Why agriculture, why change and why now?
Those who’ve had the opportunity to be bored by my ideas over the last year or so may have picked up on my new found interest in agriculture and farming. This may be a surprise for my more engineering and technology oriented friends, but for others it begs the question — why hasn’t it come sooner? For context, I have family links to a fab little organic farm in Zsambok, Hungary, a place I was able to visit more regularly over the last year. You can check them out online or in person if you fancy a day trip out from Budapest. Along with changes in my professional life and the global pandemic framing everything in a new light, a clear focus is taking shape in my work — investigating the role technology can play in how we produce our food and manage our land in a fair and ecologically sustainable way.
When societies hunkered down around the world in early 2020, we truly came to appreciate the scale and complexity of our distributed food supply chains. So many of us city dwellers take it for granted that we can turn up at a supermarket and have a vast range of fresh (and not so fresh) produce to choose from at illogically low prices, all year round. When disruptions to these long supply chains started to ripple, our deep-rooted instincts kicked in, manifesting themselves in slightly dystopian (and somewhat comic) stock-piling of tinned foods and loo roll.
Lockdowns forced us to slow down and (re)think about the absurdity of some of our habits. Food being such a fundamental part of our life — providing nutrition, enjoyment, health and entertainment, people rightly questioned the sustainability and quality of the produce they were consuming. I see it as a silver lining that a more conscious consumer has emerged on the other side of a challenging 18 months, one who is willing to pay a premium for seasonal, local and ultimately more sustainable produce. I recognise that people have been choosing quality produce well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but maybe influenced by personal experience, I detect a shift in consumer habits. It’s worth mentioning here that I experienced the above and am subsequently writing this from a privileged standpoint. I urge everyone to think about the challenges around access to good quality, locally produced, seasonal, affordable food for all in their communities and change behaviour where appropriate.
As an engineer thinking in terms of systems, I am inevitably drawn to how we make an impact at scale. In particular, I’m drawn towards ideas of applying new models in agriculture — the commercial use of land to produce fresh, healthy food for us all. I’m optimistic that with relatively small shifts in mindsets across consumers, growers and other stakeholder in-between, the potential for impact is huge — simply due to scale. In this post I will briefly share my understanding of what it means to farm land in a way that builds soils instead of depleting them, boosting biodiversity and encouraging healthy, natural ecosystems to thrive while delivering better yields for growers and great produce for all. The potential for these techniques to be framed as climate solutions is incredibly exciting too, particularly when considering global scale. The tools and frameworks that will contribute to their adoption lend themselves to open, community-led technologies, where the role of engineers and makers can start to be (re)defined as collaborators and partners in the shaping of our modern farming future.
Farming as usual
Farming has allowed people to settle into more permanent lifestyles and form communities around favourable, fertile landscapes. Tending to land is as much a fundamental part of our culture, as the resulting food itself is. Human innovation provided better tools and techniques to encourage ever more abundant and varied harvests season after season. This worked fine while global populations were small and intensity of production low. Inevitably though, just like many other aspects of modern life, agriculture too, was shaped and disrupted by a series of industrial revolutions during relatively recent history.
Thanks to the progress of science and engineering, farmers were able to influence their natural surroundings to a greater extent. Economies of scale, modern markets evolved and produce was increasingly being sold to more distant, urban consumers. The Dust Bowl in the Great Plains of North America in the 1930s is a culturally relevant illustration of some severe issues this intensification in agriculture caused, less than 100 years ago. Due to historical and economic factors, farmers were converting native grassland into farmland at an astonishing rate. Deep plowing meant the soil structure was weakened, fields were left bare during winters, the soils’ natural water regulation was disrupted. The resulting wind erosion and droughts caused the displacement of millions of people and inspired cultural figures at the time like John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie to comment on the human side of this tragedy. We now know that this would have caused an immense release of soil carbon into the atmosphere, something we’ve only been concerned with more recently in the context of climate change.
