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.
4.1. General Summary
We identified a range of technologies and a schema for understanding where new technologies could impact farm level production in Scotland. This yielded 86 viable technological routes that have not previously been considered in-depth by previous studies. Through a series of scoring criteria, and interest from Scottish Government, we explored 13 candidate technologies for further inquiry.
All of these candidate technologies reveal high levels of uncertainties around both the potential GHG saving and the cost and benefits of implementation at a farm level. This includes the range of feed additives and supplements, but also ways in which soil carbon can be improved and how crops and animals will be monitored to reduce productivity losses from health and welfare issues. Only a small number have been tested within a Scottish context, so further development, trialling, and proof of concept type studies are needed to understand whether they have value for future interventions.
4.2. Recommendations on key technologies
All these technologies provide some potential for application in Scottish agriculture. Those, within the short list, that could be prioritised for more Scottish Government effort would, we argue, be:
- Feed additives. These are easily implemented on-farm compared to other technologies and target enteric methane production, the most significant greenhouse gas from Scottish agricultural production (Thomson and Moxey, 2021). There is a dynamic feed sector operating globally with a focus on methane reduction. However given the diversity of feed additives, the application of feeds to Scottish contexts lacks evidence in terms of their efficacy and the potential trade-offs between GHGs and productivity. Whilst development, testing and trialling can be part of Government intervention a key issue is the need for regulatory approval to ensure these additives are safe for human and animal consumption. This is the role of the private sector and those additives declared safe can be tested for Scottish contexts. Exploring the relationship between combinations of feed additives would offer some value in understanding the effects and how these may improve or negate the methane reducing effect.
- Rock dust. This product seems to show potential for reducing nitrous oxide emissions across arable land. Moreover, this is near market and may be supported through trialling. Additionally, the input stock for rock dust could be generated from waste from the construction industry. However, issues around application rates and type of rock dust, in terms of identifying potentially harmful toxic effects would need to be resolved through a series of applied testing within the Scottish context.
- Microbial Proteins. This represents a product with a wide set of production techniques, e.g. from algae or fermentation tanks. The attraction of these proteins would be as an alternative to imported soya meal, which constitutes a large part of livestock diets. Microbial proteins are currently rolled out to high value sectors, e.g., aquaculture, with little work on cattle and sheep systems. There are technical barriers to scaling up production, hence further investment into development of ways to produce these proteins could be a way to overcome these scaling issues.
- Animal mounted sensors. This focuses effort on the main livestock production sectors and effectively targets animal health, which is a significant intervention identified in the MACC (Eory et al., 2021). Whilst the production and supply of sensors is supported through commercial development, there are high costs to adoption, as well as the need for training and demonstration to operate these systems at their optimal levels. Hence, support for capital investment may be justified, both for supporting investment but also for establishing best practice in operating sensors.
4.3. Further Issues to Consider
The effect of disruption is making newer, more costly technologies more attractive
At time of writing, recent disruptions in the supply of materials - but also the longer-term impact of climate change on security of imports - have led to a rise in cost of inputs. This will change the rubric of these technologies in terms of their cost-effectiveness, but also in establishing the rationale for investment in technologies which can save inputs and ensure consistent supply of outputs. This makes these and other technologies candidates for accelerated further development, for instance the development of single-cell proteins for the replacement of imported feed, but also those which were not explored on the short list. A prime example of this is 'on-farm fertiliser production from manure with plasma technology'. Whilst considered too costly to implement it offers replacement of a vital input - ammonium-nitrate - in the production of manure.
We should consider both public and private intervention pathways
The technologies tend to differ in terms of whether they are wholly privately funded initiatives, or combinations of public-private funding and, in the case of large capital projects like smart cattle sheds, wholly within the scope of publicly funded research and development. Hence it is dependent on the technology and there are limits to how much the Government should or could intervene to both shorten the time to market of promising technologies but also encourage development of other technologies identified here that haven’t met the criteria for the short list.
Encouragement of more demonstration and trialling
Encouragement of more trialling may be a means to increase adoption and provide evidence or otherwise of a technology's efficacy in the Scottish context. This is not wholly within the purview of the Scottish Government but other agencies, such as the Scottish Organic Producers Association have small trial projects on rock dust for example, and SRUC's research farm in Barony will apply plasma technology for on-farm fertiliser production.
Support and reward innovation within farming
In addition, Scotland, like all agricultural systems, is characterised by pockets of innovative farmers willing to experiment and develop discoveries on their own land. These could be utilised and encouraged to develop an evidence base on these technologies and, through peer-learning, provide a means to shorten the adoption time within the industry.
Encourage diverse skill sets within farming
Alongside trialling oppourtunities, technologies could be supported through the encouragement of skills sets not currently associated with agricultural production. This will allow application to farming problems, such as AI and nanotechnology, but also delivery of open-source analysis packages and training for farmers to encourage long term investment and understanding of multiple metrics to inform decisions. One aim of the new EU CAP is generational renewal and, if Scotland’s replacement policy follows, then a new generation could bring those wider skill bases to the industry.
High uncertainties tend to typify these new technologies
Most of the technologies presented suffer from a lack of a systematic evidence base in which to firmly pronounce their usefulness to Scottish agriculture. Whilst there is a large literature on feed additives, the diversity of what constitutes an additive has led to a lack of application in contexts relevant to Scotland. Hence, those feed additives identified through this short list should be further trialled to understand the efficacy of their impact.
Addressing regulatory and legal barriers
A further barrier is the regulatory and compliance pathways. These are necessary and relate to how technologies are classified, e.g. especially in the case of feed additives and alternative proteins may influence how these technologies may shorten their journey to market. A number of additives which provide potential in reducing methane are also required to undergo regulatory testing. It is unclear how, in a post-EU Scotland which is seeking trade deals with other countries that will have different rules and regulations, whether this will accelerate promotion and adoption of candidate technologies previously limited by EU regulations.
4.3. Suggestions for further work
We have supplied, as part of this project, a long list of technologies as a queryable spreadsheet. This should be seen as a dynamic list, for the addition of other technologies. Notably, for most of the technologies there is a minimal applied literature, and we would expect a more robust evidence base to develop around these technologies over time.
Whilst we believe we have explored the key evidence and identified the main technologies and technology areas; the list of measures should be used to create a dialogue with other groups around how we can develop the list further and identify oppourtunities for including 'grey' or undisclosed research findings.
Finally, whilst a number of the technologies are currently considered unfeasible, the cost-effectiveness of these technologies will change as the costs of inputs change, or mechanisms for agricultural policy comes into focus. Ideally, these technologies will form part of an updated MACC to understand the cost-effectiveness for investment and assure business of the value of further investment for development. This is currently hampered by uncertainty around estimates on the GHG, productivity and economic costs for implementation.
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