Smart Software Could Make Sustainable Agriculture Affordable, Scalable, and Measurable
By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will exist by then. These unprecedented demands on the planet’s resources will come as the need to mitigate climate change requires that the agricultural industry switch to more sustainable practices. Farmers will face even more pressure to meet the new requirements while keeping their businesses afloat. The main challenge is not only to make the agricultural sector sustainable but to protect farmers and their livelihoods in the process. Some answers could come from the geospatial industry.
Sustainable agriculture – a challenge of the future
Agriculture is vital for the survival of the human race. Farmers provide food and textiles, as well as fuels and raw materials for machines. Using modern technology and automation, farms becoming more efficient every year, but the current growth trend in agricultural production has a huge negative impact on natural resources and the environment.
Climate change aside, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) offers more reasons to replace current agricultural practices with more sustainable ones: One-third of farmland is degraded, up to 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has been lost, and 22 percent of animal breeds are at risk.
“There are around 10 million farms in the EU and 22 million people work regularly in the sector. They provide an impressive variety of abundant, affordable, safe and good quality products.” EC
But what makes agriculture sustainable? The FAO defines sustainable agriculture as “the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such development […] conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.”
To put it more simply, we need to find ways to grow enough food to feed us all without harming the environment or shutting down all farming businesses in the process.
Carbon farming – unwanted chore or opportunity for agriculture?
The agriculture sector is responsible for a significant part of the global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions linked to climate change. Farmers can help solve this problem through carbon farming – sequestering carbon in the ground by taking it out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
“In 2018, agriculture and related land use emissions accounted for 17 percent of global GHG emissions from all sectors, down from 24 percent in the 2000s. In addition to the noted slight decrease in absolute emissions, this reduction in 2018 was also the result of emissions from other economic sectors growing at relatively faster rates during 2000–2018” – FAO.
Based on a study carried out from 2018 to 2020, which explored issues, challenges, and options related to carbon farming in the EU, the European Commission (EC) plans to launch a carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021. The study concluded that result-based carbon farming could be a key instrument in tackling climate change while also increasing bio-diversity and preserving ecosystems.
In addition to the desirable climate effect, trapping carbon in the ground will also make the soil more fertile and productive. Better soil means higher productivity, but will this be enough to convince farmers to invest in CO2 trapping technology, re-organize existing systems, and change their practices? Economic incentives for farmers are seen as a powerful driver for the success of the initiative, so the new green business model would reward practices that will help EU achieve climate neutrality and create new sources of income for farmers.
In addition, the EC will develop a regulatory framework for certifying carbon removal. The action plan for both initiatives is planned to be announced officially by the end of 2021.
Accurate measurements and objective criteria – essential for fair financial support
Effective implementation of such incentive schemes requires a set of measurements tools and evaluation criteria that are accurate, objective, affordable, and scalable enough to drive real change in the field. To this end, the EC has enrolled the help of different organizations and private entities.
AgriCircle, a Swiss company developing software solutions for agriculture that already has a few innovation projects under its belt, is one of them.
The company is currently developing a platform for measuring the quantity of carbon sequestered in the soil and automatically generate certificates that can be converted into funds.
“Depending on the outcome of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations, eco-schemes can bring between EUR 38 billion to EUR 58 billion to farmers.” EC
Their system, based on remote sensing, years of experience in agronomical data modeling, and smart software, will simplify and automate the exchange of carbon credits and create an objective base for a carbon farming incentive scheme that farmers can trust and apply.
Based on satellite imagery and other remote sensing data, AgriCircle has developed measurement methods to monitor carbon sequestration that are not only precise but also affordable and scalable.
Their system, based on a mix of deep know-how and technology, minimizes the number of measurements performed on the field by humans by applying “precision soil sampling”. This method, which does not require a great deal of manpower or rely on the accumulated experience on the part the farmer, can lower the cost of soil measurements while providing additional information that is useful for land management.
