The future of agriculture might be data-driven but real change will come from its farmers
Graham Wilkinson, Vice President of Agriculture, Arla Foods
There can’t be many industries that have endured as long as agriculture and even fewer that have developed so much since their inception. An ever-growing population has required farming to continually adapt and improve, producing more with less. This task is difficult enough given that most farming sectors are still utterly dependent on the seasons and the weather, but with a changing climate, for every action we take, we must consider our wider impact; it’s not just what we produce, it’s how we produce it.
Agriculture undeniably contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and we must, of course, acknowledge this. Finding ways to meet the nutritional needs of the people on our planet is also a huge challenge, and within my area of dairy, supply cannot keep up with demand. This is especially in parts of the world where food security is not a given, with nutrient-dense milk playing an important role.
So how can we produce enough to meet a growing global demand and at the same time adapt to ensure we do this in a sustainable way, as our consumers, politicians and society rightly expect? The answer is data and using it where it counts.
At Arla Foods we take a data-led approach and our 8,900 farmer owners of the cooperative have recognised the potential of working together to understand our impact and help signpost where the solutions lie. We have introduced Climate Checks to gather what is now one of the world’s largest sets of externally verified data on dairy farming, to guide us on our journey towards more sustainable dairy.
The Climate Check consists of 203 questions about everything going on at farm and while it sounds like a time-consuming task, the value it provides to individual farms and the wider business is plain to see. Once the data is externally-validated, it provides farmers with information on what areas of their business contribute most to carbon emissions and, more importantly how they can take action to reduce these emissions .
This is an extremely powerful tool to support our farmers, commercialise our sustainability journey and reassure consumers that our ambitious targets are backed by concrete actions.
Finding the right solutions is hard work
While we have committed to becoming a net zero business by 2050, we know that some of the solutions that will help us get there are in development, haven’t yet come to farm or in fact haven’t yet even been invented. So, alongside improving our current practices, there is also a task of us as an industry to identify and implement new technology and innovations.
Luckily, this is an area of innovation which is alive with activity. The agriculture industry is brimming with companies working to come up with products and solutions improving sustainability. Many of these will claim to have the one golden solution, but the truth is that farming is complex and that all farms are different. We will need a wide range of actions and innovations to get us to our destination.
Here at Arla, we need to play our part in helping the industry to stay on top of the latest developments, scope out the right solutions to try out and then, most importantly, set up the right environment to test it in, securing accurate data to build decisions on.
That’s why we at Arla Foods are creating Innovation Farms in all our core markets where we can control the test setup and mimic real-life scenarios before endorsing or recommending innovations on a larger scale. This allows us to build better business cases and make sure our farmers work with new technology and innovations that actually have an impact. This is another benefit of the cooperative model, meaning individual farmers don’t need to spend time and money on efforts that don’t make a difference.
Farmers to the front, please
Having spent all my working career within agriculture, operating from farm through to UK retail, I have seen the large growth in interest in how our food is produced. Many people have an opinion but few outside of agriculture have a clear, first-hand understanding of exactly how today’s industry operates.
At Arla we see this as a real opportunity and, work hard to put our farmers front and centre of everything we do. As a cooperative our strength is our democratic process and the short distance between barn and board room. Our farmers are the real experts and we listen and trust them to play a pivotal role in decision making and the future of the business. They are also the best ambassadors for our business. They are out in the field studying everything from biodiversity to soil health and working with biological processes and farm machinery. The agriculture industry could be better at harnessing that knowledge and putting it in front of its decision-making, branding and communication, teaching all of our stakeholders about the challenges and importance of farming.
We don’t need to convince farmers to transform and deliver results: they are already doing that. What’s important is working together as one collaborative industry offering support and the right framework of data-driven solutions that can work across all different farm types. After all, data will provide the information we need to meet the sustainability challenge, but we will get nowhere without our farmers.
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