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‘NatureTech’ and its role in agriculture

Topic Overview
Agri-TechE

Around 50% of global GDP depends on natural capital in some form. As industries increasingly focus on corporate responsibility for biodiversity and nature, future regulations will likely require businesses to demonstrate their environmental efforts. This trend impacts both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, extending across entire supply chains.

However, many industries still struggle to grasp what biodiversity really entails and how technology can support it. This is where our community comes in, offering expertise and solutions. For farmers and landowners, programs like the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) provide financial support to adopt sustainable practices. Embracing naturetech can help meet these new demands, ensuring a more resilient and sustainable future.

Why digitise nature?

The imperative to digitise nature stems from the urgent need to bolster sustainability efforts and strengthen the resilience of natural systems. Technology can play a pivotal role in combating environmental degradation and biodiversity loss while enhancing productivity. As global priorities shift towards sustainability, the demand for evidence-based practices grows, necessitating technological solutions for precise monitoring and effective management.

Regenerative Agriculture: a growing movement

One significant area where naturetech demonstrates its relevance is in regenerative agriculture – a holistic farming approach that has gained momentum over the past decade. Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring ecosystem health, promoting biodiversity, improving soil fertility, and enhancing resilience to climate changes.

Naturetech provides advanced tools and technologies to support these goals by enabling more precise and effective agricultural management through remote sensing, soil sensors, and AI-driven analytics. Events like the Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture highlight the growing adoption of these practices, emphasising the potential role of technology in achieving these goals.

Naturetech: Groundswell Regenerative Agriculture festival

Efforts to support farmers in adopting regenerative practices are gaining traction through public and private investments. For instance, the UK Government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive encourages farmers to adopt practices that enhance environmental sustainability and Innovate UK previously introduced a £7 million investment into markets that integrate private finance with biodiversity projects, in an effort to promote a nature-positive agenda.

Additionally, initiatives like the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund provide financial support to farmers for attracting private investments into nature-based projects. These initiatives not only incentivise sustainable land management but also pave the way for new financial opportunities such as biodiversity net gain credits.

Currently, Natural England manages a centralised system for selling biodiversity credits at a statutory price. However, as the nature market evolves, it is expected that these transactions will increasingly occur within private markets, providing farmers with more opportunities to benefit financially from their sustainable practices.

Key Initiatives

Several key initiatives are shaping the landscape of naturetech in agriculture:

  • TFCD (Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures): required organisations to report on Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions metrics (and sometimes Scope 3). While now disbanded, TFCD’s recommendations on climate disclosures have influenced how organisations approach and report their greenhouse gas emissions, setting the stage for future regulatory requirements. We explored the task force and technologies to support recommendations in this briefing, featuring Chris Brown, Senior Director for Sustainability at Asda.

 

  • TNFD (Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures): This framework encourages businesses to assess and disclose their impacts on nature, fostering transparency and integrating biodiversity considerations into financial decision-making. NatureMetrics uses eDNA technology to quantify biodiversity and provide evidence of ecosystem health and they have partnered with Unilever to deliver regenerative practices across the supply chain.

 

  • Nutrient Neutrality (NN): EU rules mandate that new developments do not add to river pollution. Excess nutrients from developments can be offset by mitigating existing nutrient losses elsewhere. Technologies such as those developed by Timac Agro facilitate precise nutrient application, reducing waste and runoff while improving soil fertility.

 

  • Natural Flood Management (NFM): Strategies under NFM aim to mitigate flood risks using natural processes like floodplain restoration and tree planting. Data and modelling help in choosing the best interventions for specific areas. Companies like XD Innovation which apply aerospace modelling technologies to landscape systems, can aid in predicting and optimising flood management interventions.

Challenges and opportunities in Naturetech

Despite the promising potential of naturetech, several significant challenges need to be addressed to unlock its full benefits and ensure the sector remains trustworthy and effective.

Data harmonisation

Agricultural data remains fragmented and siloed across different projects and systems, adding time and cost burdens to farmers. Instead of providing clear insights, disparate data sources can make it difficult to form a cohesive and actionable strategy. Solutions like those developed by Yagro focus on harmonising and integrating agricultural data, to make it more accessible and practicable.

However, the industry still requires more robust standards and frameworks to ensure that data can be effectively shared and applied across various platforms and applications, thereby maximising its potential to support better management practices and outcomes.

Trust and transparency

Recent concerns about the integrity of some carbon credit schemes have raised concerns about the legitimacy of environmental claims, making it harder for stakeholders to trust that these projects deliver genuine benefits. To address this, there is a growing need for enhanced transparency and verification mechanisms.

Blockchain technologies, for instance, offer a promising solution by providing a transparent, tamper-proof ledger that ensures the authenticity and traceability of credits. Companies like Ecometric are pioneering rigorous methods for measuring and verifying soil carbon. Their work, validated by the Regen Network, uses a combination of in-field sampling, satellite imagery, and cutting-edge AI to offer transparent and reliable carbon credits. This independent validation not only boosts confidence in the market but also ensures that credits reflect real-world environmental benefits.

Naturetech: Regenerative farming
Photo courtesy of Ecometric

Where are we now?

As of 2024, the landscape of naturetech is expanding rapidly, driven by increased investment interest and technological advancements. Companies like Mantle are pioneering scalable institutional-grade MRV (Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification) technologies for nature-based carbon and biodiversity projects, working closely with regulators to validate claims.

Cambridge Consultants’ report, “Trusted Soil Measurement is the Key to Scaled Regenerative Agriculture,” underscores the critical role of reliable evidence in the nascent nature markets. This report highlights advancements in technologies that provide robust evidence and traceability of system changes, essential for building trust and attracting finance to sustainable practices.

Technological breakthroughs in AI-driven soil sensors and aerial solutions are transforming soil management practices, enhancing nutrient use efficiency, and improving overall soil health. These advancements promise increased productivity and sustainability in agriculture.

AI technologies are also revolutionising our understanding of complex soil interactions and ecosystem dynamics. They enable precise biodiversity mapping and soil health analysis, crucial for informed decision-making and sustainable land management practices.

field intercropping

The regulatory landscape for naturetech and natural capital is rapidly evolving, presenting both opportunities and challenges. Initiatives such as the EU’s nutrient neutrality rules and England’s mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain create new avenues for environmental credits and sustainable practices. However, the complexity and variability of regulations across different regions can pose significant hurdles for businesses and land managers. It is crucial for the industry to stay informed and agile, adapting to changing policies while advocating for regulations that support innovation and sustainability.