Harnessing the power of farm-level data
George Freeman MP
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Former UK science minister George Freeman MP explains his longstanding passion, first inspired by the US Field to Market programme, for using farm-level data to drive improvements in sustainable, efficient food production, and to inform consumers about the environmental impact of their food choices. He reflects on his disappointment that the pivotal role envisaged for agrimetrics in the UK Agri-Tech Strategy has not yet transpired in practice, but highlights two recent developments which give cause for optimism that Britain may get back on track to mirror the US in harnessing the enormous potential of agricultural data and sustainability metrics.
It was one of those light-bulb moments when everything comes together, and makes sense. As a newly elected MP, with a background in tech and agriculture, I was chairing a meeting at Westminster of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture in 2012.
The session included a presentation by the US-based Field to Market programme, a collaborative, multi-partner initiative bringing together a broad range of stakeholders, from farmers and agribusinesses through to food processors and retailers, conservation NGOs, academic scientists and the US Government.
Field to Market (FtM) described their work bringing together and analysing field-level information to measure sustainability performance on a farm, regional and national basis. They explained how the FtM programme was promoting continuous improvements in sustainable agriculture, measured against key indicators such as land, water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and soil quality.
This presentation established in my mind some of the key learnings and principles in relation to the potential value of farm-level data which remain with me to this day.
Crucially, it confirmed the importance of expressing agricultural sustainability as a measure of resource use and environmental impact per unit of production, not per area farmed. Set against a global need to increase food production by 70% by 2050, only by understanding the footprint of our food choices on a product by product basis can we hope to drive improvements in both productivity and sustainability.
It highlighted the need for sustainability metrics to take account of a broad balance of sustainability indicators, recognising that focusing on a single indicator – such as carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions – could mask damaging impacts in other key areas, such as land use or water use.
Critically, the FtM work also confirmed to me the vital contribution of agricultural science and innovation in driving continuous improvements in farm-level sustainability.
Below are three spidergraphs presented by FtM at the APPG meeting. They track the national sustainability ‘fieldprint’ of US soybeans, cotton and wheat at regular intervals from 1980 to 2011, with blue indicating the earlier average values, and red the most recent.
The results clearly underline the much more dramatic progress made in reducing the fieldprint in crops such as soybeans and cotton than in wheat, reflecting the comparative levels of investment and innovation – particularly in genetics – in those crops.
It is also worth recognising the value and role of farm-level data in supporting the delivery of farm policy objectives.
The US Government has a stated aim to increase agricultural production by 40%, while cutting the environmental footprint of US agriculture in half, by 2050. To help deliver against those objectives, USDA and Field to Market recently announced a partnership agreement to deliver a range of Government-backed incentive schemes to accelerate climate-smart practice uptake by US farmers, based on FtM’s use of data to define, measure and advance the sustainability of agricultural production.
This coincides exactly with my own vision of embedding farm-level data and sustainability metrics at the heart of a policy agenda focused on securing the optimum balance between food production, resource use and environmental impact.
That is precisely why, as Life Sciences Minister, I went out on a limb to insist that metrics and data should be a thematic focus for the centres of innovation established under the 2013 UK Agri-Tech Strategy.
Indeed, the original ambition for Agrimetrics was as a pivotal hub of the Strategy, providing a national, centralised approach to the collection, analysis and application of farm-level data.
Our vision was to create the evidence base needed to benchmark and track the impact of farm policies, to inform the agricultural R&D agenda, to drive best practice improvements in sustainable, efficient production at individual farm level, and to provide information to consumers about the sustainability impact of their food choices.
It is a perennial source of disappointment to me that this did not transpire in practice. Instead, Agrimetrics appears to have focused on developing a consultancy operation, rather than providing a service of benefit to the country as a whole.
Despite this, I have continued to make the case for consistent, meaningful and science-based metrics for sustainable agriculture, focused on measuring resource use and environmental impact per functional unit of output.
In 2021, alongside Sir Iain Duncan Smith, I was asked by the PM to form the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR), to identify and develop proposals across a range of areas with potential to drive innovation, growth and competitiveness.
In relation to agri-environment innovation, our report noted that “the agri-environmental policy agenda has historically been dominated by an incorrect presumption that productive farming cannot be environmentally sustainable”. We specifically advised that ‘farm to fork’ metrics are needed to properly measure the environmental impact of a crop or food product, not only to help consumers make enlightened choices, but also to pioneer a new farm support regime which rewards genuine environmental enhancement.
Two recent reports give me some cause for optimism that those recommendations may not have fallen on stony ground.
The first is the publication by Defra of a research report comparing the six different carbon footprinting tools currently in use within UK agriculture. This found significant divergence in the calculation methodology and resulting information between tools, and confirmed what many have been saying for some time that there is an urgent need for harmonisation or standardisation of measurement.
The second is the release of a two-year study led by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) into food eco-labelling. This highlights the need for a harmonised approach to providing sustainability information to consumers, and recommends a product-based approach to measuring environmental outcomes - focused on four key criteria: land use, climate change, water use and water quality.
Both developments point to the need for a more consistent, science-based approach to the development of sustainability metrics in agriculture and food production.
However, in recommending a secondary database, or ‘off the shelf’ approach to quantifying the environmental impact of different foodstuffs and ingredients, the IGD proposals may sideline a potentially critical role of environmental indicators in understanding and improving best practice in sustainable efficient production at the individual farm level.
Here again, Field to Market research has highlighted the enormous potential for farm-level information to support continuous monitoring and improvement.
A 2009 pilot project in Nebraska involving Field to Market, Bunge, Kellogg’s and 22 growers covering 40,000 acres of corn production analysed farm-level sustainability data to complete the carbon and water footprints for a local mill producing Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.
The summarised findings are shown in the two graphs below:
While all 22 growers considered their farm management practices to be ‘sustainable’, and all were achieving similar yields, the results show extremely wide variations in resource use efficiency, with the most efficient growers using half as much energy, and a third of the water, compared with the least efficient producers.
Data-derived insights such as this provide the basis to monitor, understand and disseminate advice on best practice to drive continuous improvements in sustainable efficient production at the individual farm level.
Indeed, as the APPG on Science and Technology in Agriculture has repeatedly pointed out, Defra has already funded a significant body of work on sustainability indicators and metrics as part of the Sustainable Intensification Research Programme (2014-18), including the prototype development of a first-of-its-kind benchmarking dashboard allowing individual farmers to assess and compare their performance against those indicators and against a weighted average of up to 25 other farmers.
I understand that a research consortium involving some of the UK’s leading research institutes and university departments, together with established farmer networks in England and Scotland, is preparing proposals to implement this prototype on a trial basis.
I sincerely hope those proposals are embraced and supported by Ministers. It is not too late to adopt a science-based approach to harnessing the power of farm-level data.
George Freeman MP - former UK Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation.