The future of agriculture

wheatI’ve been thinking about the future of agriculture this week.  This first arose since I read a very interesting article on the use of robots in agriculture.  They are already in use to a limited extent.  At the moment robots are pruning grapes, milking and picking lettuce and strawberries.  They are also mapping farmland in a forensic manner.  Soil varies over farmland due to the underlying geology, topology and physical features.  This affects light, shade, moisture and soil pH.  Small robots are mapping farms in incredible detail which allows precision agriculture.

But all this is only the start.  Two British companies are developing robots that will do precision weeding and add fertilizer in precise ways at the level of the plant and harvest broccoli.  All this raises a whole series of ethical and other questions.   Precision agriculture using robots offers clear environmental benefits at the plant level.  The weeding robot identifies the weeds and blasts them with a laser rather than using pesticide.  Robotic farming according to its proponents offers less ploughing, ripping out hedgerows as well as less pesticide use (and presumably higher yields).  However I see some big potential drawbacks.  First robots will require energy.  Both to run and also to make (often forgotten).  Some of the small ones could be fitted with solar PV but this vision is one of a high energy future which is not necessarily the way things are going to go.  The second issue is that of employment.  The number of people employed in agriculture has been falling for the last 200 years and is pretty minimal now.  The areas where large numbers of people are employed is in seasonal fruit picking.  Brexit has thrown this into sharp relief since British people do not seem to want to do this anymore and many of the workers are from the EU (reports have suggested they are not always well treated).  Wherever the production is done the process at the moment creates some employment.  At least one of the companies involved recognises this and is determined its products will not put people out of work although how they can do this is unclear to me.

The future of agriculture has another vision that I saw on the TV news tonight.  That is rewilding.  The vision is non intensive agriculture with the land turned over to free foraging cattle, pigs and tourism. Unlike the vision above its a high employment vision with the farmer talking about the farm now having 1870’s levels of employment.  Its a reasonably low energy vision.   The problem is this is not about feeding the world.  There you have it two different futures.  Diametrically opposed.


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One thing we have learnt this week – which source of power is cheapest?

Which source of power is cheapest?  That question was raised this week when the green MP Caroline Lucas claimed onshore wind (which is effectively banned in England) was the cheapest source of electricity.  This got the BBC’s fact check to examine the figures.

It does in fact confirm she is right (just).  Wind is cheaper than all the alternatives.  This was in 2014 too so things should have improved.  I decided to have a look and found data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy from 2016.  This is  shown below suggesting something slightly different.

power production costs different sourcesFirstly, the department gave a range of costs so I worked out the mean cost (shown as the blue column) and the standard error of the mean (SEM – shown as the bars).  The SEM gives a range of the costs given.  This data shows that wind is slightly more expensive than combined cycle gas turbines but cheaper than everything else.  Please note nuclear costs are not shown currently but only going forward and so this data is for 2025.  I assume new build, but the chances of this being at this cost or by this date are for the birds.  Lots of different types of coal all with carbon capture and storage are listed.  I took the cheapest, like nuclear there is very little chance of any of this being built and all the coal plants are shutting anyway.  As I write this there is almost nothing coal powered on the grid and loads more wind than nuclear.  Solar is large stuff in fields not that on your roof (the latter makes more sense to me but is not costed).  Combined cycle gas plant varies from open cycle in that the heat from the exhaust gases are captured and used (there are other differences too).

Which source of power is cheapest? It probably depends on when you ask the question.  There is little difference between the gas and onshore wind costs and looking at the SEM bars the cheapest wind is still slightly cheaper than gas just not the mean.  I suspect the change on 2014-6 was due to lower gas prices.  Incidentally going forward both wind and solar are predicted to be cheaper than everything else, so its crazy not to invest in them.



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Saudi oil

Rub_al_Khali_002Saudi oil is back in the news at the moment following the murder of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi by the Saudis.  Larry Elliot wrote an article arguing we are less dependent on Saudi oil and any bust up over the murder which involved Saudi Arabia cutting of the taps would be ineffective.

But is this true?  Its certainly true that every time there is an oil crisis it boosts the alternatives.  In the 1970’s two oil crisis’s helped spur an interest in peak oil and renewable energy (mine and many others).  Unfortunately President Carter’s huge solar panel programme was cut by Ronald Reagan.  Electric cars came onto the market and were killed off by big oil.  Nevertheless you can see the roots of where we are in now in what happened then.

However a glance at the BP Statistical review of World energy shows that the US is using almost 20mbd of oil (still lower than 2007 incidentally) and produces about 13mbd (despite all the fracking hype).  This is about 4mbd up from its low point in the conventional oils decline. (Of course people forget that conventional oil fields are still declining in the US and fracked oil has to make for this as well as meet any increase in demand.)  If (and its a big if) the Saudis turned off the taps then there would be huge increase in the oil price which as few people has noticed been creeping up.  However if they did that they would be harming mainly themselves.  The alternatives would be very economically viable and the West would really concentrate on curbing its addiction to oil.  However the oil price increase would hit Western economies very hard and probably give us another global banking crisis and crash.  For this reason and and also due to arms sales the West will not confront the Saudis.  Its strange isn’t that the terrible murder of one man leads to a huge row but what they are doing in Yemen has no effect on our relations.


