Reducing emissions from agriculture – the role of new farm technologies

This research identified and evaluated technologies which could offer carbon savings in Scottish agriculture which are not currently in use but could be brought to market within 20 years. A shortlist of technologies were explored in greater detail to identify candidates for accelerated development.

2.0 Purpose and Scope

The purpose of this research is to horizon scan and seek to identify new emerging approaches - those not identified in the MACC. This is composed of technologies, practices and improvements with the potential for technological advances to support net zero goals but which also do not penalise food production. Hence, it seeks to understand the opportunities these approaches may present for Scotland to reduce agricultural emissions while continuing sustainable food production.

The scope of this project is to focus on those technologies which can be adopted at the farm level. However, we take a flexible approach, for example whilst disruptive consumption technologies such as growing meat from animal cells, so called 'clean meat', will affect farm production we do not foresee this technology significantly affecting production up to 2045. However other technologies, for example 3D printing of food sources, could be seen as a viable on farm alternative as a source of both feed production and bioplastics from algae cells.

Whether these technologies would need significant investment to enable this technology is considered after the original horizon scan. Moreover, we focus on technologies that support or improve food production, so we do not concern ourselves with technologies whose sole purpose is to produce energy from waste. Significantly, we also ignore nature based, regenerative solutions, such as, for example, silvo pastural systems. We expect these to be part of any solution towards net zero for Scottish agriculture. Accordingly, our scope is on purely technological advances which have the potential for farm adoption within the time frame of the next 20 years that are worth exploring for their GHG potential and could be feasibly adopted. This includes technologies that have been proposed, being trialled, are near-market or are currently introduced but are currently niche in this or other countries.

Accordingly, the project has three main research objectives, namely:

i) to horizon scan those approaches which could come to market within the next two decades which will provide significant GHG reductions whilst not penalising food production,

ii) to quantify the impact of these approaches on GHG reduction when applied to the Scottish farming sector as well as, where possible, the supply chain itself,

iii) to identify the implementation pathway of candidate approaches to bring these approaches to adoption.

2.1 Foresight for agriculture and Agriculture 4.0

A number of recent documents have heralded the future of agriculture as a new technology frontier, similar to the so-called green revolutions of the 1960s. The rationale towards this leap is due to technological progress in the last two decades, such as advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and companion technologies around sensing and real time data gathering. This is combined with concerns over the GHG burden of current methods of production, drops in efficiency gains due to growing disease and pest resistance in crops and animals, but also an increasingly scarce or volatile input base. Effectively traditional technologies, around crop and livestock breeding, are being complemented by the oppourtunities that large-scale data collection and innovations from other sectors could bring.

The next phase of technology development - known as Agriculture 4.0. - has merited a significant focus in policy and academic circles (De Clerq et al., 2018[6]). This provides a general ethos for identifying the scope for technological solutions for future on-farm food production and current and future market growth. A figure to illustrate this is provided in Figure 1.

Produce differently using new techniques

Technologies available now: Hydroponics; Algae Feed Stock; Bioplastics

Technologies that could be employed in the future: Desert Agriculture; Seawater Farming

Use new technologies to bring food production to consumers increasing efficiencies in the food chain

Technologies available now: Vertical/Urban Farming

Technologies that could be employed in the future: Genetic Modification, Cultured Meats, 3D Printing

Incorporate cross-industry technologies and applications

Technologies available now: Drone technology; Data Analytics; Internet of Things; Precision Agriculture

Technologies that could be employed in the future: Nanotechnology; Artificial Intelligence; Food Sharing and Crowdfarming; Blockchain

Figure 1. Agriculture 4.0. The figure shows a typology of technologies that can be employed for future farming approaches. These are presented in terms of both technologies which are available now and technologies that could be employed in the future. (Source: D e Clerq et al., 2018).

This specifies three approaches which could be used to support the horizon scanning aspect of this report:

1. Produce differently with new techniques, on-farm examples would include the development of new feed additives and the replacement of diesel with hydrogen or electric vehicles.

2. New technologies for increasing efficiencies in the food change, on-farm examples would include using 3D printing technology to tailor feed supplements, or use of UAVs to spread nutrients or seed.

3 Incorporate cross platform technologies, on-farm examples tend to focus on 'smart farming solutions'. This brings technology from other industries or connects a series of technologies to provide a farming system based on extensive data collection and analysis to improve decision-making (Figure 2).

Smart Farming

1. Sensing Technologies

2. Software Applications

3. Communications Systems

4. Telematics, Positioning Technologies

5. Hardware and Software Systems

6. Data Analysis Solution

Figure 2. Technologies which composed smart farming. The figure shows different technologies that are needed to support a transition to more connected agricultural systems. (Source: Great Pyramid)

Generally, therefore when we define new agricultural technologies, we need to consider both those products which evolve from older products, e.g., new feed additives, but also those which offer potential and may be applied from different industries, e.g., smart monitoring for office buildings.

2.2 What can feasibly be adopted within the next 20 years?

The above section provides a general framework in which technologies may emerge over the next two decades for adoption at farm level. We define our technology for inclusion in terms of a 20-year period, specifically to identify technologies that could be adopted which would affect GHG saving for net zero in 2045.

Figure 3 shows the three main stages of technological development - taking a linear approach to innovation and invention. Firstly, we can identify products that may have already been introduced into the market internationally or adopted by a small niche of farmers within Europe. We can then define near market technologies as those at or near launch into the market. Finally, there is the realm of applied research and development. This covers technologies which will have passed internal testing and developed into a coherent idea beyond patent level (applied research) and where effort is being directed towards developing a marketable product (development). The figure below shows these pathways to itemise our technologies.

Figure 3. Time frame for the introduction and stages of technology development. The figure shows the time frame considered for this report.

2022 - On market

2032 - New market

2042 - Applied R&D

2042+ - Concept Stage

The time to market varies, with for example new crop varieties taking 7-10 years of trials before they are released, or feed additives requiring a series of regulatory approvals before their introduction into the UK market. Consequently, within the time frame of 20 years, biological/medical products will be slowed by these institutional processes. Here we show the criteria by which we define our search for inclusion.

  • On-Market: This is technology which has been introduced, either in another country or a different context, e.g., domestic buildings, which can be applied to on-farm production.
  • Near-Market: Those technologies where there has been significant development and would be launched within the next 10 years.
  • Applied Research and Development: Those technologies at concept or single trial and testing stage where significant development would launch them within the next 20 years.



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