19 May 2023.; “10 Concerning Fast Fashion Waste Statistics,”, 21 August 2023.

Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced March 2024.

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Molly Breiner
Sector Lead, Private Climate Investing (Sector focus: Food & Agriculture)