A view of the future
Aidan, who first cut his business teeth in Alltech, recently answered a series of questions put to him by Irish Farmers Monthly editor, Matt O'Keeffe, in relation to his recently published book, The Future of Agriculture
How is Irish agriculture placed to benefit from these technologies?
“Ireland has some advantages and disadvantages. Our system is grass-based and that is not usual in the world. Increasingly, cows are being kept indoors. Aside from New Zealand and a few other regions, to a large degree technologies developed for pasture-based systems don’t have applications in other parts of the world, and that’s a pity. But, conversely, Ireland has Google, Intel, Microsoft. It’s got Twitter and Meta; it’s got all of these very high-tech companies. Add in the fact that most of us are one generation from the land and the potential is higher for finding entrepreneurs; people engaged in start-ups who understand what farming requires and also have the technical skills to build a company. Ireland is ideally placed to foster and adapt a lot of these new ideas. I’m Irish, but I live in America. I have a foot in each camp. I have the sense that Ireland is fantastic at creating new start-ups. I don’t think enough of them have become successful and we must be more focussed on helping new companies by increasing funding and training, and, most of all, by opening doors for them. I’m followed by 33,000 people on LinkedIn and I’ve 8,000 on Twitter. I see this book as part of my efforts to try to help people with great ideas to get out there, create their businesses and hopefully transform the way we produce food.”
What is a prosumer?
“Prosumer is a word that was originally invented for people who proactively help tech companies create technology. Then, a French marketing group started using it for food consumers. As consumers going to the supermarket, we often bring our ethics and morals and our expectations with us, and we bring our views of how food should be produced. In a strange way, we don’t do it all the time. A person shopping in Aldi or Lidl picks up something as cheaply as possible but could go to the restaurant later and ask lots of questions about whether the chicken is from Ireland and where the potatoes were grown. We’re not always consistent. This study of prosumers shows that 30 per cent of consumers, globally, are using proactive consumer behaviour. Those proactive behaviours are even seen in countries like China and Brazil, and not just in Europe or the United States (US). Neither is the behaviour confined only to people with higher incomes.”
Are we seeing the demise of supermarkets?
“Absolutely. I like picking up food, looking at it and even smelling it. I like seeing what I’m buying. Young people’s attitudes are different. They value the time saving of home food deliveries, particularly for those with families and two careers. Increasingly, that’s what we’re seeing in behaviour globally. Will we get our food delivered by drones and robots? That’s already happening on top of the more familiar delivery vans. Increasingly, food is being picked for us and delivered to us, with some exceptions such as boutique grocery stores. The goal very much seems to be to make it as cheap and as easy to deliver as possible.”
What does the future hold?
“Donald Rumsfeld spoke about the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. And the more information we have in farming, the more I feel as though we’re dealing with unknown unknowns. We’re learning about the genomics of animals, and how the genome works. We’re learning about nutrigenomics, how nutrition impacts on genetics and genomics.
That is is where Alltech and other companies are investing. We’ve learned a lot about the influence of the microflora, not just inside the animal, but also in our soils. You hear a lot of discussion about that in terms of carbon capture, biodiversity and so on. Now, we’re learning a lot about how nutrition works, as in the fact that we evaluate silage or some other feeds separately when we should evaluate their combined nutrition. It makes perfect sense. But quite often we don’t do it. These unknown unknowns are increasingly known using sensors, data and other analytical technologies. It’s going to make us more precise in our agriculture. I hope it makes the food more affordable and safer. It also allows us to address many of the questions about sustainability.”
Our emissions achievements
“We’re looking to reduce emissions by 30 per cent. Look at the compounded improvements in milk production, with higher-producing cows reducing the amount of carbon per kilogramme or per litre of milk produced. Genetic improvements alone are going to take us to almost 30 per cent in the next eight or nine years, if you compound out that 2.5 per cent improvement in productivity, and we can do more. You see what’s being done with the feed ingredient that DSM is promoting. We’re going to see more of these additives being fed to knock down the levels of methane. Everything we do to increase productivity and to make nutrition more precise, will be part of reducing our carbon footprint. I’m very optimistic about Ireland and its carbon footprint from a farming perspective. I think we need to make a better case for the fact that the problems of methane in cows, typically, come from cows in India, or Brazil, or some of the lower-producing cows in China. Maybe we should be producing milk or meat in Ireland and exporting to those countries, so long as they also are willing to take responsibility for the carbon credits that we assume when we produce their food for them.”
Where to now for agri-technologies?
“I don’t think we fully appreciate the scale of the changes that are coming.
My iPhone has more computing power than took men to the moon. Let’s look 10 years out: 3D printers will allow spare parts to be constructed locally; sensors and robotics are already being widely adopted; artificial intelligence is the glue that binds it all together and must be a big part of all these technologies.
We need more food from fewer resources. There is no way to imagine producing food sustainably without embracing digital technologies. My book lays out some roadmaps of what we can do to achieve this.”
The Future of Agriculture can be purchased from Irish Farmers Monthly website: https://irishfarmersmonthly.com/the-future-of-agriculture