“Monitoring the carbon content in the soil is not only an indicator of how much carbon could be removed from the atmosphere but also an important indicator of the soil’s health. Due to the soil’s heterogeneity and with carbon usually only accounting for 0.5 to 5 percent in it, it’s a challenge to do this accurately over an entire field. With the help of satellite data and AI, the most representative sampling points can be detected.
Subsequent calibration of the satellite data with the data taken from this soil sampling not only provides the required precision for a targeted improvement of the carbon stocks but also reduces the cost of soil sampling overall and builds a base for reliable and scalable carbon compensation schemes in agriculture,” Daniel Markward, co-founder of AgriCircle, told Supertrends in an interview.
Based on this data, the AgriCircle software calculates the quantity of carbon storage for each field and automatically issues a carbon storage certificate to the farmer. These certificates can then be exchanged between the farmer and a potential buyer, e.g., a food producer.
“We strongly believe we need to get away from activity-based measures and move towards outcome-based measures, where remote sensing technology such as ours is crucial.” Daniel Markward
The carbon measurement and monitoring method developed by AgriCircle could be the most precise process currently in the market, and it is already being used in several European countries.
As the method operates on open interface standards, it can be easily combined with various other complementary models or software systems and applications for the determination of greenhouse gases (GHG) and integrated into existing processes.
The AgriCircle team spent several years analyzing huge amounts of remote sensing data, combining it with ground measurements (60,000 data points for soil alone) and ultimately developing models that allow now the system to make accurate estimates about the field condition. The same platform can also give farmers valuable feedback about how to optimize practices like cultivation, fertilization, or use of crop protection.
“By 2026, we want to help our customers store 10 million tonnes / CO2eq per year in the soil.” AgriCircle
Success factors for the carbon farming project
Since the EC plans to launch the carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021, the implementation process could start as early as January 2022. The project will not focus solely on carbon sequestration, but will also facilitate collaboration between farmers and interested parties in the food supply chain and beyond. Its success will depend on many factors, but Daniel Markward believes one of the most important ones will be convincing the farmers not only that their investments will pay off via a fair price for farmed carbon, but also that the incentive scheme is based on reliable and accurate models and data.
“Everything starts with convincing the farmer. Farmers have gone through different changes through incentive schemes. The key is convincing them that this is not just a hype, but something that is here to stay,” Daniel Markward.
At the industry level, another challenge is to set a fair price for the sequestered carbon to incentivize adoption of, and investment in, new sustainable agriculture practices. After all, farming is a business, so landowners need to feel that their investment is justified. “Changing your way of work to regenerative agriculture practices usually requires an initial investment, and we think it’s crucial that farmers should receive fair prices for going through that change. That means that a good carbon credit price is one good incentive, so the overall price that farmers receive for the work they are doing needs to be on a level that makes it interesting for them to undertake these changes.” said Daniel Markward.
The EC plans to promote the new policy with a series of sub-projects, but the credibility of the scheme itself could be another important factor contributing to a successful implementation. This is why accurate measurements and widely accepted scientific methods of interpreting data should remove all doubts about the volume of carbon removed and the certificate itself.
On 14 July 2021, the EC adopted a series of legislative proposals regarding the concrete plans to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050. As an intermediate goal, these plans aim for a net reduction of at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
In Daniel Markward’s opinion, when it comes to agriculture, this goal will be hard to achieve, but not impossible. “The cycles in the agriculture industry are much longer than in many other industries, so it takes a little bit more time to go through changes. However, if you’re able to start treating soil differently, and I think this is the essential point here, that we start doing that on a large scale and start doing it quickly, then I think we have a chance to cut emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years, but it’s going to be a huge challenge.”
Daniel Markward works for AgriCircle, a Swiss SME that connects farm data for better decision support along the food value chain. He co-founded the company in 2013 after finishing his MBA at the University of St. Gallen and has won several innovation prizes with AgriCircle since then. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he worked across industries for seven years as a management and technology consultant for KPMG in Zurich and Los Angeles.
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