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!

Do we really know what’s coming?

One of the questions I am often asked is: “How does farming in NZ compare with the UK”?

Right now I think it’s a slightly loaded question with all the Brexit talk – subsidies and all that. But in reality given the context of the question is usually in the knowledge I head up a UK-based subsidiary of an NZ agri-software business, what many are really asking is: “How will technology change what we are doing, and is NZ ahead of the UK”?

Now this is a harder question to answer. I guess at a high level I would say adoption of technology in the NZ dairy sector is some years ahead of the UK, but equally, there are big advances in UK arable and hort which one might say are further ahead than NZ. One thing I would say is that NZ farmers are, more typically, open to change and innovation and less wedded to the way it is.

But I think there is something bigger going on than simply comparing one country with another. Sure NZ is a focus for our sector just now because of the way it has, in a generation, turned itself into a very globally focused and innovative economy; one that tops the global rankings for ease of doing business (and one that I would say punches well above its weight, and that’s not just the All Blacks!). No. I think we are witnessing the early stages of an utterly transformative period in global agriculture.

And that’s why I ask the question: “Do we really know what’s coming?” By this I mean, how is technology (and maybe digital and data in particular) going to change the sector?

In short, from where I sit, I would say those of us in the tech world do have a good hunch about what’s coming and the potential impact it will have. But I am not at all convinced the “average farmer” (which is a horrid term) does.

To me it is inconceivable that a farming business (whether in the UK or elsewhere) will be in any way competitive without the use of data-driven decision support tools in the future. The level of accuracy and objectivity that data will deliver (and we are seeing this already) simply puts subjective observation in the second tier of good decision making.

That isn’t to say good husbandry and farming experience have no place in the future (of course they do – I know some brilliant, intuitive and innovative farmers) but those who apply that experience with the latest technological tools will become the Premier League while others languish in the lower divisions.

Give me an example I hear you cry? Ok! A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the CEO of an innovative dairy cow data capture company (based in the UK) that is effectively putting Fitbits on cows. The volumes of behavioural data they are collecting from those animals is now substantial. But it’s what they are doing with it that so impressed me.

By using clever algorithms to understand normal and outlier behaviour of animals they are achieving two great things. The first is the ability to provide alerts flagging animals that are not exhibiting typical behaviour. In other words, “go look at those ones, that’s where you should prioritise your time”.

But the second is what really excites me. Who’d have thought that by analysing cow behaviour data it would be possible to identify lameness, mastitis and other disorders days (even weeks) ahead of when the clinical signs might be observed? I don’t care if you are the best herdsman in the world, it is hard to compete with decision support from data that is identifying things well before they are ever observable by the human eye.

This “power” has the potential to transform the way we run our farms. The application of digital technology will not only potentially save time and labour, it will enable better focus on meeting market requirements, predicting and avoiding problems, and increasingly importantly, be able to provide a substantial evidence base to back and improve welfare standards and all sorts of other production areas currently under scrutiny.

But this future is a far cry from where many on our farms sit currently. Sure there are those that are the early adopters, but I think there is a large majority who simply don’t see this massive change coming, or if they do are in denial.

There are many analogies over the years of where technological change has been transformative and where at the time many did not see it coming: Henry Ford and so on. But it’s the sheer scale of change from tech-driven ag that I think we underestimate at our peril.

The upside is that all this talk of agriculture being a high-tech industry that our children and students should be enthused about is not just talk. It is absolutely true. The more we can find demonstrable examples of great (even cool) innovation, the better it will be for our farming sector, not only because we can farm better, but because we can also excite the right people into the industry.

In my 25-plus years in the ag world in the UK and NZ, never have I felt there is a better time and more opportunity for non-farming people to get involved in the industry, whether that’s in agribusiness, science or on the farm.

And if, as I suspect, we see a reasonably aggressive scaling back of direct farm support in the UK (assuming we Brexit!), that could open the door to a new generation of tech-driven farmers, unencumbered by the past and able to deliver from the potential of the land and associated technology alone. They will be the new competition.

Can’t see it coming? The iPhone is only a little over 10 years old. Things will look very different a decade from now in agriculture. That’s really not very far away. Are you on the train or is it leaving without you?