Loops #6: circular economy and digital technologies land on the soil of agriculture

On the 13th of May, Veltha hosted the 2021 6th episode of Loops, where the agriculture sector took centre stage thanks to the contribution of CYBELE and WATER2RETURN, two innovative projects that are following the ambition of revolutionising one of the strongest systems deeply rooted in tradition: the agricultural sector.

Agriculture nowadays face multiple challenges: 9.1 billion people are expected to populate earth in 2050 and with an increasingly small rural labour force and the conditions linked with climate change, land limitation and soil degradation, things need to change. And both projects intend to challenge the status-quo.

CYBELE: the interplay between digital technologies and agriculture

The starting point of the whole project surrounds the highly problematic issue of food waste: currently one third of food produced around the world ends up in landfills and goes wasted. CYBELE brings the digital transformation perspective into play and aims at changing the upcoming course of events. What kind of magic can the application of digital technologies can bring to the agricultural system? Artificial Intelligence, specific machineries and autonomous systems can take on the human tasks of management and monitoring of the fields by processing a large volume of data, thus avoiding time and resource waste. Thanks to supercomputers, it would be possible to predict weather conditions, analyse soil temperature, sea conditions, and other extremely important factors affecting agricultural activites.

What’s the value proposition? High performance computing, which refers to the practice of aggregating computing power in a way that delivers much higher performance compared to a typical desktop computer, is not accessible to most organizations. The learning curve for software development, platform access and data submission is significantly steep for general organizations willing to approach them. What the project intends to change is the software accessibility by removing the need to have specialist expertise for using these systems through the provision of training and general guidelines for familiarising with them. This not only would allow farmers to make informed decisions concerning the classification of crop quality, animal weights, health, movement and fish activity, but also to achieve better outcomes in terms of quality food, differentiated produce, new market and less food waste.

WATER2RETURN: the economic constraints of agriculture turned into market opportunities

WATER2RETURN identifies its origin in the intensive consumption and production of resources that characterise the slaughtering sector. In light of the growing increase in the demand for chemical fertilisers and the subsequent extensive use associated with large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, current practices need to change. And rather than opting for nutrients removal, WATER2RETURN brings to the fore the potential of their recovery and recycling.

The alternative approach inscribed in the project, turns the economic constraints of the slaughtering industry in a market opportunity where a circular economy approach fully triumphs by recovering nutrients from slaughterhouse wastewater and turning them into high value-added agronomic products: biofertilizers and biostimulants, free of pathogens and heavy metals. In this way, multiple sectors can be brought together and enjoy the long-term benefits triggered by such approach and different actors can be involved, from the slaughterhouse industry to the meat processing one, from farmers to distributors. Such system will have a high replicability rate that will make it flexible enough to be adapted and applied to other food industries.

The challenge of facing traditions:

Of course, the agricultural sector is plunged into traditional practices. And new changes find it hard to settle. Raising awareness, showing the values that these new practices can bring and making them accessible is the main objective of the innovation. As stated by Dr. Zapata, one of the main hurdles when adopting a circular economy approach, is fighting against the widespread idea that whatever product arises from a circular process, is still the result of an initial waste product. When approaching stakeholders, it is essential to explain the whole process the materials undergo and the underlying value that comes along with it. Dr. Davy also highlights that education is an essential part of the activities and cannot be overlooked. It is extremely crucial to educate the industry on the value of data that they have because sometimes they are completely unaware of the potential benefits that can be achieved by sharing them. Some companies are very reluctant to share data but what they need to understand is that the whole sector would benefit from each individual action aimed at embracing the huge changes that innovation can bring to both individuals as single entities and the community as a whole.

Thank you all for watching the episode!

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