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Blog Post
3 October 2017

Leapfrogging into the green future, is it going to be tech for tat?

Photo by Knoell Marketing via Unsplash 

After waking myself up with the first dose of coffee of the day, I headed to the session on knowledge based bioeconomies at the Agri4D Conference 2017. I looked forward to this session because I was not familiar with the topic yet and could not really imagine what my take-home message would be.

The session leaders, Ivar Virgin (SEI) and Antony Chapoto (IAPRI), did a wonderful job in guiding the audience towards a common understanding of what bioeconomy is about. Appears, this approach to natural resource management has the potential to transform our agriculture and economy as we know it today. Bioeconomy is about making the best of our resources, it is about innovation, efficiency and sustainability. The examples presented at this session did not disappoint: There is a scope for bioeconomy at the nanoscale across smallholder farming as well as at a scale of national planning.

Hiep le Ngoc (An Giang University) explores how, with the help of black soldier fly, also known as BSF, food waste can become feed for farm birds and livestock. BSF larvae feed on organic waste, transforming it into compost. At the same time, larvae itself can be fed to, for example, chicken. These insects have global distribution, including moist tropic and subtropical regions, and can tolerate extreme temperatures. In fact, research from SLU shows that BSFs deactivate pathogens and chickens fed with black soldier fly larvae show lower rates of salmonella. It is also a more natural feed for farm birds than, for example, corn.

Moving further on a pathway to sustainable feed, Ramy Elgendy (University of Padova) demonstrated that there are other ways to avoid competition for food between humans and livestock by shifting to animal feed that is derived from agro-industrial by-products, such as grape leftovers during wine making. Indeed, it does sound strange to feed cows with soy and corn, while millions of people go hungry. “We are free to choose what we feed to our livestock and thereby we make a choice what kind of animals we want to breed and with which impact and footprint” said Ramy Elgendy.

Another bioeconomy manifestation is bioenergy. Innovation in this sector is particularly important for the African continent. 70% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa relies on biomass for energy. It means that most of the population burns firewood, charcoal, agricultural residues and animal dung for cooking food and for getting done with other day-to-day routines. Although bioenergy is a renewable energy source, over-exploitation can lead to deforestation & soil erosion. In this respect biochar can offer an accessible and affordable source of energy and improve soil fertility and sequester carbon at the same time. Biochar is a form of charcoal and it is made through a process called pyrolysis which involves burning of biomass in an oven with little or no oxygen.

 

Biochar Technology Demostration in Kerby, Oregon. Photo by Marcus Kauffman via Flickr.

Biochar Technology Demostration in Kerby, Oregon.

Photo by Marcus Kauffman via Flickr.

Even though biochar is quite common in the US, transferring this technology to Africa has shown to be challenging: biochar production technologies, biochar application recommendations for different soils and crops as well as design of integrated waste-food-energy systems remain major tasks for research and development. Presentations by Thomas Kätterer (SLU) and Yahia Mahmoud (Lund University) underscored these issues, both displaying a different viewpoint on the topic, testing if biochar is a valid solution for farmers in the long-term.

While Kätterer looks into ways to improve long-term food security in Kenya by finding an optimal dose of biochar to be spread over fields to increase yields, Mahmoud is more focused on finding a conclusive way to bring biochar to its end-users within communities. As a student sitting in the auditorium, I was once again torn between natural and social sciences: Wheather to go with Kätterer and believe that a mix of about 10 Mg/ha of biochar would enable an increase in soil fertility or to follow the path of doubt and dialogue to find a solution within communities with Mahmoud? For me it exposes the struggle of biochar research and application, revealing that even the experts do not have a definanite answer to how it should work. Not just yet!

Bioeoconomy is a futuristic concept. So, it is no surprise that information technology has a role to play. ICT in farming is already widespread in affluent countries, where robots take soil samples and then define the precise amount of fertilizers and water the crops  need to get the highest yields. Hopefully with time, any farmer in the world will be able to reap the benefits of these technological advancement. And it’s refreshing to see that there are some attempts to achieve it.

Calvince Okello (Vi Agroforestry) uses mobile phones in areas with lack of extension services to inform farmers about technology adoption, weather and market prices. Some concise and easy to follow statistical data reveals these ICTs are already making a difference. For example, this research helped to find out that women tend to use mobile services in the evening because they are too busy in the mornings with other responsibilities. So, Okello arranges communication for women in the evening, which would not have been possible with an ordinary extension service set-up.

After we got the chance to stretch our legs the session continued by digging into the role of nanoparticles with Salme Timmusk (SLU). Appears, these 0,000001 mm size particles can improve the growth of rhizobacteria which assist plants in their nutrient uptake. For this quality rhizobacteria is used as an ingredient in biofertilizers. This is apparently a very well researched technology, but has not been very well communicated to farmers (showing once more the persisting lab à field gap).

Researchers are still arguing about the definition of bioeconomy. However, it is an exciting concept that stimulates innovation and resource efficiency with a market value in mind. All essential for sustainable development. Clearly, the bioeconomy pathway will require transparent knowledge sharing, cross-sector collaboration and a novel view on academic research.

What is obvious to me though is that the best high-tech solutions won’t root within  communities with low capabilities. And that is, perhaps, the biggest issue with development of bioeconomies. In other words, bioeconomy will not happen in impoverished societies with weak social structures. After all, the new technologies can only work if they are accepted by the people and incorporated in socio-cultural setting of a certain place. Interestingly, the discussion on such a techno oriented concept as bioeconomy revealed to me is that no matter how good the tech solution is, it is far from being the only answer when it comes to sustainable development.

This blog post is by Yasmin Stoderegger. Yasmin comes from the South of Austria. In the recent years she spent a lot of time in the beautiful city of Vienna where she studied and worked. After a break filled with travelling and exploring, she decided to enrol  in the Environmental Science (EnvEuro) Masters Programme. Her programme started off in Copenhagen last year and has now brought her to Uppsala to study at SLU. Yasmin is very much looking forward to explore Sweden and Scandinavia in the months to come.

This post is part of the coverage of the Agri4D Conference 2017.

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