16. A Toast to AgTech 

High-value crops like grapes or almonds have proven to be challenging to predict yield accurately. As a result, farmers settle for twenty to forty percent uncertainty with these crops. However, Vinsight, a startup company decided that they wanted to turn things around for these vineyards and wineries.

As stated in the article listed below, “The startup offers forecasting software and data analytics to farmers who are growing almost anything that’s not corn, wheat or soy.” Usually when people talk about AgTech companies and software, they tend to think about produce like lettuce, berries, and other vegetables that we normally eat, but not everyone thinks about wine.

Vinsight software is the same as most precision agriculture software, it conducts data analytics and provides forecasts for its clients (vineyards/wineries). It’s great to see that the applications in precision agriculture are being applied to not some specific, but all aspects of agriculture.

Vinsight’s software is doing so well, it has hit a 10% error rate, which is three-times better than industry standard. The Vinsight founder and CEO shared how they make this possible. She said, “What we do is constantly analyze and take in data on a daily basis, including from remote sensors, weather stations and satellites, to identify what is happening on a farm as it correlates with crop performance or yield. We also look at data trends on a ten to twenty year historical series. That means we’ve taken a lot of data out of old Excel files and run it through our system.” It’s a bit concerning that they are constantly taking and analyzing data. How constant is constant? Is it enough that maybe the ones taking and analyzing the data are overworking? Are they following ethical guidelines for the amount of time they have the workers working?

Vinsight gives grape and almond growers a high-tech crystal ball

15. Go Green

As of right now, the human population is ballooning and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. As you can imagine, that is a lot of people for the planet to support as it is not growing along with the population. The planet is expected to provide food for the entire population, but that may prove to be difficult given that the population is exponentially increasing. Also, consider water shortages and droughts and we will definitely have more problems in trying to grow food to feed ourselves. It will wage war amongst humans and soon enough, we will die off and what will be left is an apocalyptic world; that’s worst case scenario. Best case is that we find a way to remedy and prevent any food or water shortages with the help of technology!
The machines have arrived and begun the Green Revolution. Through advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, the agriculture industry has made strides in maintaining their crops in good conditions. In addition to good crop yield, they are able to save water, make better decisions for harvesting, and detect crops with diseases and remove them immediately. These are only a few of the things that the use of artificial intelligence has helped remedy and improve in the agriculture industry.
As mentioned in the article linked below, deep learning is a powerful method of computing for software developers to use to train the computer what to do as opposed to just telling it specific commands to execute. An example of deep learning in agriculture is feeding a computer photos of diseased and healthy plants and labeling them accordingly. These photos help it learn what healthy and diseased plants look like; therefore, when a farmer wants to see if his plant is diseased, he can simply snap a photo of it, have it processed through the disease detection software, and then be given the results on whether is is diseased or not. From there on, the farmer is able to make a decision on the plant and can improve his crop yield.
Pretty soon, the fields will be filled with these robots that help farmers do a better job and will improve the agriculture industry. Imagine that, the Green Revolution led by the robots.
https://www.wired.com/2016/05/future-humanitys-food-supply-hands-ai/
 

14. Robot Takeover

Joann Muller describes how the AgTech industry is picking up the pace and making more and more advances. She mentions the presence of high-tech automation increasing in the farm, more specifically, robotic tractors that plow fields on their own. It’s called the LettuceBot. It is later described that the LettuceBot is a robot that makes plant-by-plant decisions to increase yield and apply pesticides by taking data-gathered through cameras and sensors-and making predictions from it. With all these new automated bots, I have to question how safe and accurate they are.
The question of safety and accuracy doesn’t seem to be much of a concern right now, but it is something the farmers claim to look into later. Right now, the LettuceBot seems to do its intended job;however, the farmers haven’t confirmed that it is accurate. There is no form of validity for this machine.
I don’t believe that it is ethical for the farmers to be using this machine if it has not proven its accuracy or how safe it is. From the consumer side, who’s to say that machine is picking bad crops. From the corporate side, who’s to say that it is yielding the most profit.
Before choosing to use these new machinery in the Agriculture industry, they need to ensure its productivity and safety.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2015/07/09/forbes-agtech-summit-smarter-tractors-robots-make-farming-more-efficient/#2196ac19c40f

12. AgTech vs Climate Change pt. 2

To combat the water issue in California, some aerial technology already in place is pretty similar to what has been used by other imaging companies for decades. To assess fields, aircraft flown low over the ground. There are special cameras attached to the aircraft that focus on particular wavelengths to assess some indicators of health in a crop (water stress, chlorophyll content, and biomass). Growers can access the processed images later on phones or tablets, which I feel may be popular amongst growers and farmers.

The problem then is, how are these images explained to the growers and farmers. Is someone hired to interpret the images to farmers? Or is that provided with the processed images.

