Digital innovation enabling biomass crops to contribute towards net zero


9 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

Field of miscanthus

Photo: Kin Chan

Kevin Lindegaard is director of Crops for Energy, one of the UK’s leading authorities on biomass crops and their use in environmental applications. He has dedicated his career to biomass crops consultancy and runs the Sustainable Fuel Register.

Calvium is collaborating with Crops for Energy on the Envirocrops project, developing a web app that enables farmers and land managers to investigate the suitability and profitability of growing biomass crops on different land types.

Biomass is organic matter, meaning it is made of material that comes from living things. It can be used for low carbon energy generation and is projected to help the UK meet its net zero targets. In this interview, Kevin shares his three-decades of knowledge about biomass crops and their use beyond energy, and the role he sees digital technologies playing in shaping a more sustainable future for agriculture.

Photos and job titles of Kevin Lindegaard and Jo Morrison

What excites you about biomass crops?

The thing most people immediately think of is biomass equals bioenergy, and I’d like to dispel that myth straight away. What inspires me about biomass crops is the versatility; the fact you can use them for so many things as a product but also whilst they’re growing. They have many key capable functions and most of the industry is looking beyond bioenergy, thinking about all the other fabulous things you can do with them: pharmaceuticals, the biorefinery approach that will allow for biopolymers, bio packaging, sustainable sources of cement, mulches and composts, things that have a much more impactful approach to agriculture such as using willow leaves as fodder for animals. And the key thing is providing farmers with more income.

Also, it’s what they do when they grow: flood mitigation, potential water quality improvements by buffering water courses, biodiversity benefits, the carbon they are storing in the ground. Biomass crops are therefore multi-functional and ambidextrous! On one hand, they produce a great deal of useful material, in a short time with a high land resource efficiency. On the other hand, whilst growing they provide ecosystem services and biodiversity net gain.

Where is the most exciting and impactful work on biomass crops happening?

We are the lucky recipients of funding from the UK government to do innovative research and that’s helping organisations, SMEs in the main, that have been working in this sector for a long time to finally get some of these ideas to fruition. 

The research outcomes from over 50 years of academic studies means we’ve got a huge evidence base. Now, there is an opportunity for SMEs and the research bodies, along with government policymakers and conservation bodies, to come up with something that is workable and highly impactful for everyone, that can be taken forward with a pragmatic approach.

Because the reality is that the status quo is not working. The current farming situation needs to be tweaked in order to support things like bird life and pollinator species, while also allowing farmers to make money from their land. We need all these things to work together in harmony.

How do you see digital technologies supporting the agriculture sector in their sustainability goals?

I think everyone realises that climate change is happening; it’s in the news every day. All of the reports have suggested that biomass and biomass crops are part of the solution. So we need to make it part of the solution and do this as rapidly as possible whilst also ensuring that it is done to the highest standards of sustainability. 

Sunset over field
Photo: Federico Respini, Unsplash

In order to get the upscale, we need digital tools like Envirocrops to help people make decisions. In the current digital age people want very easy access to information; they thrive on the ability to make instant decisions.

Think about how you used to get car or home insurance 30 years ago: you’d make a phone call, it would take about 15 minutes to get a quote, then you’d have to ring someone else and get another quote. It was a very slow, methodical process before price comparison websites came along and disrupted the market, then all sorts of digital enablers made other things possible.

That is the sort of thing we need to do: we need to harness the digital revolution to make it as simple as possible, so when an idea comes into someone’s head they can immediately look into it and find some answers.

With new innovations coming forward, we can move very quickly to help with the fight against climate change. It’s not the silver bullet but it’s part of the arsenal.

The Envirocrops project aims to increase awareness, knowledge and take up of biomass use through digital tools. How do you see Envirocrops shaping the future of energy crops?

Digital technologies are increasingly supporting the agriculture sector in their sustainability goals. With these new products and tools, new marketplaces are required to connect the customers with the vendors, and we need to make that process as simple, comprehensive and satisfying as possible.

When Amazon started, it was just about selling books, then came CDs and digital products, then getting other people to sell through the platform. The reason so many people use Amazon is because it’s easy and you know you’ll be able to find anything there.

With Envirocrops, it makes sense if you are going to build something that has information on crops, to provide everything the user could possibly want to know about them in one place – so you never need to look elsewhere. As soon as it becomes big, it is impossible to compete against, so everyone joins in.

But instead of paying shareholders, all the profits that come from Envirocrops will go back into the development of the app and R&D in the biomass crops sphere. As a result of that, it is something that is designed to help farmers help themselves but also help the environment. The knowledge people acquire from it will lead to quality projects and then best practice is created. This will create huge momentum in helping the planet move towards net zero.

What is the role of digital tech in enabling the audience to engage with the complex factors of biomass growing?

We understand that we’re building a decision support system for people that might not even be interested or know anything about these different crops, and therefore there’s a huge learning curve for people to make. To deal with that, we’ve created an interactive game called Cropper, which allows you to look at all of the things you need to do to make money and produce a decent yield from your land over a 10-year period.

Screengrabs from the Cropper game

We’ve made it as interactive and entertaining as we can in order to get people thinking about all the permutations involved. They can play the game without risking their own land and money, and this enables them to build knowledge and understand how it might work on their own land. Once you’ve got the gist of it you can use the app to do the serious number crunching.

There will be lots of people who don’t know that the tool is going to be part of their life in the future; for example people at schools and colleges who become tomorrow’s decision makers – be that in corporate companies with carbon reduction plans, local authorities, government policy makers – or agricultural students who become farmers, farm managers or agronomists.

So skilling those people up now, and doing something that is engaging, is very important because they will be the custodians of the planet in the coming decades. We are getting them all ready to make better environmental decisions.

This project is well networked with funding from DESNZ, has partners in AFBI and NFU Energy and close ties with Biomass Connect, which organises webinars and events. With the momentum for sustainable fuels from these major players, is this reflected by an increasing appetite for innovation in the agriculture sector more broadly? Could you share examples?

Everything is changing. In the biomass sector,  so much of the current supply chain is based on old-fashioned technology with lots of manual labour involved. That will be turned on its head as a result of innovations that are coming forward with the Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme – things like robotics, drones flying over crops to predict yields, and low impact machinery with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

It’s a really interesting time because we’ve never had a massive influx of funding to turn all these bright ideas into cutting edge technology. It’s like we’re bypassing a century and that is very exciting to be part of.

Person holding up a drone in a grain field
Photo: David Henrichs, Unsplash

How has stakeholder engagement through the Expert Panel Advisory Group for Envirocrops affected the project?

The idea of the Expert Panel is to thoroughly look at the app and provide high-level feedback. We’ve targeted people from different key sectors – policy makers, consultants, farmers, academics – so we can get very specific feedback on the particular field they might be involved in. It’s early days but their insight will help us get to the point of commercialisation.

It’s an opportunity to bring everyone with us. It’s quite a big ask to produce something that works for everyone – you could say it’s a bit like devising a universal theory of cosmology! None of us are Einsteins, but when you put lots of brains together, amazing things are possible!

What role do you see for digital innovation in supporting specialists and policy and communities to increase sustainable practices?

I truly believe that Envirocrops can be a game changer and a global force in moving towards net zero. The great thing about Envirocrops is that when it is adopted by users, they will be inputting yield and carbon information into the system. This will create a huge database that will enable models to be refined and made more accurate. 

This will inform the science with real data and help policy makers to be proactive rather than reactive when they are coming up with new ideas to combat climate change. 

Thank you Kevin for sharing your expert insight into this exciting sector.


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