Food production in the 21st century faces myriad challenges. The food system has to produce more to feed a growing population with a smaller rural labour force and disruption from climate change. Indeed, according to the UN, we will need to produce 70% more food to meet the needs of a growing population, which could reach as many as 10bn people.
A systems-wide re-think is needed. The adoption of more efficient and sustainable production methods is paramount.
Reflecting an understanding that the way we produce, process and consume food is in drastic need of an overhaul, investment in food- and ag-tech continues to grow apace, Daniel Koppel, CEO of ag-tech innovator Prospera told FoodNavigator. However, the projects attracting investors are evolving.
“A lot of investment in ag-tech to date has gone toward heavy machinery, like GPS-enabled autonomous tractors, and digitising information (enabling growers to visualise agronomic and operational information on a digital platform). What we’re seeing now is continued investment in both areas, but also more investment in optimising agronomic information -- using things like machine learning and AI to analyse it and give growers actionable recommendations,” he explained.
Extending ag-tech’s reach to new applications
Cloud-based solutions, lower communication costs and more powerful software and hardware is enabling companies to invest in ag-tech solutions for both high value, low volume sectors – such as fruits grown in greenhouses – and increasingly lower value higher volume sectors like commodity crops.
This shift is a natural evolution for the technology, Koppel believes.
“All technology sectors, from energy to automotive to computers, begin by focusing on higher value areas and then expanding to serve the broader market.”
However, he continues: “It’s not just crop value that determines ag-tech applications. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence to provide growers with actionable insights requires collecting and processing enormous amounts of data. As data scientists, we saw greenhouses as an attractive starting point not only because they are high value crops, but also because they offer much richer repositories of agronomic data that we could use to inform our algorithms."
For instance, greenhouse crops are much more agronomically complex than staple crops. They require constant decision-making about irrigation, fertilisation and spraying and benefit from multiple growing seasons each year. “This complexity and frequency allowed us to collect a lot more data a lot faster than we could have from outdoor row crops, which involve fewer decisions and only have one growing season per year. In addition, greenhouses are smaller-scale and somewhat more predictable than outdoor crop operations, making it physically easier to collect the data we need.”
Lower costs would change the game
The major barrier to wider adoption of ag tech is cost, Koppel said. As the cost of tools to collect and interpret data drops, he believes further applications will be forthcoming.
“What will really be a game-changer in terms of ag-tech applications is lowering the cost of data acquisition. Staple crop growers could get very detailed, plant-level information on their fields using sensors and drones. But at the moment, that would be prohibitively expensive.
“Until we can acquire high-quality data across large areas cost-effectively, we’re not going to see the kind of widespread adoption we need to manage global food demand and climate change.”
This is an important focus area for Prospera. The company has already ‘proven’ its technology by working in greenhouses and with speciality crops. Prospera counts growers like Del Campo and Naturesweet, who supply produce to retailers like WalMart and Costco in the US. These growers have leveraged Prospera technology to achieve a 30% reduction in water and fertiliser use, Koppel noted.
“The challenge now is to apply that technology on a much larger scale without dramatically increasing costs. That’s what we are focused on today,” he said.
Valley Irrigation tie-up: 'We'll be able to cost-effectively acquire high-quality crop data'
As the company develops these solutions, it also needs to build trust among growers. This is an important consideration, Koppel stressed.
“With their livelihoods on the line, they’re not going to just accept an unproven new technology: gaining their trust requires a level of technical maturity and several cycles of proof-of-concept use.”
This was one consideration when Prospera launched its three-year partnership with one of the world’s largest commercial irrigation companies, Valley Irrigation.
“Valley Irrigation has built an incredible level of trust with its dealers and with growers. That trust dramatically accelerates technology adoption in a way that is very difficult for smaller or younger companies to achieve alone,” Koppel suggested.
The tie-up is working to turn Valley Irrigation’s 84,000 in-field irrigation pivots into smart data collection hubs, and ultimately, into ‘autonomous growing machines’. It's the first time anyone has mounted cameras to centre pivot irrigation machines to collect sub-millimetre data on crops, the company claimed.
Importantly, the partnership will also help drive down the cost of this kind of data collection, Koppel continued. “Using Valley’s ubiquitous internet-connected pivots, we’ll be able to cost-effectively acquire high-quality crop data, then use our AI technology to analyse the data and take action.”
A sledgehammer to crack a nut?
To some, such high-tech solutions for commodities like wheat and corn might sound like overkill. Koppel disagrees, insisting that the democratisation of ag-tech is vital for future food security.
“It is critically important that we bring the benefits of ag-tech to staple crops and to developing countries, as that accounts for the majority of global food production. Agriculture in developing nations ranges from subsistence-level farming on very small plots in sub-Saharan Africa to million-acre operations in places like Brazil, so there’s quite a range of need and applications.”
And, of course, the widespread adoption of cell phones and mobile coverage in emerging markets is likely to progress this agenda. “I think we’ll see large-scale ag-tech solutions like what we’re doing with Valley Irrigation complemented by small-scale ag-tech based on cell phones and similarly scalable, inexpensive technologies,” Koppel predicted.
“Everyone in our industry recognises that agriculture needs to move from a largely intuition-based industry with wide variability to a data-based one with more consistency. Ag-tech today is actually a very crowded market with a lot of innovation because many people see an opportunity to address a largely un-digitised industry and solve a civilisation-scale problem while preserving our resources and environment.”