Innovate, implement & scale: Optimisation in agriculture

optimisation in agriculture through tech

Mitigation of greenhouse gases is not the only big challenge for agriculture. The sector also needs further optimisation and enough skilled labour force to be able to stay in business. Innovating technologies can help, but in order for technologies and changes to propagate we need the ‘food companies’ of today to embrace technology solutions and scale them out. 

Over the past few years we’ve seen the ‘food problem’ take on increasing prominence in mainstream media, among consumers and key industry leaders across the whole food production chain. Large corporate food resellers started to look more holistic at the way we produce our meat, eggs and milk. This was further spurred in 2016, when the IPCC Climate deal (the ‘Paris agreement’) was signed and the general public was confronted with the magic number 2, referring to the temperature increase in degrees Celsius that Mother Earth faces up till 2050, with all that this implies. The IPCC was clear: to slowdown global warming, and even keep it below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2, agriculture is one of the sectors that needs to curtail its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drastically. In short, change is needed and solutions need to be presented and implemented on the short term.  

3 gaps and a menu of actions 

In July 2019, the World Resources Institute (WRI) launched a new report, in which it details its findings and scenarios for how agriculture can become more sustainable. Backed up by the UN and with technical contributions from INRA, the renowned French agricultural research institute, the report is a great read for both the initiated and uninitiated. The full report, a whopping 564 pages, outlines several ways in which we can create a more sustainable agriculture industry. The report states that we need to close three big ‘gaps’ by 2050: 1) the food gap, 2) the land gap and 3) the GHG mitigation gap. To do this, a ‘menu’ of options (actions) is presented by the WRI that could allow the world to achieve a sustainable food future, including ‘raising productivity’, ‘managing food demand’ and ‘spurring technological innovation’ amongst others. A dominant theme of all the menu items is the need to increase the efficiency in use of resources (producing more with the same or less amount of land). Think of increasing yields of meat and milk per hectare and per animal through improved feed quality, grazing management and related practices and/or boosting crop production by getting more than one crop harvest per year. Pierre Gerber and others (2011) already showed that increasing the kg of milk per cow dramatically decreased the emission intensity (kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per kg milk). 

What can we already do today? 

Even though the report is an extensive ‘handbook’ to remind us ‘where we are at’ and what needs to be done, the report stops short in mentioning or calling out real, tangible solutions. We at Connecterra want to take a moment and weigh in on the report as well and provide some specific things we can do today 

1. Increasing agriculture productivity is key 

  • We agree that productivity increases are indeed possible; even at the same levels as those seen in the past with advances in technology.  
  • The report does not provide a menu of where this increase will come from; we believe this can must come from:
    a. Democratization of knowledge. Especially in developing countries this is essential
    b. Improved productivity from automation, data-based decision making and precision agriculture techniques. 

2. The agriculture labour issue is not addressed in the report 

  • The labour workforce has been decreasing for the past 100+ yearsThere are few young farmers; only one in ten EU farm managers (11 %) were under the age of 40 years old in 2016 (Source: Eurostat)
  • If skilled labour continues to decline, any technologies or approaches that create productivity improvements will not materialise. 

3. Machine learning / artificial intelligence can help solve the labour and ‘optimisation problem’ of agriculture

  • Agriculture as an industry is one of the least instrumented (data driven) as compared to others (McKinsey, 2016 
  • In order to create productivity gains, we need to understand the meaning and relationships in data and create a roadmap for how to optimise for efficiency and reduced impact on the planet 
  • This is a job that computers, specifically machine learning algorithms are very good at. Certain labour intensive activities such as heat detection in dairy cattle can be done by technology, saving time for the farmer and his staff 
  • We have demonstrated with Ida that dairy farms can be made more efficient by 20-30% and also reduce antibiotic usage. 

4. Scaling technology solutions needs the support of large enterprises 

  • Farmers don’t farm in a vacuum. Like any enterprise, farmers will respond to changing market demands 
  • Farmers are disconnected from their end-customers/users by a long chain of enterprises. In order for technologies and changes to propagate we need the ‘food companies’ of today to embrace technology solutions and scale them out. There are already some good examples in the market, such as Danone that started the Farmers for Generations project and Bayer that is actively working with farmers to increase farm management.  

5. Who pays for it? 

  • If we are to change the way we grow our food; this change and disruption will require consumers to contribute their part 
  • Spend on food as % of household income has dropped over the past years. By 2015, Americans were spending just 6.4 per cent of their income on food consumed at home (source: World Economic Forum). If we were to spend the same % adjusted for inflation, then a McDonalds hamburger could maybe even cost 8 dollars. And this would create enough value in the chain to help us accelerate the move towards more sustainable farming. 

6. Promises of alternatives to meat

  • Alternate scenarios such as container, vertical and alternate-meat solutions are amazing technologies, but their ecological and environmental footprint is still to be validated. What about the energy costs for instance? Furthermore, they are far from being the solution to bridge the calorie gap. In the near term, we need to improve what we have. 

Act and innovate 

It is clear that there is no time to waste for all the actors in the food production chains. Farmers all over the world already made great efforts over the last decades to boost production. But we need to step this up even further and faster. The report calculated that in the case of no productivity gains after 2010 until 2050, we need to expand agricultural land with 3,265 million Ha and total annual emissions in 2050 will be 38.2 Gigatons CO2e). In the case of a 25 percent faster rate of output of meat and milk per hectare or pasture, the expansion in land use will be 473 million Ha and total annual GHG emission in 2050 will be reduced to 13.9 Gigatons CO2e. In practice this means a productivity growth of 58 percent in dairy cattle. This all is possible in the ‘highly ambitious’ and ‘breakthrough technologies’ scenario, according to WRI. Connecterra is part of the latter scenario and is helping farmers run the most efficient dairy farm possible. We constantly improve our technology to work on tangible practical solutions that help farmers to become future – AND climate proof.

By Yasir Khokhar, CEO and founder of Connecterra.