What is Integrated Trophic Design?

How We're helping make PV+farming more sustainable

Integrated Trophic Design

A guest blog from founder and CEO, Jerome Goerke.

Those with an ear to the ground will know that a significant change in the way we produce our food, particularly in the West, is coming. Monoculture, for all it has brought us, has reached the point where, as a system, it is no longer sustainable for the damage it causes to the ecosystems and pollinators that interact with it. The problem we currently have is that our industrial farmers who are responsible for the health of thousands of families due to the primary role they play in delivering food security, are facing a double bind: While they may recognise 20th century practices are harmful, unless a radical systemic overhaul is financed and implemented, they will be unable to implement paradigmatic changes while their focus is the continued nourishment of society. 

There is good news on the horizon, however, and it is in an area where I am happy will play a role. What we will start seeing in the next 10 to 20 years is a system of agriculture called integrated multi-trophic farming, and the process to build it will be called integrated trophic design. It is a process of designing natural trophic systems from scratch, with energy systems as an incorporated facet, and it will largely be facilitated by AI. A trophic system is the interplay between specific insects, helpful weeds and diversified crops. The future farm design will partially replicate natural ecosystems at an industrial scale. In so doing, the farms of the future will provide a far higher yield and lower pest-control costs while adding further revenue opportunities. This is because the plants used for fertilizer, herbicide and pest control either stay in the ground or can be sold as an extra crop.

To explain this a little better, let’s take a look at one aspect of integrated trophic design: the active use of weeds, or more specifically, High Value Weeds (HVW). One of the biggest winners here is going to be the much unloved fire nettle, or stinging nettle, which is now, right when it’s needed, found in abundance. I highly recommend you check out this research paper published in 2018. It details the quite astonishing array of benefits this humble if prickly ‘weed’ offers humanity, including extensive reuse on farms, antioxidant, antimicrobial and pro-health capabilities. I am hesitate to pull one quote from the article because it is too overloaded with value, but just this is appealing enough:

“A study by Humphries and Reynolds confirmed the usefulness of nettles as a forage crop for cows. Production of milk was maintained when nettles were used to replace dry grass silage in the diet of lactating dairy cows. The addition of nettle haylage to the diet caused changes in rumen pH that were potentially beneficial to lactating dairy cows on high grain diets. It is worth noting that diets based on plant material, rich in immune-promoting bioactive compounds, can avoid the need for antibiotic growth promoters. There is increasing public and government pressure in several countries of the EU and some non-EU nations to find natural alternatives to antibiotics.” 

By planting such a specific kind of weed, and in this case a particularly virulent one, it knocks out competition from other species. Yes, it is strange to think farmers will be planting weeds, but this is how nature, efficiency and innovation work. For some crops, expect to see red clover becoming one of the prime organic soil enrichment replacements. There is significant economic benefit for doing so, as the plant can also be resold for its blossoms. This is just one plant that continually provides nitrogen fixation, with the flow of nitrogen potentially controlled by the integrated weed system (a bit like a power grid), whereby the weeds absorb the excess, allowing the central crop to reach a good yield. Compare this system to the synthetic fertilizers, which are ‘dead investments’, meaning you need to keep buying them, applying them and cleaning up after them. Not so with good trophic design.

Innovation is also coming in the field of pest control. Expect to see life science companies focusing on insect reproduction activities and pheromones, and potentially developing chlamydia-type virus solutions to control pest populations. Chlamydia-type viruses don’t kill but are much tougher for a pest species to stamp out, since the species doesn’t actively work together through swarm intelligence to prevent wide-scale death, like humans did with Covid inoculations, since the virus is generally not life threatening. Instead, the STDs simply ‘hang around’ in the species, curbing reproduction while never really going away. This line of thinking will represent a shift away from the attempted extermination approach, which is ineffective as it only rapidfires inoculation and auto-immunisation within species via swarm intelligence. 

Researchers will therefore look to develop sexually transmitted molecules (STM’s) that are partly beneficial to the pest species, meaning the microbes stay in the macrocosm longer due to a perceived trade off understood by the swarm. Chlamydia is a good example of this, since it is often asymptomatic. In short, scientists will likely seek to create a method of artificial castigation, as it were, or ‘making chaste’ (from the Latin castus) rather than castration or sterilization for pests. This shift in thinking has come about thanks to the growing awareness that if you aim to exterminate any species in the trophic cascade, not only will it defend itself via growing resistance, a natural evolutionary skill, but the attempt will always lead to human harm in the end due to the fact that we too are part of the food web. 

There is lots more to say about integrated trophic design but I will conclude by saying that is very active forming a network of ecologists and researchers who have this new area as a key focus. The goal is to create future Insight Seminars that not only reveal how to incorporate biodiversity in PV and windpark planning, for example, but to actually design the interplay between the multiple species in and around the energy generation devices for the benefit of future generations (and here I mean generations of plants, insects and animals like you and me). So if you are exploring this space, please get in touch. We’d be happy to hear from you.


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