Data will grow sustainable agriculture

Sustainability requires new data-driven thinking by the entire food and farming supply chain.

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World leaders are about to gather for the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow’s heritage is in industries with a high CO2 output, shipbuilding and steel mills. Agriculture may be surrounded by green pastures and golden fields, but farming is part of the CO2 problem facing the planet, and world leaders will need to address this. Farmers and food producers are entering a new phase of data technology-led food production, though, which could both feed the populace and protect the planet.

Consumers are demanding the food they consume to be more sustainable. At the same time, climate change and political and economic challenges are regularly disrupting harvests and supply chains. These are not challenges for the near future either; they exist here and now. In England, pig farmers face huge losses as a result of the Conservative Party government’s Brexit negotiations leaving the industry with an abattoir worker shortage. Extreme weather has impacted this year’s harvest. The executive boardroom is being disrupted as much as the field or butchers too. United Cacao, a grower of cacao beans for chocolate makers, misled its clients and was proven to be responsible for deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Environmental researchers used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to demonstrate the deforestation of the Amazon, which led to United Cacao being delisted from the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) at the London Stock Exchange.

With crops like cacao and palm oil grown in remote and fragile tropical landscapes, GIS and data technologies are the only way the supply chain can be assured that foods and ingredients are sustainable and not degrading the planet further. Bunge Loders Croklaan, a refiner of palm oil, which is used in margarine and foodstuffs, uses GIS to map and monitor its entire supply chain. “Companies are really investing in understanding threats to their supply chains,” says Charles Kennelly, UK CTO for Esri, the GIS mapping technology provider. “If you can map out your supply chain, you can then map out the environmental degradation and build up a risk model.”

It isn’t just the clearing of the world’s rainforests that threatens the planet. Biodiversity in the UK countryside has declined. Over 40 million birds have disappeared from the skies of the UK since 1970, the conservation group the RSPB finds in its research. Only 50% of the UK’s biodiversity remains intact, compared to 89.3% in Finland. “Our farming was typical bread basket farming: with a yield focus based on the tonnage you could produce,” says Dominic Buscall, Project Manager at Wild Ken Hill, in the UK, a farm that is innovating new ways of growing the staple crops of wheat and barley. “The market has failed to provide biodiversity,” Buscall says. “Farm land species have been eviscerated.” The Norfolk farmer says the existing agricultural methods have destroyed the soil we grow our food in, which makes feeding the population increasingly difficult but is the root cause of biodiversity decline.

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