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Coffee power

bug on mfc

Soon coffee producers in Columbia could be producing coffee power thanks to funding from the UK government.  The idea is to produce electricity from coffee waste using bacteria in microbial fuel cells.  This is the area I did my doctorate in- that is microbial fuel cells (not coffee).   I’ve blogged on it in the past and a more technical explanation is here.  Some types of bacteria have the ability to transfer electrons to external compounds therefore producing a current.  Coffee waste will either contain such bacteria or will pick them up from the environment that the coffee waste is put in.  There are sufficient energy source molecules present in the coffee waste to drive the process.

The advantage is that coffee waste will constitute a disposal problem.  You cannot just dump it in a river.  Bacteria will break it down and use all the oxygen suffocating the fish and other river life.  Microbial fuel cells are also very very efficient.  Almost 100% of the “fuels” potential energy is transferred to electricity.  In a conventional fuel cell its about 50%.   The big problem with microbial fuel cells is that they produce physically very small amounts of power.  This make them a niche energy source.  They are typically suited to recovering some electricity from waste as part of a process.  Incidentally the university of Surrey who did the research have come up with really cheap kit to carry out the whole coffee power process in costing a few pounds.


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One thing we have learnt this week – food deserts

Melons growing on fence.

Melons growing on fence.

We have learnt this week that more than a million people in the UK live in food deserts.  These are poorer places where either a lack of transport or supermarkets or other food shops make the purchase of healthy food difficult to impossible.  Its a strange but true fact that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy processed food high in fat or sugar.  That’s why so many low income individuals are obese and also why obesity is getting more and more common.

A variety of solutions have been proposed to this problem which to varying extents exists across the Western World.  In the US supermarkets have been subsidised to move into low income neighbourhoods.  In France and now the UK very low cost supermarkets have been setup that use food past its best by.

In Bristol though there are more holistic solutions.  A local church ( The River Church) runs a not for profit cafe so people can get low cost healthier meals.  The second idea is an urban farm combined with a shop to buy fresh produce just above the church.  The two seem to be separate organisations.  You can buy eggs, homemade jams  and other preserves from its shop.  Meanwhile the ( Hartcliffe Health & Environment Action Group) encourages people to grow food on allotments and sells fresh produce cheaper than the supermarkets.  It also offer cooking lessons since people are becoming deskilled at cooking anything (true of both rich and poor).

Food is going to expensive in a post oil world.  But there is a chance to solve environmental and social/health problems in one go.  The lessons of these projects is there is no silver bullets to food deserts  and different groups with different groups need to work together.


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Maker space

43788119_1135480189940189_4856292381688856576_n 43879620_1135480293273512_2441814509799604224_nThe other night I popped around the corner to the local maker space.  I was after some wood to complete repairs to my garden shed which have taken me a large part of the summer.  They didn’t have what I wanted but I spent some time there looking around and finding out what was going on.

The site is derelict and waiting for someone to build on it.  In the meanwhile various groups have been allowed to use for low cost.  There was a gardening project growing food in raised box beds although for some reason that has moved across the road to another waste area awaiting development.

On their website it says the following;

“The Forge is a pop-up community maker space in Edinburgh. Based in renovated shipping containers, it’s a place where people can come together to build, design, fix and learn. In a time when many people feel increasingly confused by the pace of technological change, the Forge exists to help us re-engage with how the things around us are made.”

I think this is true in this age of globalisation, eco concern and as our manufacturing has offshored people seem increasingly wanting to reconnect with making and repairing stuff.  Sewing is another area of big interest.  The project is setup for both woodworking and metalworking with a working forge.  People there were making tools and even  a geodesic dome made from fringe poster hoardings.  The group encourage people to come along and show others what to do.  (I’m not one of these experts).  Its recently been set up as a community interest company and looks like its going from strength to strength.  It better to repair and use bits of scrap wood to make useful stuff than throw it away.  More details on the maker space can be found here.


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One thing we have learnt this week – new measure of wellbeing

00011The green party in England and Wales wants a new measure of wellbeing they have announced this week.  Since GDP has captured economics in the modern age some people have been searching for a better measure of happiness and economic growth than this measure.  As I blogged on last week endless economic growth is clearly impossible on a finite planet so something is going to have to give sometime.

Up until now the alternatives have been “happiness”.  This is course subjective but a very long term study has found that people in Western societies have stopped getting happier over the last 30 years or so (not necessarily more miserable though).  It does look like a certain level of materialism makes you happy but beyond a certain level of affluence there is no improvement in happiness levels.  As the late great Spike Milligan said “Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery”.

