Notes on the role of technology and innovation in sustainable agriculture
For the last two years, we at Innovation Forum have held conferences on this above topic in Washington D.C. Firstly with the Pew Centre and in 2018 with the Nature Conservancy, at their offices in Arlington. Thank you for the support to both organisations.
So this year we asked the question: “Can innovation and technology make agriculture sustainable?” and instructed our speakers to focus on “How to scale solutions that win for farmers, food and the planet” at the conference, which we held on 5-6 April.
Here’s the notes I took, and some others, and then, at the end, notes from our 2017 event. I think they are useful, given they represent some of the views of more than 200 experts from business, NGOs, government and others.
There’s a lot here, but this stuff is really important, so I’d encourage everyone to take a moment and read at least some of it. The more heads the better, on these most difficult of challenges.
- Early warning systems for the unintended consequences of innovation and technology used in agriculture need to be considered. What might an effective mechanism look like for companies, investors, society?
- Notable that product development timelines, until very recently, have been up to 15 years, significant for advance planning.
- With regard to sustainable intensification of agricultural production, we need to consider how we measure beyond just yields, and the role of technology here.
- Bio-fortification and the technologies around it will play a significant future role in nutrition.
- Can academic and other partnerships make agriculture appealing to emerging talent, or those switching careers?
- Partnerships between companies and other actors are needed to address the barriers to scaling up innovations.
- It’s important to note that some innovations in agriculture don’t work, not because they are not potentially good, but simply due to timing and economics.
- On climate-smart agriculture, working with governments, for example China, will become ever more important.
- Industrial organics. With transparency demands increasing, how do we talk about the pros and cons to consumers?
- US investments in agri-tech start ups have more or less trebled since 2015, to around £700m in 2017. 25% of this is from big agricultural firms. “Does this mean “Big Ag” will end up as friend or foe of industry disruptors. Bayer alone has invested $600-700m in agri and biotech companies.
And then mentioned a few further ones:
- Microbial fertilers, (e.g. coated seeds)
- Machine learning for areas such as spraying (targeted approaches)
- Farmer software
- The Internet of things, e.g. sensors on cows
- Growers and data: How do we get them excited about collecting data, and re-assure them about it’s ownership and use by other parties? I.e. What’s in it for the farmer?
- Crop rotation and nutrient replacement, i.e. no till, with a cover crop.
- Better tools and emerging, affordable technologies to measure GHGs on farms
- How can we join up conventional and organic food sectors to agree on shared, collaborative sustainability goals?
- “Collaboration has crystallised what certification has been trying to achieve”
- Restoring degraded land for use is a key emerging trend, given only half of land used for agriculture is degraded.
- Water use and upstream affecting downstream, “water funds” / payments for ecosystem services will be significant. Will farmers be paid to help provide municipal water services.
- Natural climate solutions are perhaps 35-40% of solutions to climate change, agriculture will play a key role here.
- Agriculture offers the largest set of low cost emissions reductions.
- Targeting rising / increased investment will be key. Healthcare sector has had $145bn of investments in the last ten years, whilst agriculture has only had $14bn by comparison.
- Recently we’ve seen a 5x increase in start up capital in Agriculture and food.
Such approaches need incentives to manage for higher protein content, choosing different crops which can help mitigating risk for farmers.
- The North American Climate Smart Ag Alliance recently sent recommendations to the UNFCCC pertaining to three key areas of focus: a) Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and livelihoods; b) Enhancing adaptive capacity and improving resilience to climate change; and c) Delivering ecosystem services, sequestering carbon, and reducing and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
- Many of the conservation practices that farmers and supply chain partners are currently focused on can contribute to each of these goals (e.g. advanced nutrient management, conservation tillage, cover crops, irrigation efficiency, precision management, etc.).
- Cross-sector collaboration can help accelerate adoption of best practices, especially if sectors play the roles they are most suited for. The supply chain can send market signals about the importance of sustainable outcomes. Local ag retailers and crop advisers can become more engaged in evaluating environmental impacts and recommending locally relevant solutions. Ag input companies can focus R&D on technologies and innovation that advance these goals. Public funding in research and conservation can focus on climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
- Pre-competitive, multi-stakeholder approaches to ag sustainability remain critically important for ensuring adequate transparency and credibility across industry efforts.
- More work needs to be done to understand the economics of sustainability. Ultimately, what is the value proposition for farmers? Can we better document how certain practices drive efficiency and save money for growers or contribute to long-term productivity? How do low commodity prices affect growers’ willingness and/or ability to make longer term investments, and what are the best mechanisms to help overcome these economic barriers?
- Working with local ag retailers and crop consultants is the most effective way to influence farmer behavior, because it builds on existing trusted relationships. Food and retail companies hoping to make progress in their supply chains should find ways to infuse sustainability into the discussions between growers and their trusted advisors.
- Private companies, particularly ag retailers and crop consultants, can help play a connecting role to federal government conservation programs, which sometimes go unused. These incentives and cost-share programs, when coupled with local technical assistance, can help accelerate grower adoption of conservation practices. As available personnel at USDA wanes, technical assistance within the private sector becomes more important.
- It’s clear that ranking systems have played a positive role in the UK in pushing up standards. Now the benchmark includes 38 US companies and interest has trebled in recent years, from investors and companies.
- Rising demands for disclosure on animal welfare by groups of investors. Seen some big changes in the last five years, with some large companies improving disclosure by 50%+ from 2012 to 2017, as an overall trend.
- Big challenge now is reporting performance over disclosing targets. 55% of companies in one key benchmark are now reporting performance over policy.
- Improving animal welfare is not just about risk, there are also business opportunities in talking to consumers, changing legislation, NGO relationships, and the media. But the business case needs much more attention, there’s a lack of material about how improved animal welfare reduces costs and improves opportunities. However consumers are not willing to pay 15% extra for improved animal welfare, and past capital is ‘sunk’ into old systems, which can last another 10-20 years without innovation taking hold.
- So far a billion farm animals have been lifted into better conditions.
- Companies had low capacity until recent years to focus on this area, this is changing rapidly.
- There are targets to improve the welfare standards of broiler chickens by 2024.
- There are safety links with animal welfare. This is a key part of the business case, linking safer food and working conditions with rising animal welfare.
- Collaboration will be key in accelerating change that improves welfare. Consumers are ill-informed about how food is produced, companies need to lead the way in showing them. Unilever’s example of Hellman’s Mayonnaise is a good example. McDonald’s and Arla foods is another good example.
- In emerging economies there will be rising demand for animal protein in the coming years, food companies will need to start considering mixed animal and plant proteins to meet demand and cut environmental impacts.
- We can now sequence everything inside a plant.
- Key question for the future is around organics and biotech. How can they co-exist, and collaborate for sustainability outcomes? Is the answer integration not co-existence?
- Given the environmental challenges the world faces, we need all the best options on the table, together, at the same time.
- The high deregulation cost of technology in plants is holding back use. For example genetically engineered strawberry plants. Fear of consumer rejection is holding back innovation.
- “Organics is today a marketing concept, not a sustainability concept”
- The corporatisation and consolidation of big agri, with all the mergers and takeovers, is a big concern for innovation in the future. Will the giant agri companies be friend of foe of agricultural innovation, particularly in gene editing?
Weekly podcast: the future for gene-editing in sustainable agriculture
Gene-editing, soy sector innovation, carbon risks for the finance sector, Iceland and palm oil, and a modern slavery recruiter initiative – Listen here
And here’s a couple of other podcasts from the event, more to come soon at: https://innovation-forum.co.uk/analysis_podcasts.php