Implications of a machine economy

How methane emitting cattle can actually help solve Australian bushfires

The news of Australian bushfires is heartbreaking. And the Australian PM’s response is infuriating. Not just in regards to the direct measures taken, but also as to the cause of the fires and its future mitigation. All the more because there are solutions that not only protect the environment against such disasters, but bring economic benefits as well.
The irony is that the solution has already been shown to work in Australia. It involves cattle, and contrary to what you might think, this solution reduces greenhouse gasses overall. And with the help of autonomous robots and sensors we can scale it to epic proportions that just might help humanity avert climate disaster.

A profitable existing solution to flooding, drought and wildfires

There’s a story from a book from 20091 that has always stuck with me as an example of how restoring the ecosystem can be financially sound. It even relies on large amounts of cattle as an unexpected yet environmentally safe co-conspirator. The book is called An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson, and could be described as a journey exploring the possibilities of future technology.

Covers of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson
All book covers so far of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Even though the book is a decade old, it is still remarkably relevant today.

Coincidentally the chapter that tells the story is available as a free sample from the author’s website. The chapter starts with the prophetic words “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Topsoil is a subject we’ve covered on our website before. We cannot stress how important topsoil is to us – not only to the environment and all its effects – but most of all to our food supply. Without topsoil water and fertilizer are next to useless for growing crops.

Imagine if you could take billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, safely, effectively, economically and immediately

Economically storing carbon (& water) in grassland

‘Imagine if you could take billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, safely, effectively, economically and immediately,’ says Tony as we get underway. ‘Imagine if you could do it in a way that also increases biodiversity, boosts food security, reverses the advance of the desert, and improves rural communities.’

The paragraph above describes why you should read the whole chapter. The shortest conclusion I can think of is this:
A wildlife expert called Allan Savory pioneered a farming method that mimics cattle’s natural grazing patterns, without the need for a natural predator. Australia doesn’t have natural predators, hence cattle grazes in an unnatural way, resulting in topsoil dying off. As a result the ground is unable to hold on to rain water. This causes both extreme flooding and long droughts. And now extreme bushfires.

How do they make cattle graze naturally?

You should really read the chapter. I’m certain it’s the best thing you’ve read this decade2. But in short the new farming method uses mobile fencing to make cattle form a natural herd. This forces the animals to behave like they would with a potential predator nearby. The fencing now makes sure cattle grazes grass to the ground, before moving on to fresher pastures3. By doing this, new grass has room to grow, keeping the circle of life going4. Without this close grazing, old longer strands of grass fall flat on the ground and prohibit grass from sprouting again. Farmers who follow this method sell off all traditional farming equipment and instead use motorbikes to move the fences.

5 billion hectares of hope: Soil carbon – Putting carbon back where it belongs – In the Earth.

A perspective on the numbers involved

I really urge you to watch the video above. It puts a perspective on the very large numbers involved in sequestering carbon in order to lower CO2 in the air, plus better water management as an added benefit. It also addresses that while cows emit methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas, that does now make cows bad per se. We’re dealing with a systematic problem here, and focusing on details can leave you blindsided.

Lovell makes a good point that the best way to store carbon requires sunlight and green leaves. Plants can pump carbon into the ground better than any machine we could make. Using plants would be magnitudes more effective than any technological carbon sequestering solution. Globally we have 5 billion hectares of grassland that we can do something with. And if we change the management, we change the land.

What autonomous machines can do here

In the book the couple buys mobile fencing and two motorbikes to manage their land differently. They move the fencing on a daily basis, enforcing natural grazing patterns. It is labour intensive, and thus limits the solution to human capacity. But instead of making humans do the hard work, can’t we have a machine do it? Bolting a pole to a robot with caterpillar tracks and a solar panel should not be too hard. Or have one bot that gradually moves fences around during the day. I’m not suggesting a solution as much as pitching the idea of automating this rather mundane task.

A more interesting task would be mapping the grazing patterns. Moving the fences is probably less complex than knowing where to move it. This is where autonomous sensors would shine. We could have a network of environmental sensors constantly measuring temperature, air humidity, soil moisture, and CO2 levels for instance. But also more specialized data like grass length, topsoil biomass, and nutrient content.

