Global agriculture is facing alarming headwinds as it moves further into the 21st century. “World population is forecast to grow from 7 to 9 billion by 2050, one in six is already hungry and food production must increase by 70-100% if it is to feed this growing population”[i] . Beyond the macro rise in demand, there are environmental circumstances that are challenging supply. Greenhouse gas emissions are impacting the availability of water used for farming and triggering less predictable weather patterns causing farmers to lose crops due to volatile rain cycles. The variables that are challenging the farmer’s ability to grow sustainable crops are many and all of them are measured by their effect on crop yield.
Yield in this context refers to the amount that can be harvested divided by the amount that is planted. The optimal output is to have a harvestable crop for every seed sown, but because of several factors such as “the availability of water and soil nutrients, and a rage of site and soil specific factors (pests and weeds)”[ii] this outcome is rarely achieved, especially on an industrial scale. There are many ways to approach solving the yield problem. One of the approaches involves to the use of herbicides to combat the weeds that leech away nutrients and water from the crop. In 1974, Monsanto released its first iteration of Round-Up®, an herbicide designed to be sprayed on crops to kill the weeds that were susceptible to the products dominant ingredient, glyphosphate[iii] but not harm the Round-Up® resilient crops[iv]. Beyond the serious health concerns that surround the use of Round-Up® products on edible crops, there has been increased scrutiny around the efficiency of application and effectiveness of the herbicide treatment. “The common practice of regarding the field as homogeneous creates a sub-optimal treatment, often leading to an oversupply of nutrients and pesticides. Sub-optimal treatments create considerable costs for farmers and constitute a major source of environmental pollution”[v]. In other words, broadly spraying chemicals instead of intentional targeting may be doing more harm than good.
A company that is using digital technology to optimally distribute these necessary treatments in-real time to the plants and weeds that most need them is Blue River Technology. Blue River has optimized a process around an emerging AgTech trend called “Precision Agriculture” or PA[vi]. “PA technology allows farmers to recognize variations of time and space in the production resources and to apply treatment with a much finer degree of precision than previously possible”[vii]. Their newest product, LettuceBot is a tractor attachment that is equipped with a container of chemical solution delivered though small-nozzle sprayers that correspond with cameras that “identify every plant, makes a decision based on what it sees, and precisely sprays individual plants. LettuceBot automatically thins lettuce fields with a precision that increases yields and gives farmers a valuable alternative to scarce farm labor”[viii]. With innovations like LettuceBot, Blue River Technology has coined the Agtech term “See & Spray” which “leverage(s) deep (machine) learning to enable our machines to identify a greater variety of plants & weeds with better accuracy, custom nozzle designs to enable 1-inch spray resolution, and improved software for faster and more agile crop protection”[ix]. A nuance that cannot be over looked with this technology is that it is not only identifying weeds, but also secondary heads of lettuce that are planted too close together. These secondary heads have a negative effect on the prosperity of the plants required to thrive. While weeds can be killed by broadly spraying herbicides, the “thinning” of the secondary heads is often done by hand (which was one of my jobs as an organic farmer this summer), allowing the LettuceBot to not only “boost the yield of farms by 10%” but also cut down significantly on labor[x] .
Blue River is already looking at new ways to increase its machine learning capabilities with the data collected through the digital platform connected to the plow. “Next year Blue River hopes to deliver a prototype of a weed-killing robot that can operate in a similar way to its LettuceBot but for other crop types. “For the majority of farmers, weeds are not dying anymore. It’s an industry in crisis,” says Heraud. The idea would be to very selectively deliver fertilizer, chemicals or herbicides in ways that kill weeds only, but not the plants”[xi]. To look even further into the future, I can see Blue River developing technology that could measure the soil’s mineral content at the base of each plant in real-time and deliver a mix of organic nutrients that are deemed to be presently deficient in the soil, much like a doctor administering antibiotics through a syringe.
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[i] David J. Bennett, Richard C. Jennings. Successful Agricultural Innovation in Economies : New Genetic Technologies for Global Food Production (Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2013) pi, Google Books
[ii] Benoit A. Aubert, Andreas Schroeder, Jonathan Grimaudo, “IT and an enabler of sustainable farming: An empirical analysis of farmers’ adoption decision of precision agriculture technology” Decision Support Systems (1 July 2012) 510
[iii] Monsanto. “Backgrounder – History of Monsanto’s Glyphosate Herbisides”. 2005. http://www.monsanto.com/products/documents/glyphosate-background-materials/back_history.pdf
[v] Benoit A. Aubert, Andreas Schroeder, Jonathan Grimaudo, “IT and an enabler of sustainable farming: An empirical analysis of farmers’ adoption decision of precision agriculture technology” Decision Support Systems (1 July 2012) 510
[viii] “Smart Machines – LettuceBot wins 2017 AE50 award,” Blue River Technology. http://smartmachines.bluerivert.com/
[ix] “Company-About US – See & Spray Technology,” Blue River Technology. http://about.bluerivert.com/
[x] Katie Fehrenbacher, “The startup behind the lettuce robot has a new 3D crop scanner“ Fortune (June 3, 2015) http://fortune.com/2015/06/03/3d-crop-scanner/
“Company-About US” Blue River Technology. http://smartmachines.bluerivert.com/