The term ‘natural capital’ is on everyone’s lips, from policymakers to land managers. But measuring it can be inconsistent, time consuming and expensive.
Agtech start-up Trinity AgTech has launched what it hopes will be a solution in the form of its Sandy ‘digital assistant’, which, the company says, will be the first
product in a suite of complementary software.
Sandy is designed to provide support to farmers in accurately assessing and designing their sustainability and profitability journey.
Among its core tools are carbon footprint and biodiversity assessments.; management at a sub-field level; monitoring crop performance, growth, nutrient status and yield prediction; and analysis of productivity and financial performance at farm, crop and field level.
Sandy’s founder and funder is Dr Hosein Khajeh-Hosseiny, a Cambridge PhD graduate in applied maths who previously worked in private equity and venture capital in Silicon Valley. There, he identified the potential of technology in agriculture and used software to develop a product that can take data from multiple sources and analyse it.
Alongside him is Dr Alasdair Sykes, the company’s managing director of sustainability and former chief scientific officer at Agrecalc.
Commenting on the four environmental progress modules which sit within Sandy, Dr Sykes says: “The Carbon Footprint Assessment and Net Zero Journey Optimisation is the most comprehensive carbon calculator available to British agriculture.
“We’ve designed it to cover a complete range of agricultural practices, so it applies to every farmer in the UK large or small.
“It allows them to understand their carbon footprint at field, product and enterprise level.
“A key element is the ability for the farmer to see not just where they are with carbon, but how to move forwards. It gives farmers a very well laid out lineary journey to net zero for their farming system.”
The carbon calculator reports in multiple metrics, following industry and academia debate over the correct way to report greenhouse gas emissions, and gives farmers information on their overall carbon stocks and how they are changing over time, enabling them to benchmark their progress.
The Biodiversity Assessment and Optimisation module is a world first in many respects, Dr Sykes claims, designed by more than 70 ecologists and biodiversity experts to create a biodiversity ‘footprinter’.
This enables farmers to understand where they are in terms of biodiversity, but also integrates with other modules within Sandy to map a journey to better biodiversity.
Dr Sykes says: “The old school way of figuring out biodiversity on-farm is through methods like bird counts and worm surveys, which although effective, are timeconsuming and expensive and difficult to scale.
“The biodiversity team has brought in this knowledge in a general sense, attributed it to land uses and management practices and rolled it into the algorithm.
“It includes things like reduced pesticides, fertilisers, skylark plots and so on, which is rolled into an algorithm which calculates biodiversity across the farm using five key metrics – soil biodiversity, wildlife, conservation species, pollinators and natural enemies.
“Like the carbon module, farmers can see where they are and look at individual polygons and how they’re contributing to the whole system. Then using a whole suite of points, the farmer can understand what the costs might be in improving biodiversity across the whole system and put together a tailored plan to improve their biodiversity score on-farm.”
The Water Protection and Crop Nutrition Assessment allows farmers to manage water pollution with a specific focus on nitrogen application.
“It effectively allows farmers to understand the financial impact of nitrogen use efficiency, the impact of nitrogen losses and leaching on the bottom line and better management to prevent nitrogen leaching,” adds Dr Sykes.
Finally, the Agroforestry Carbon and Financial Assessment works as a scenario planning tool to help growers understand the impacts of what is a long-term investment and a major change to the system for most.
In a post-Basic Payment Scheme world where public goods will take centre stage, being able to measure environmental stewardship will be more important but also make good business sense, says Trinity AgTech’s senior managing director Richard Williamson, former managing director and farms director of Dyson Farming.
He says: “Some farmers are seeing this as a threat. What we’ve found is, looking at some larger businesses, it starts to make business sense and represents an opportunity.
“For me, the idea of taking control of my fertiliser bill is exciting, the idea of using less diesel is exciting and to get towards being carbon neutral at the same time
makes good business sense.
“Previously we have assumed by doing the right thing, we have the right outcome [environmentally]. But Defra will want to see some measurement of that, which is locked in by data.
“Historically you may have taken a view on environmental stewardship which wasn’t necessarily the most commercial thing to do, but without BPS, you need to know the effect of that. That’s what Sandy will help us do.
“We want to be able to remove the noise about how sustainability is actually assessed.”
Sandy was developed by a team of more than 30 scientists and engineers in consultation with farmers and industry leaders who sit on Trinity AgTech’s Advisory
The company is independent and the farmer retains ownership of all the data and information.
Mr Williamson adds: “It enables farmers to sell products with low carbon or high biodiversity scores but it is up to the farmer who leverages that information.”
The tool is available across all types of farms and farm sizes and, according to Mr Williamson, the average price for the subscription service will be around £1,500.