Professor Andrew Barnes is an economist with interests relating to land use and agriculture. He’s Head of the Department for Rural Economy, Environment and Society at Scotland's Rural College and member of the ClimateXChange Directorate.
In the wake of leaving the EU, new farm payment agendas are being proposed, which will increase support for outcomes that could benefit society. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a high-profile target for food production.
From a farmer’s perspective, this means adoption of climate-smart farming approaches and best practice. Some of these practices have been known for years and go back to using nature-based approaches, and some rely on adoption of more technology.
Through years of continuous investigation, we have a good handle on the carbon impact of these technologies and their cost-effectiveness, as for instance whether it makes economic sense to adopt them.
Marginal Abatement Cost Curves is a framework to understand greenhouse gas and economic impacts and, ultimately, provide a basis for whether support is needed to help target uptake. A recent ClimateXChange report provided an update of the types of technologies and practices that may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions using this framework.
Some of these reflect best practice, such as improved animal health monitoring. Others may be deemed to be new technologies, such a nitrification inhibitors, which reduce nitrous oxide emissions, and 3NOP feed mixtures, which reduce methane formation in the cow gut. These represent a real picture of what could be achieved with today’s technologies.
New and niche technologies
With this is in mind, we were commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore what new, niche or radical technologies are in development that could conceivably be employed within Scottish agriculture.
While we didn’t focus on practices, we acknowledge the great potential of nature-based solutions and a whole food-systems approach to reduce emissions. Hence, we only explored part of the solution.
We initially identified a long list of 86 new technologies and technology areas that may be applicable to Scottish agriculture if they are developed further and trialled within the Scottish context.
These new technologies cover a range of areas, including feed additives directed at methane in the cow gut, remote sensing technology and associated monitoring, data analysis to support control and management of input resources, as well as the replacement of traditional materials with more sustainable components, as for instance single cell proteins grown from algae.
We also found potential in technologies from other sectors, for instance distributed ledgers and 3D printing.
Shortlist and need for further trials
After considering a range of criteria to establish their true applicability, we shortlisted 13 technologies or technology areas that are worth exploring further.
These range from rather mundane but niche technologies – such as applying rock dust to agricultural land - to more cutting-edge approaches – such as methane vaccines.
The claims around these technologies are extraordinary. A simple fix, eg supplementing feed with seaweed, was found in one trial to reduce methane in suckler cows by 56%.
However, we also found a real lack of studies confirming the efficacy of treatments and, in many cases, the results were based on only one or a handful of trials. Hence, huge uncertainties limit their applicability to the Scottish context, requiring far more on-site trialling.
We also explored implementation pathways such as potential barriers to market entry, including cost and regulatory approvals of each technology.
We accounted for technologies where there is more confidence in their ability to meet emissions reductions and their ability to overcome regulatory, economic and practical application within the Scottish context.
Strong candidates for rapid development
We identified just four possible technologies that may be feasible for intervention or the focus of faster regulatory approval to meet net zero carbon in agriculture and Scotland’s net zero target by 2045. These are:
- Increased effort in feed additives, which are both easily implemented on-farm and target gut methane production, the most significant greenhouse gas from Scottish agriculture. A key issue is the need for regulatory approval to ensure these additives are safe for human and animal consumption.
- Rock dust, which shows potential for reducing nitrous oxide emissions across arable land, but there are issues around application rates and toxic components of rock dust applied to agricultural land.
- Microbial proteins as an alternative to soya meal, which constitutes a large part of livestock diets. There are technical barriers to scaling up production and creating cost-effective alternatives for the sheep and cattle sector.
- Animal mounted sensors that target animal health, to reduce emissions from livestock. Whilst the production and supply of sensors is supported through commercial development, adoption is costly and requires training and demonstration to operate these systems at their optimal levels.
The near future
Overall, these technologies should become part of assessments in the next few years to establish whether they are worth subsidising.
Farmers are trying to manage their land and animals to sustain their livelihoods and some farms are more technically advanced than others. The changing shape of the sector, due to new payment agendas and opening of trade barriers, may accelerate the desire to engage in uptake of new technologies.
This should support food production while minimising environmental damage.