To keep this post manageable, I won’t dive too deep into the possibilities here. In a separate post we’re looking at the role a distributed ledger like IOTA and related technology could play.


The Australian bushfires – while horrible – are only a symptom, and they wil not disappear by themselves. Image by bertknot on Flicker.

What does all this have to do with bushfires then? On a very basic level the drought is a massive factor in the recent fires. And drought has been a problem in Australia for quite a while. As has flooding. And instead of playing whac-a-mole with the symptoms when they appear, I would suggest looking at structural solutions. We say: It’s the ecosystem, stupid!5

Ecologically as well as economically sound

Regardless of your ethical stance on subjects like climate change, fossil fuels, agriculture, or livestock, this solution should be a no-brainer. Better management of grassland has a stabilizing effect on the environment, resulting in less fires and floodings. Whether the sheep on that land are also kept for producing wool6, we still want to keep cows for dairy7, or if we eat the meat or not8. This way of utilizing cattle is an immediate relief to the ecosystem, while preserving the possibility for farmers to generate income, and even keeping up food-security.

The benefits of DLT and autonomous machines

This solution does not require IOTA as a vital component. For now. Australia is burning now9. The urgency is sufficiently high to use a centralized governmental data solution, or even a commercial one, to approach the problem. Manpower should not be a huge obstacle in the short term, although current recruitment difficulties in dairy farming and issues with higher skilled positions could indicate problems here.

However, in the near future we will likely want to apply this on a much larger scale. Worldwide. 5 billions acres of hope. In remote locations that have a direct influence on populated areas, like upstream pastures in the mountains that regulate seasonal waterflow for urban areas downstream. Autonomous machines don’t mind the solitude. So automation is the way forward, even if it is combined with human labour where desired. IOTA can help achieve this in many ways.
Another reason to use IOTA is to not be dependent on a for-profit entity that might make decisions that are not in the best interest of the larger population.

Making this work in reality

There’s a lot to digest here. Especially if you’ve read the free sample chapter and watched the TEDx10. Many details regarding the automation still need figuring out, but this is a working solution that is in both our ecological and economic interest. If you want to develop this as part of a hackathon, please contact us directly. We11 would love to support you, and possibly be part of your team.

About the author

Bas van Sambeek

Communications strategist, specialized in the positioning of high tech products. I help innovative start-ups and fast growing companies in high tech industries clarify their story through positioning and storytelling.


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  • Great post! I was already familiar with Allan Savory’s work, but I had not seen the 5-billion acres of hope TEDx–a great distillation of the problem and the opportunity. The Savory Institute has started something where IOTA could be useful in conjunction with sensors: the ecological verified outcome, or EOV–see I personally don’t see human labor as the problem–I think there would be plenty of people happy to manage a herd of cattle and move fences each day if they could be compensated for doing so. If there is a system to pay people for verified carbon sequestration then perhaps a larger percentage of people could return to a life on the land as environmental stewards as well as crop/meat producers. Use of IOTA and sensor technology could help verify the outcomes–the increases in biodiversity, biomass, carbon sequestration, etc. Of course, this is dependent on a shift in mindset where society actually values ecosystem services rather than just exploiting them for short-term gains.

    • Thanks for the input on EOV, Kevin. That’s exactly what I was thinking of. I’ll add it to an iterated version when I have the time to properly update it.

      Regarding the labour side of things, I too assumed it shouldn’t be a problem. But the ABARES farm surveys suggest otherwise. Now, these are relatively easy to overcome, yet they do touch on a subject I can really put my finger on. It has to do with innovation in agriculture. Somehow some types of innovation go really fast, while others fail to gain traction. I am slightly biased here, so I’m careful to conclude anything from it, but there are some discrepancies that may make it harder to implement this and find people willing to do the kind of work needed.

      However, labour is truly not an issue. I think (or hope) we’ll soon move to a 15 hour-ish workweek, which will make labour abundant again, yet without the race to the bottom conditions. But that is a whole different post.

Implications of a machine economy