Going round in circles

I’ve just finished refilling my Ecover washing up liquid bottle at work. Here in our shared office facilities our landlord is trying to get us all to go green and so has invested in a large returnable drum of Ecover from which we can all recharge our plastic bottles and avoid yet more plastic into land-fill.

My eco-crusade doesn’t stop there. In the past month we’ve stopped buying milk from the supermarket and I’m now popping into our local dairy farm on the way home and refilling glass bottles from their state-of-the art milk dispensing machine (at twice the price I might add).

Now I haven’t done the carbon calculations on any of this but what I do know is the amount of plastic we are getting through as a family has reduced significantly with just these two simple changes in habit.

At a time when Greta Thunberg is making waves across the Atlantic (literally) and movements like Extinction Rebellion are on the front pages, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the planet is in crisis.

So what does this mean for agriculture?

Those who have far better crystal balls than I do are suggesting that the future of business and the economy will be in what’s known as Circular Design. Unlike our current linear way of living (design, consume, throw away – or at best recycle), Circular Design is based on the rationale of there being no more waste, only the recycling of nutrients with a goal of arresting resource depletion and exploitation. Global sailing icon Ellen MacArthur is one of the big names leading the charge.

If the recycling of nutrients and a sustainable approach to our use of natural resources is the ambition, then agriculture must be central to the mission. And that’s the bit as someone in the agtech sector that excites me.

In an increasingly data-driven world, the opportunities for machine learning and AI to help us rethink the way we do things are growing by the day. As producers of food we are already seeing the norms of food production being challenged – impossible burgers, vertical farming and insect protein to name three. Whether these are truly “circular” I can’t say but they do signal the start of a revolution that is challenging what the farming sector has done for generations – and to traditionalists it feels uncomfortable.

But the truth is there isn’t a future in comfortable. We have such an existential crisis in an environmental sense that the rule book must be ripped up and those that tear the hardest are likely to win out.

To me that means adoption of smart, data-driven tech is an obligation not a privilege. It means we need to start collecting data on farm as a matter of urgency to begin to understand the complex dynamics of food production and resource use, and to deploy the best minds and technologies to redesign how we produce what we eat, how we consume it, and how we recharge the environment throughout this process.

We have such an existential crisis in an environmental sense that the rule book must be ripped up and those that tear the hardest are likely to win out.

Myriad projects could and should emerge that can establish the best production systems optimised by machines (sounds scary but isn’t) that calculate the “circularity” of the on-farm choices being made and that could be tied to market incentives for those that are indeed truly circular.

Imagine a future where data (privacy compliant of course) from your car, home and elsewhere is all linked up to the decisions you make about what you buy. In other words, the way in which you acquire and consume a product (food and non-food) is a dynamic calculation based on its own production history and your subsequent behaviours with it. Your “circularity” could become a badge of honour.

Governments the world over must incentivise the farming sector to make a step change. It is not good enough (in fact shameful) that something like 75% of the UK’s farmers do no electronic data recording at all. That might be fine to run an individual farm but it’s a collective disgrace when you look at the lost opportunity in a sustainability sense. Instrumenting farms and gathering good data is essential.

So as I take my refilled bottle of Ecover home via the milk dispensing machine, I can’t help but wonder what things will look like in five to 10 years from now. If it’s more of the same then we will all have failed. But if I and my children become more enthralled by sharing on social media how “circular” we are rather than obsessing about Snapchat streaks and Instagram likes, then that might suggest the tide has turned.

Or to put it another way, MacArthur won’t be the only one going round in circles!

Time to demonstrate sustainable delivery of human nutrition

As the debate about the carbon footprint of livestock farming rages on, I was encouraged to hear a very persuasive presentation from Professor Michael Lee recently.

Michael heads up the team at UK-based Rothamsted Research’s North Wyke site, a world leading centre for farm-scale ruminant livestock production research.

In the past couple of years, North Wyke has had considerable investment in facilities to support its work and it really is an impressive mix of cutting edge science and pragmatic farming knowledge.

So what was Michael saying when it comes to global warming and livestock production? His argument is many of the figures being bandied about are an oversimplification of a complicated subject. But golly did he do a good job of distilling down the key points. It is true he suggested that when you look at simple measures for global warming potential (GWP) such as C02 equivalent/kg of meat product then the much maligned beef and sheep farming systems do fare rather poorly.

But does one kg of beef have the same nutritional value as a kg of chicken? The answer according to his analysis (actually that of his colleagues Graham McAuliffe et al. he respectfully conceded) is no. And here’s why:

Recommended daily intake

The North Wyke scientists have looked at the recommended daily intake (RDI) nutritional requirements of us humans and mapped this across the nutritional content of the different forms of meat (and systems) to produce a nutrient index based on 10 encouraged and two discouraged nutrients. Then they have compared the typical measure of C02 equivalent/kg of meat with a new measure of C02 equivalent/1% RDI and this rather turns some of the analysis on its head.

As the graph below shows, beef which performed rather poorly from a GWP perspective on the old measure (see top chart), comes out best on the new one. That is to say, for every % of RDI we need in our diet, beef production produces fewer kg of C02 than even chicken!

And while lamb might seem to be lagging even in the new analysis, by looking at arable land used to support the various livestock production systems, lamb does best with chicken again performing rather less well than ruminants on the RDI measure.

The point is not to crash the cause of UK poultry (or even pork) production but to point out that ruminant bashing doesn’t stack up on a RDI basis when measuring C02 equivalency. And while human consumption of plant-based products (as opposed to meat) might be even more sustainable, North Wyke’s work provides a strong argument for grass-based ruminant systems on non-arable land, and that’s even before all the negativities associated with potentially ploughing up swathes of pasture land for arable production and releasing tonnes of sequestered carbon.

So why as a technology provider am I interested in this? Well, if here in the UK rewarding farmers for preserving (even building) “natural capital” is going to become the big game in town, then we need some ways to measure it. Right now, to my knowledge, there isn’t a livestock recording software package out there that measures performance based on (for example) delivery of the human RDI index. This seems an enormous opportunity to start creating a tangible link between human nutrition (society), farm productivity (economy) and the environment through an empirically-based approach. Indeed, these were the three pillars of sustainability that Michael opened his presentation with.

Our own pureFarming livestock recording platform is already a feature-rich white-label tool for organisations helping farmers measure, record and monitor livestock performance but how much better could we make it if we added a new set of sustainability metrics to link on-farm production with the delivery of a healthy diet? That would be bringing farmers closer to meeting the needs of the consumer in a scientifically rigorous way.

I feel a project coming on! Anyone?