Farmers have acted as stewards of natural resources – soil, water, plants, fertilizers, wildlife and so on – for centuries. So circular economy thinking – which encourages business models which keep resources circulating in the economy at their maximum value – should resonate in the agritech sector. Of course the approaches used to keep resources at their maximum value, such as repair, remanufacture, reuse, recycling and valorisation of waste are all very tangible and nothing particularly new. It’s true that agricultural productivity improvements have been impressive and should be celebrated. Perhaps the agri sector is already doing all of these things? Perhaps the circular economy movement should continue to direct its evangelising at more wasteful industries like fast moving consumer goods, fast fashion, electronics and packaging.
I’m not so sure. Can the agri sector really ignore the mountains of waste vegetables rejected because they don’t adhere to supermarkets’ over-zealous specifications? Has the problem of over-application of chemicals really been solved? Are irrigation techniques fit for purpose in an increasingly water-stressed world? Challenges clearly remain and further improvements could help boost both productivity as well as mitigating environmental damage.
Ever-smarter technology can be developed to tackle many of these problems – this is at the heart of what we do at Cambridge Consultants. Building a new robot for harvesting crops, developing a new algorithm to recognise a weed in amongst a row of young plants or optimising a new dispensing system to deliver inputs more efficiently are all technically feasible challenges which we have solved for our clients. Before investing significant effort (and cash) in developing a new technology, we need to understand if we are tackling the right problem. The question becomes what is the right technology to develop to apply circular economy principles. The best approaches apply holistic thinking – an approach which has already proved successful in other industries.
My undergraduate degree was in Medicinal Chemistry and I spent a placement year at GlaxoSmithKline developing new pharmaceuticals. The (hopefully) white powders that I was churning out in my fume hood were on their own not much use to a patient. But in combination with an effective drug delivery mechanism to get them to the relevant receptor and a suitable formulation to ensure that the rate of delivery was appropriate, then we were developing potentially powerful therapies. Borrowing this holistic thinking from the pharmaceutical industry, Cambridge Consultants has developed novel delivery technologies for fertiliser both for self-propelled sprayers and irrigation systems. The technologies can both reduce cost and improve yield –research indicates that sugarcane yields can be increased by 150% per hectare as well as reducing the amounts of required inputs by up to 40%.
Holistic thinking has also been exploited with great success in the accommodation and transport sectors by sharing economy giants AirBnB and Uber, as well as countless other platforms enabling consumers to share everything from a parking space to the family dog. The common factor linking all of these new businesses was identification of significant underutilised capacity – be that a spare room or an under-walked dog. Development of technology platforms provided the ability to match that spare capacity with a market. Whilst I don’t expect that the agritech sector could be disrupted to the extent that the hotel or taxi sector has been by the rise of the sharing economy – platforms are springing up to facilitate lending of farm equipment, sharing of labour and distribution of product gluts.
One key principle of circular economy thinking is to design products and materials for the system they are being put into. If the product will enter the soil – it should be designed to break down in the soil. A beautiful example of working with nature has been based on the discovery that certain types of bacteria – including those found naturally in the soil – actually produce a form of plastic as an energy storage medium. When these bacteria find themselves in conditions of excess carbon but with shortages of other key nutrients, they accumulate huge reserves of a bioplastic called PHA within their cells, which can be broken down and used as an energy source when nutrients return and conditions for reproduction improve. These PHA bioplastics have found a natural market in agri-tech where they are being increasingly employed as mulching films, preventing the growth of weeds but over time biodegrading by the bacteria naturally found in the soil.
The final key principle of the of circle economy which I would like to touch on is the replacement of fossil or mineral resources with biological resources – in other words the opportunity to grow more of what we use in addition to growing what we eat. More and more bio-based products are coming on the market. There are so many great examples: packaging grown from mushrooms, food service items made from sugar cane, leather-replacement made from pineapple leaves and using insects to turn food waste into protein-rich fish feed. This emerging bioeconomy represents a huge opportunity for the agri-tech sector to diversify, move up the value chain and identify new opportunities to create materials and products from what is currently just waste.
To sum up, the stewardship of resources will remain a key responsibility of the agritech community. Whist some changes may be driven by regulation – much can be achieved because it simply makes good business. As technology becomes more powerful, the sector industrialises further and supply chains become more global, holistic circular economy thinking will be required to drive further productivity and environmental protection improvements.
Originally delivered as a contribution to: Revolution or evolution – meeting the challenge of sustainable food production conference.