Transition — system change for regeneration
Like most years, I had the opportunity at the end of 2021 to visit Hungary — to see family and friends over the holidays. This year I wanted to meet new people working in and around agriculture — regenerating land, producing high quality and integrity foods and building communities. I’m interested in building technical solutions to ease the transition towards more ecologically sound practices and I want to spend time understanding the people I am shaping architectures for.
With this desire to make change I got in touch with growers and farmers and arranged visits towards the end of the year. Conversing, sharing experience, learning about agriculture, soil, the region, seeing the countryside while spending time outdoors — all enjoyable, refreshing activities, not to mention the positive effect on shaping my understanding and thinking on the subject matter. In this post I want to bring together some of what I saw, the thoughts that were provoked, the conversations that occurred.
As I read and learn more about the theory and practice of regenerative agriculture, soil health and biodiversity, its importance in the systematic changes we must oversee in our food systems, the goal is beginning to sink in. Before I can propose appropriate technical solutions to make young growers’ lives easier, I really need to hear and understand what their fundamental problems are. It’s essential not to fall into the age-old trap of engineering solutions to problems that don’t exist and then promoting them, but flip the value proposition and very much work from the ground (or soil?) up.
Why regenerative agriculture?
I’ve written a piece on a budding engineers’ view on regenerative agriculture already — feel free to read it here. A few core concepts will be a helpful reminder for the context of this post:
- By building soil health and biodiversity the carbon cycle is transformed into locking away atmospheric CO2 below the surface of the planet. Regenerative agriculture therefore is at scale a truly global climate change solution. As such, it is being recognised and financially incentivised by the wider economic community.
- Healthy soils are more productive — they require less inputs, retain water and are able to deliver nutrients more effectively to crops. Healthy soil is a fundamental component of nutritious, abundant, resilient food systems.
- Biodiversity above and below ground requires a shift in mindset from controlling nature to working within natural systems. Instead of applying fertiliser, herbicide, fungicide and nutrients — natural additives can harness existing systems to have the same or better results. A good example is introducing harmless fungal life which will take up the space that a counter-productive fungal ‘disease’ may exploit.
To an engineer like myself wishing to work within an infinitely complex system ( nature) an acceptance is fundamental that not all parameters in this system can be controlled — or even fully understood. It is therefore a better approach to observe patterns and interconnectedness — for which we can utilise modern data science effectively— document, capture and learn about these intricate, sophisticated network of natural systems that we must worth within. We can then affect change from within, rather than discarding the seemingly unnecessary components that seemingly don’t matter, yet might represent true value.
Perhaps most importantly, I am interested in demonstrating to farmers who work in different landscapes, climates and environments (market gardens, intensive grazing operations and arable farms) that transitioning towards more ecologically sound principles in their operations can be sustainable not only in the ecological sense of the word, but economically too. Literature, research and a wider community are talking about theory, early practical examples and increasingly bold ventures at scaling these regenerative solutions locally and for wider impact. Public and private finance is taking note — agricultural subsidies are moving towards ecosystem services-based payments while voluntary carbon markets are emerging as a way of accounting for soil organic carbon captures from the atmosphere by managing land more effectively.
Timing and geography
My personal angle means that geographically my references are North West Europe, the UK specifically and Hungary in Central Eastern Europe. These regions are diverse enough to demonstrate the breadth and depth of solutions needed to support diverse agricultural models which wish to adopt a more regenerative framework. Personal ties in both regions mean I am sensitive to wider cultural, social and economic differences that have an effect on agricultural businesses across the spectrum. In my career I have reached a stage where I am able to take the time and space to take a step back, evaluate and truly drill down to the core of what kind of change I wish to see in the world and how I may be able to contribute to it. We live in an age where young professionals are able to make a choice between purpose and profit or even better, to find an appropriate balance. This is a privilege, progress and must be celebrated and exploited with care.
The trip late last year intersected with a time of contemplation after 18 months of hard work at E-Nano. We have been busy developing robotics solutions that make use of open source software and hardware technologies, a distributed knowledge base and lots of youthful energy to bring scalable, lightweight, working solutions to the way we interact with natural environments. This is a fulfilling, worthwhile and impactful role to be in. There’s an opportunity to align core values and work towards a vision of the world we can imagine living in.
A young community
The below is a list of small organisations that are shaping the future of agriculture in the Carpathian Basin region, either directly or by the proliferation of skills, ideas and shared understanding for a common cause. There is no greater feeling of satisfaction and achievement than to combine these two areas of my life — personal and professional growth to support a regenerative transition.
- Small, bio-intensive market garden Zsamboki Biokert is a compact organic market garden not far from Budapest. Its mission is to grow food in a natural way, while building community and safeguarding the land and boosting biodiversity. The team grow tasty vegetables, builds soil, engages with community and collaborates with academic institutions and NGOs. They sell produce at market and run a weekly box delivery system, delivered via cargo bikes in the city.
- Grazing, free range animals, managing uplands and agroforestry are all done at Remeny Farm, which was started by an inspirational young couple who made a leap from city lifestyles. They produce high quality and integrity foods while regenerating land and market their produce through their own platform. Their vision of a profitable, worthwhile climate farming enterprise can serve as a blueprint for the next generation of farmers passionate about climate, nature and food.
- Larger arable land management and integrated services are provided by an old friend who is in the process of taking over a family agro-business. As the case for regenerative transition strengthens so can the influence through this network of local farmers, knowledge service and new tools and services. Personally, this is a real window into a different scale agricultural system in the region.
- A local agtech startup SMAPP LAB is a startup which is scaling rapidly in the region and internationally. They successfully completed programs to collaborate with larger estates to solve problems at scale in agricultural systems. Their network of pest traps is an example of simple, low-impact technology deployed in a coordinated, structured way can reduce our reliance on intensive, damaging practices in producing food for our populations.
- Regenerative agriculture consultancy Agrofutura provides products, machinery and consulting services to demonstrate the benefits of more ecologically sound practices in commercial agriculture. With high quality compost concentrates, precision agriculture technologies and an experienced agronomist team, they help transitioning clients reach improved outcomes fast. It’s great to see successful examples of regenerative practices deployed today.
- Startup accelerator NAK TechLab is run by a public office for agriculture. Their TechLab offers support to early startups, including an incubator program, where they pair startups with real problems larger agricultural businesses have to ensure meaningful problems are being solved. They are able to support scaling through public and private investment opportunities, mentorship and network building.
I continue to work and shape the organisation I’ve been helping to build over the past period. I continue to meet new people, talk about my interests and listen to new ideas. I continue to make shape solutions, design models and work on technical detail.
I urge everyone who is interested in this way of thinking to indulge in a bit of self-reflection. What aspects of our lives can we change in order to shift patterns and transition towards more sustainable, fulfilling, stable food systems? Can we engage more with community, the products and services we consume? How can our small actions contribute to a world we can imagine living in?