The greens want a new measure of wellbeing to be to measure happiness by the use of a free time index.  So the idea is how much free time you have after work commute etc.  The idea is to shift away from the time/work obsessed culture to one of leisure, community and family.  The greens support a 4 day week and a universal basic income.  I broadly agree with the idea.  There is evidence productivity would rise over a 4 day week and its a way of sharing the jobs out as automation arrives.  My only caveats are it sounds a bit woolly and it depends what people do with their leisure time.  As I blogged about in the last post its a bit difficult to do anything without damaging the environment.


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The Eco Holiday

DSC_4179We have just been on what could be described as an eco holiday.  Train travel from within walking distance of our house to a ferry, camping (mainly) and return travel by train.  No flying, low impact.  Destination the Scilly Islands.  What can we learn from our trip in eco terms?  It was a very good holiday in other terms.

1)  There is no such thing as an eco holiday.  Whilst ours was as low carbon as possible there is no way you can do no damage to the environment.  Even by staying at home.  The aim should be to minimise damage rather than pretend its not happening.

2) Such a holiday does involve a degree of sacrifice.  The train journey involved 12 hours of travel.  A friend said why don’t you fly?  I wish I could say that everything went smoothly but our train journeys out and coming home were a bit of a nightmare and took 14 hours.  In addition as per usual it would have been cheaper to fly.

3) You can only go so far along this route.  You are dependent on other people and how they behave.  The campsite, the BandB and the pub/hotel as well as activities.  Where they get their electricity/food from?  How they recycle?  All this is a bit difficult to judge in advance in most cases.  Some research is possible but not down to nearly the last detail.   That the campsite on St Agnes had solar panels on the roof of the toilet block was a pleasant surprise.

DSC_4304Last year we went on a pilgrimage walk that was nearer and involved less in the way of train travel but involved staying in BandB’s rather than camping.  The two holidays probably had the same level of environmental impacts.


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One thing we have learnt this week – we need to talk about endless growth

pulsesWe need to talk about endless growth.  George Monbiot wrote a typically provocative article this week looking at the idea of endless economic growth and the damage it would do to the planet.

I don’t agree with everything he writes but on this he is right.  Endless growth is not possible on a finite planet.  What precipitated this article was the OPEC annual report this week.  This suggested that oil demand was going to rise until at least 2030 due to plastics and air travel.  In addition electric cars would still be in a minority and not cut oil demand at all.  US fracking would drive supply and not peak until the 2020’s.

What George pointed out was that its impossible to do anything without damaging the planet.   So he gave the example of an electric car.  This takes resources (and as he did not point out energy to make).   The problem is both worse and in some ways more hopeful than he wrote.

On the worse side of the argument its not as simple as merely replacing one thing with another.   So for example plastics with bioplastics.  The bioplastics have to have some kind of resource to make them (probably plant material grown in a field).  Even using waste plant material would we have enough and would this denude the countryside of compostable material?

On the positive side there are beginnings of moves afoot towards the circular economy which is the only possible solution towards this.  We need to reuse everything we make and design we use in from the start (and great longevity and repair).  In addition the oil price is moving up again which does at least make the alternatives far more economically viable.  There are some solutions and we looked at these and the possible economics in our book.

Nevertheless we need to start having a conversation about a very difficult concept making do with less which is not a solution as such, but seems inevitable.

The George Monbiot article can be seen here.



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One thing we have learnt this week – climate change is bad for crop yields

wheatClimate change is bad for crop yields.  That much has been shown to be true his week.  We have had a fantastic summer (now firmly over in this part of the Northern hemisphere).   But crop and animal feed yields have been badly affected, not just in the UK but in many parts of the Northern hemisphere.  Wheat yields could be well down in both Russia and the Ukraine as well as other places.  The situation was complicated since the crop yield could be OK but the protein content affected.  Almost every crop in the UK is said to be affected by the hot dry weather and not in positive way.

A number of years ago a right wing American think tank (I believe the American Enterprise Institute) ran an ad campaign along the lines of “they call it pollution we call it fertilizer” stating the scientifically illiterate idea that climate change would increase crop yields due to the increased CO2 levels increasing photosynthesis.  Its complicated but this has been found to be untrue.  In any case this ignores the other problems to do with climate change.  That is the change in weather patterns not just temperatures.  When you think about crops have to survive the following wind, sun and rain.  The problem with climate change is that the same crops could have excess of the all the above in any one growing season.  You can use classical breeding techniques, GM or CRISPAR-CAS9, but engineering resistance to all three will be tricky.  So climate change is bad for crop yields.   The above idea also ignore the effects of warmer weather on pests and diseases as well.  Like many problems related to climate change what we do about this is another matter?


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