Unfortunately, industrial agriculture has carried on in a similar vein since. Farmers are competing on complex, global markets. They are being forced into unfair positions of choosing between short-term gain (for survival) versus a long-term view of less intensive production that would allow soils to regenerate and build fertility over time. They must make the economics work and compete with nature instead of embracing their role as guardians of the land for future generations to come. They are offered heavy, mechanised tools and chemical inputs to eek out increasingly slim margins from their assets — soil. Allowing this asset to regenerate is a must if we wish to feed ourselves in the coming decades. But in a race for profits, we risk a race to the bottom in terms of food and environmental standards.
It’s clear then that things can’t continue as they are and policy seems to be shifting. Erosion of fertile topsoil is a global issue recognised by the UN, who’s FAO agency believe we only have 60 harvests left if we continue along the current path… a scary thought indeed.
What is regenerative agriculture?
So is it all doom and gloom, I hear you groan? Well, not necessarily.
Our planet has tools at its disposal that are not revolutionary at all. In fact, they’ve been around way before humans cultivated land. Natural ecosystems have an amazing ability to regenerate and regain balance, often doing this faster without human intervention than with it. The benefits are becoming increasingly clear when evaluating them through the modern scientific lens of measurement and analysis. Meanwhile, previously radical ideas like rewilding are becoming household names, thanks to good work by everyone’s favourite public service broadcast titan, David Attenborough.
Agriculture is a little different however. If we let nature completely take over, we could never harvest enough food to feed our huge global populations. We must find ways to work in collaboration with our natural environments instead of against them and harness the power of the ‘factory default’ regenerative processes. And if our aim is to feed people, crops will have to be grown and so, the story must start with soil.
In short, regenerative agriculture is all about building up soils instead of depleting them. Healthy soils are full of life and species, sometimes even more so below the surface than above. When soils are living and healthy they are teeming with activity — insect and bacterial life depend on a tight networks of mychorrizal fungi and plant roots. These roots are the infrastructure to transport and manage the flow of water and nutrients for plants to grow above ground and roots to push down further into the soil. Organic matter is created through chemical processes, helping crops grow when planted with all the inputs needed for growth already in place — nutrition rich, moisture regulated soils with structure. Such soils are abundant, resilient to disease and erosion from water or wind and help crops grow fast and strong. They also lock away atmospheric carbon in significant quantities.
This last point is an incredibly powerful attribute — for those who believe we must reverse the emission of greenhouse gases. Sure, on an individual plant basis the amount of carbon stored is miniscule. But if we scale our thinking across all land cultivated for agriculture across the globe, the potential impact is staggering. What’s even more dizzying is the speed at which this regeneration and subsequent acceleration of the carbon drawdown cycle can happen.
Introducing crop rotations allow soils to rebalance nutrients over a cycle of seasons. Planting cover crops in winter provides the ground with a protective layer against diseases. Using roller crimpers to manage weed growth and seed drills for planting, soil root systems aren’t disturbed and are allowed to expand further over seasons — further speeding up the carbon drawdown cycle. With livestock, natural fertilisers can be applied directly onto pasture land through intensive or mob grazing. The result is more fertile ground with more resilient, bountiful yields. More crop diversification means that farms can start to explore new revenue streams and be more financially resilient across seasons. All that is needed is for farmers and growers to be incentivised and motivated enough to start transitioning towards these more ecologically-rooted farming practices. They also need proof that when they make the transition they aren’t the only ones taking risks.
Policy and markets recognising the benefits
Modern commercial farming is a precarious business. There are risks to mitigate, margins to manage and forecasts to make. Expecting individual farmers to take on even more risk and make the transition into the unknown based on an inner calling or sense of duty is naive and unfair. Policy must pave the way in enabling a transition by providing and regulating new ways farming businesses are incentivised. As recognition grows around the need for more resilience in our food systems, more biodiversity in our natural environments and viable climate solutions, the role of farmers needs to evolve in public understanding from purely food producers to land managers and ecological service providers.
Policymakers worldwide are shaping their future farming visions in line with this — albeit encouraging, a timely execution is also needed, as well as engaged citizens holding their governments to account.