It is argued that precision agriculture is taking away jobs from fieldworkers. That may be true, but precision agriculture is also creating a lot more and new jobs. These jobs can be filled by the ex-fieldworkers which is great! Another issue that this brings up though is, are these people appropriate matches for these new jobs? Is it something that can be taught to these new potential workers? Is it even worth being taught?

I think it’s worth it. I think these ex-fieldworkers would be appropriate matches for these new jobs since they have first hand experience with the crops. They know what a bad or good crop looks like. They will be experts in that field and be able to help interpret images better.

11. AgTech vs Climate Change pt. 1

As you may already know, California is the country’s top agricultural producer, growing two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of its vegetables. As stated in the article below, “The state’s ag-focused economy means growers have historically been power players in politics, especially in discussions about apportioning water.” However; as growth, drought, and climate change have increased scarcity, the industry has been suffering.

If you recall, in 2015, during a record-setting drought, some cities and towns were ordered to reduce water use by 25 percent. A lot of people started putting blame on the agriculture industry as they use a lot of the states water supply.

However; farmers were among those who took the hardest hit. As stated in the article, “Many faced huge cuts to water allotments from state and federal systems and had to pay overblown sums for the water they could access.” This was hard on farmers, especially the small and family-owned.

You might be thinking that California got a lot of rain this last winter and a lot of California is no longer in a drought; however, the long-term forecast for severe water shortages remains unchanged. Even though most of California is no longer in a drought, climate change is still a an issue and will continue tightening the state’s water supply. To keep crop yields high, or even just to stay in business, farmers will have to become more calculating and they can do so with precision agriculture!

It would be unethical for people that can help solve one of the world’s biggest problems not to help. This is a plea to the Silicon Valley to keep the AgTech startups a float as they will be the next step to help save the world’s biggest problem.

https://www.wired.com/2017/05/silicon-valley-aims-save-californias-water/

10. AgTech vs Changing Demand

In addition to supply challenges, the demand changing and increasing. As stated in the article below, “The organics market grew 11.3 percent in 2014 and is only anticipated to continue to grow.” This goes to show that the demand is not only increasing, but also changing. The debate over GMOs and non-organic food has changed the demand in non-organic food and organic food.

 

In addition to the change in demand and consumer preferences, there is also shift in regulatory requirements that as a result will force us to:

  • Develop new food options without increasing the burden on the production system
  • Find alternatives to weed, disease and pest control that use fewer chemicals 
  • Provide economical ways to ensure food safety and traceability throughout the production chain

Some technologies such as computational biology, tissue engineering and automation are already playing a role in changing the current demand trends. For example, one company is using a tissue-engineering technique called “biofabrication” to create animal replacements, primarily for leather. The next step is to start making biofabricated meats.

With that being said, you can see and understand that there is definitely a change in demand in food production. In this case, the demand for animal agriculture might start to decrease. However, there will be a higher demand in other areas of agriculture as these technological advancements keep taking place.

https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/07/the-next-food-frontier-how-agtech-can-save-the-world/

9. AgTech vs Decreasing Reliability

Climate change is real, no if, ands, or buts. Fields now have greater susceptibility to weeds and diseases and lesser predictability in the weather. As a result, yield reliability is decreasing and that makes the lack of agriculture production diversification in the United States problematic. Just to scare you a little more, corn and soy already represent more than $100 billion dollars and more than 70 percent of U.S. food production.

As stated in the article below, the USDA National Agriculture Statistics show that 44 percent of the total agriculture production in the United States sits within a 500-mile radius of St. Louis. Many crops grown in this area have been neglected because of the high cost in research and development for getting a trait to market. This is why diversification in agriculture production is necessary, regardless of how easy it is or isn’t to achieve it.

To hinder decreasing reliability, we need to:

  • Find new ways to understand soil health
  • Optimize decisions around what to plant and how to grow it, based on the transparency of seed performance.
  • Create cheaper and faster research and development methods to select or develop new seeds
  • Reduce and reuse the 1.3 billion tons of food that gets wasted each year

These following courses of action all pertain to the health of the fields and crop yield. The article suggests that to improve the reliability of farming, it begins with genetics and soil. Costs of genomic sequencing have decreased and as a result have opened a a lot of opportunities that include improving seed breeding, finding new plant traits and understanding our soil.

As stated in the article, “Genetically engineering microbes is a key example of foundational technology that will help address this very issue/challenge of reliability.” One company that is already practicing combining microbe science with computation and automation technologies is Zymergen.

I won’t bore you with the specifics as to how their technology works, but I will tell you this. Their technology scales quickly due to the fact that it’s automated.

In conclusion, AgTech is coming to the rescue again with hindering the decrease in reliability.

https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/07/the-next-food-frontier-how-agtech-can-save-the-world/