- DEFRA in the UK is shifting its farming subsidies towards Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) which would see farmers getting public support for ecological and biodiversity services provided instead of being paid based on acreage
- The European Commissions is reviewing its Common Agricultural Policy and introduces the European Green Deal — prioritising farm to fork and biodiversity schemes
- The US and Australia all have vibrant regenerative agriculture movements gathering pace
Capital markets are also taking note. The spectrum of benefits from ecological services provided to economic returns from novel revenue streams is an attractive long-term investment opportunity. In the next generation of emerging carbon markets, credits will be traded between net emitters and accredited suppliers, in other words carbon storing service providers. Allowing agricultural businesses to enter these markets as value creators will see them play an entirely new role in the circular economy.
New tools and frameworks to help the transition
This is where I propose engineers, technology providers and data professionals have an ideal opportunity to start getting involved. Although on the surface some of the regenerative agriculture practices require a step back approach (allowing natural processes do their thing), there are certain areas where the best technology tools available can and should be deployed. The approach will have to be collaborative. Engineers and farmers will need to start engaging and communicating to truly understand the opportunities and limitations that these new solutions can offer.
Perhaps the biggest such area is measurement. Rigorous scientific process doesn’t have to be abandoned simply because we embrace natural solutions. In fact, accurate, meaningful data to understand our hugely complex ecosystems may help us work even closer within them. This is where sensor technologies around soil nutrients, structure and organic carbon are hugely relevant — benchmarking the current and comparing it the assumption. Measuring progress is essential — for farmers, investors and public agencies to accurately make strategic decisions. A motto emerging in the movement is test not guess — a clunky rhyme but powerful idea.
Bringing the latest IoT (internet of things) technologies into fields means more granular, precise data that supports everyday decisions for growers as well as providing the basis of further analytics over time. Low cost, open source edge computing is becoming cheaper and more accessible, meaning the barriers of entry are being lowered constantly. Deploying sensors in fields sounds low-tech, but it brings with it a unique set of challenges around connectivity, power and reliability. Solving these problems are what engineers do well. Interpreting the collected data into meaningful insights is where the input must come from agriculture professionals.
Automation and robotics is another exciting area. Global shortages of manual labour are adding to the stresses on the agricultural sector. Scouting robots can provide up to date visual and environmental data while problematic tasks, such as weeding are also being addressed. It’s important to stress here, that the aim is not to displace further workers, but to attract a wider group of people into agriculture by providing meaningful, innovative solutions to real problems.
Once a farming business has started on its digital transformation journey, the possibilities multiply exponentially. Deploying machine learning models can be used to find correlations between seemingly disconnected data sets. Inefficiencies around processes can be ironed out. More profitable products and services can be created. Testing and validating new ideas becomes less risky.
It’s our role as engineers and technologists to demystify complex systems and guide an entirely new user group — the farmer, grower, land manager towards the digital tools they need to for their transition towards regenerative farming practices. We must come together to collaborate, build technology experiments that improve incrementally, demonstrating value early and scale at speed.
In this post I wanted to give my friends, peers and professional network a brief view into my thinking on regenerative agriculture, if nothing else to spark discussion. Debate, exchange of ideas, influencing each others’ views is all an essential part of innovation. It’s important to open the doors to our labs and workshops and also venture out into fields. I want engineers to talk to farmers and listen to their real problems. I want farmers to listen to engineers and consider the opportunities of technology adoption. I would like to reach and connect with people who are passionate about building a more sustainable, resilient and diverse food production systems.
healthy soils -> healthy plants -> healthy food -> healthy people -> healthy communities -> healthy societies -> healthy environments -> healthy planet
And so the circularity continues…♼
Some sources of information, motivation and inspiration for the above:
- The Rodale Institute — https://rodaleinstitute.org/
- Savory Institude — https://savory.global/
- Sustainable Food Trust podcast with Patrick Holden — https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/podcast/
- Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with John Kempf — http://regenerativeagriculturepodcast.com/
- Kiss the Ground (film) — https://kisstheground.com
- Zsambok Organic Farm — https://en.zsambokibiokert.hu/
- Source on FAO’s 60 year harvest quote — https://www.reuters.com/article/us-food-soil-farming-idUSKCN0JJ1R920141205
- DEFRA article — https://www.gov.uk/government/news/farmers-invited-to-take-first-step-towards-greener-future
- EC’s organic farm initiatives — https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-action-plan_en
- Dust Bowl — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl