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Precision Agriculture

February 16, 2010


Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, once quipped, “There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.” A generation later another statesman, Daniel Webster, added, “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.” Agriculture has come a long ways since the days of Franklin and Webster. They lived in an agrarian society and didn’t live to see agriculture enter the industrial age. Agriculture has only recently started to move from the industrial age to information age as art and science of agriculture have come together to change the face of that sector.


Agricultural science first started overtaking the art of farming with the development of fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and genetically-modified plants. One of the leaders in that field was Monsanto, a company that has been labeled both sinner and saint [“The parable of the sower,” The Economist, 21 November 2009].

“Few companies excite such extreme emotions as Monsanto. To its critics, the agricultural giant is a corporate hybrid of Victor Frankenstein and Ebenezer Scrooge, using science to create foods that threaten the health of both people and the planet, and intellectual-property laws to squeeze every last penny out of the world’s poor. … To its admirers, the innovations in seeds pioneered by Monsanto are the world’s best hope of tackling a looming global food crisis. Hugh Grant, the firm’s boss since 2003, says that without the sort of technological breakthroughs Monsanto has achieved the world has no chance of doubling agricultural output by 2050 while using less land and water, as many believe it must. Mr Grant, of course, would say that. But he is not alone. Bill Gates sees Monsanto’s innovations as essential to the agricultural revolution in Africa to which his charitable foundation is committed. Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, is also a fan.”

This post, however, is not about Monsanto per se, but about how science and technology are being put to use in the agricultural sector. Monsanto’s roots are in the pharmaceuticals and chemicals sector. “The original company was formed in 1901 to make saccharine. In 2000 it merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn, a drugmaker. Two years later the group’s agricultural activities were spun off into a new Monsanto.” Although the company still makes products like herbicides (its most famous product is Roundup), “today most of Monsanto’s $11.7 billion of annual sales come from seeds, increasingly of genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, varieties, and from licensing genetic traits.” The article continues:

“Indeed, it is now best known, for better or worse, for applying biotechnology to seed production, winning a string of the sort of patents on living organisms that became legal in America only after a Supreme Court decision in 1980. … In the 13 years since GM seed was first farmed commercially, agriculture—and Monsanto with it—has become increasingly central to several of the world’s most pressing policy debates, says Mr Grant, a Scot who joined the company in 1981. Nowadays he spends a good deal of his time taking part in those debates, which range from concerns about higher prices and shortages of supply to the use of land for growing biofuels rather than food, climate change and water. Arguments over water, thinks Mr Grant, ‘will dwarf the discussion that has taken place so far over food.’ Monsanto is also getting caught up in the debate over intellectual-property rights in food and their implications for antitrust policy. … How successful Monsanto and rival makers of GM seed, such as DuPont and Syngenta, are in winning round a sceptical public and policymakers will play a big part in determining how lucrative their innovations prove to be.”

As noted above, the world’s population is predicted to peak around the year 2050 near the 9 billion mark. That’s nearly a 50 percent increase from today’s population. Feeding all those people will be a challenge and many analysts believe that only science and technology can find a solution.

“Monsanto’s innovations fall into two categories. The first is breeding, which seedmakers have been doing with increasing sophistication for decades. Monsanto is able to accelerate the process of selective breeding through better mapping of a seed’s genetic qualities and its suitability to grow in a particular place. At Monsanto’s research laboratory in St Louis, the company’s home city, farmers on one of the many tours that are part of its marketing efforts are clearly fascinated by a piece of technology known as the corn chipper. … In the past three years this technology has helped speed up dramatically Monsanto’s ability to identify and grow the most productive seed for any given location. ‘It is the mother and father of all dating agencies: we can analyse every single seed we harvest, do a health check, guess what its grandchildren will be like, send it anywhere in the world,’ says Mr Grant.”

As climate change continues to alter weather patterns, being able to rapidly match seeds with climate will be an important part of the food security solution. The article continues:

“The second category of innovation, in which Monsanto is becoming increasingly adventurous, is genetic modification: identifying genetic traits with particular qualities and transplanting those traits into seeds to improve their performance. In essence, the goal is to pack as much technology into a seed as possible. The biggest breakthroughs so far have been in weed and bug control. Perhaps the most common feature of Monsanto’s range of seeds is that they are Roundup Ready, meaning that they are guaranteed to survive spraying with Roundup that will take out any surrounding weeds. Some plants have been bioengineered to deter pests from eating their leaves and roots, which reduces or even eliminates the need for insecticides. … Monsanto has just launched two new varieties of seed that have been engineered to be far more productive: Genuity SmartStax corn, which company trials suggest can increase yields by 5-10%; and Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soyabeans, which in trials have shown yields 7-11% higher than the first generation of Roundup Ready soyabeans. Over the past couple of decades, soyabean yields have risen at an annual rate of barely 1%. In around 2012 or 2013 Monsanto expects to launch a soyabean whose processing will result in fewer transfats. It will also offer an ‘omega-3 soyabean’, genetically enhanced to give consumers the many proven health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. … The company is also aiming to engineer seed to use nitrogen more efficiently—and hence to require less fertiliser. This would reduce farmers’ exposure to the price of oil, from which fertilisers are made, and the damage done when nitrogen leaches into the water supply. In about three years’ time Monsanto expects to launch its first ‘drought tolerant’ products. It is examining several ways of making plants more tolerant of drought.”

In a 2007 post entitled The Coming Water Wars?, I noted that water supplies could drastically change along with the climate. Having the flexibility of growing food crops tailored to changing conditions could help reduce fluctuations in the availability of food. Both too little and too much water can destroy crops; but too little water is predicted to be a much bigger challenge in the future. The article discusses some strategies Monsanto is using to produce drought resistant food crops.

“One is to improve the roots’ take-up of water. Another is to reduce water loss through the leaves. A third is to alter plants’ reaction to lack of water. When stressed, a plant shuts down growth in order to conserve what it has. They often over-react, and use a lot of energy when they restart. Genetic modification can help it interpret water conditions more accurately and avoid unnecessary stops and starts. Because water shortages are predicted for many parts of the world, Monsanto expects these drought-tolerant plants to be a huge commercial success.”

The article notes that Monsanto aggressively protects its intellectual property (and, thereby, protects its profits); but the company also works with other organizations in trying to figure out how to feed the world’s poor.

“Monsanto is using … a different approach from that of big drugmakers when it comes to dealing with the millions of poor people in Africa. Mr Grant says that he is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the pharmaceutical industry in holding back on making valuable innovations available to the developing world. He believes that ‘in a perfect world, on the same day you launch [a drought-resistant seed] in Kansas, you would launch it similarly in Nairobi’—although in practice Africa and other poor places that are short of water will have to wait a while longer. Over the past three years, the firm has started to play a leading role in efforts collectively described as an attempt to create a ‘green revolution in Africa’. Mr Grant talks enthusiastically about his friendship with Norman Borlaug, the driving force behind the Green Revolution, first in Mexico, then in Asia, in the second half of the past century, which is generally reckoned to have saved at least 1 billion lives. Shortly before his death this year, aged 95, Borlaug reportedly expressed regret that he would not live to see the ‘gene revolution’. In white corn, a staple in Africa and Mexico, Monsanto has donated all its intellectual property, seed and know-how for developing drought-tolerant genes to Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a public-private partnership that has received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the foundation of Howard Buffett, an Illinois farmer (and son of Warren Buffett). The five countries to benefit are Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Mr Grant expects to launch drought-tolerant corn in Africa within two or three years of the launch in America. The company is also working with Millennium Villages, an anti-poverty project led by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University.”

Although Monsanto will collect no royalties for drought-tolerant corn sold in developing countries, it believes that helping developing countries is good business. As developing countries break loose from poverty’s grasp, they will eventually be able to purchase commercial products from Monsanto. In fact, Grant believes that “the developing world will be a huge source of future growth for the firm.” Why? The article explains:

“Monsanto sells more GM cotton in India than in America. Already, most of the countries where GM seed is sown are emerging ones. Around 90% of the world’s 12m farmers with at least a hectare planted with GM seed are smallholders in developing countries. America has 250,000-300,000 active farmers; India has 15m cotton farmers alone, several million of whom Monsanto says it has reached already. This reinforces the firm’s fundamental message, that it is a driving force for higher farm productivity—and that higher productivity, not a return to the methods of the past, is likely to be the true source of agricultural sustainability.”

Genetically-modified crops are not the only science- and technology-based activities helping increase production and reduce costs. Satellites are also helping farmers boost crop yields [“Harvest moon,” The Economist, 7 November 2009 print issue]. The article reports:

“For farmers, working out the optimal amount of seed, fertiliser, pesticide and water to scatter on a field can make, or break, the subsequent harvest. Regular laboratory analyses of soil and plant samples from various parts of the field can help—but such expertise is costly, and often unavailable. A new and cheaper method of doing this analysis, though, is now on offer. Precise prescriptions for growing crops can be obtained quickly, and less expensively, by measuring electromagnetic radiation reflected from farmland. The data are collected by orbiting satellites.”

The article notes that utilizing data collected from such analyses can increase yields by as much as 10%. French growers are the leaders in using “precision farming using satellite-based intelligence”; but, precision farming “is in its infancy.” The article notes that satellite agricultural data collection “is valuable to governments, too.”

“Areas where fertilizers and pesticides are being applied excessively can be pinpointed, studied and regulated by environmental and land-use agencies. Guy Lafond, an agronomist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a government agency, says satellite data are proving useful for a study of fields with declining productivity in Saskatchewan. Overkill with nitrate fertilizers (which are also a source of greenhouse gases) appears partly responsible. And according to RapidEye, a German satellite operator, insurance companies are also studying satellite data with a view to selling crop-insurance policies to governments of countries that might be threatened by famine.”

The article indicates that satellite-collected data can “help forecast harvests” and can assist farmers boost their productivity by allowing them to manage individual fields (or sections of fields) differently. Although use of satellite-collected data sounds expensive, the article indicates that it is affordable even for some developing countries.

“In Africa, where many soils have become badly depleted of nutrients, better fertilizer management would go a long way. As a consequence, the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi has begun cataloguing the radiation signature—and thus agricultural potential—of about 100,000 samples of African soils. It is giving this detailed information to the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, based in Colombia, so that it can build a database called the Digital Soil Map. When ready, this will provide farmers with free forecasts, developed with regularly updated satellite imagery, across farmland in 42 African countries. For a hunger-ravaged continent, that is good news indeed.”

The ability to match crops with climate and soil conditions is what makes precision farming a revolutionary step forward [“Rewards of precision farming,” by Clive Cookson, Financial Times, 27 January 2010]. Cookson reports:

“The technological battle to raise agricultural productivity while reducing the environmental impact of farming is taking place across a broad front. Genetic engineering of crops receives the most publicity, as much because it is so controversial as because it has the most to offer, but there are many other promising approaches. Precision farming – the use of information technology to monitor crops and guide the application of seeds and agricultural chemicals – is turning individual farmers into expert agronomists. The most straightforward form of precision farming is to use satellite navigation to guide a tractor. When signals from GPS satellites are combined with a farm base station, the tractor can drive itself with an accuracy of 2cm – better than the most skilled human operator – avoiding overlapping applications of seeds, for example, and saving fuel. Precision farming becomes more interesting and rewarding when it takes account of variability within fields, to apply fertilizers and other inputs automatically at the rates best suited to the crop and soil conditions.”

According to Cookson, within five years farmers will be able use precision technologies to tell them “exactly when to fertilize their crops and how much to spread through the automatic system.” As a result, investments in precision farming equipment can be quickly recouped. Precision farming is not just limited to GM crops and satellite-based technologies. Cookson continues:

“[Another] approach improves crop productivity through chemicals that enable crops to make better use of nutrients and reduce the stress on the plants. An example of a specialist company developing such technologies is Plant Impact, based in Preston in the north of England. Since its foundation in 2003, Plant Impact has come up with a broad product portfolio. Its PiNT technology releases nitrogen in a controlled way as an amine (a nitrogen compound), which reduces wastage and pollution through leaching into the soil. CaT technology helps plants absorb calcium more efficiently, which can alleviate environmental stress (heat, cold, drought). A third technology, called Alethea, aims to protect plants more broadly against stress, with a new molecule that helps to strengthen cell walls under prolonged adverse conditions.”

What’s next? The answer could be robotics [“Fields of automation,” The Economist, 12 December 09 print issue]. According to the article, “a new generation of agricultural equipment promises to take more of the toil out of farming by automating the business of growing fruit.” It continues with a history lesson:

“In the early 1830s, spurred on by his hatred of sweaty field work, Cyrus McCormick took an idea his father had been working on at the family farm in Virginia and produced a mechanical reaper. Others devised similar machines. Despite initial skepticism, farmers eventually bought them in droves. With one person riding the horse that pulled the reaper, and another raking the cut stalks off the back, the machines could harvest as much grain in a day as a dozen men breaking their backs with reaping hooks. Mechanical reapers became even more efficient when adapted to bale the stalks into sheaves, too. Development continued: today a driver in the air-conditioned cabin of a combine harvester may be guided by satellites as he cuts, threshes and pours clean grain into a fleet of accompanying trailers.”

Unfortunately, many crops still require back-breaking manual labor. This is a problem because fewer people want these jobs, especially as populations in developed countries age. The article continues:

“There are farms where people like McCormick still dream of taking hard, manual work out of agriculture. These farms grow crops that mostly have to be tended and picked by hand, such as apples, oranges and strawberries. In rich countries it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people to do this at wages farmers say they can afford. Seasonal demand adds to the problems: in California, where some 450,000 people, mostly immigrants, are employed on fruit farms at the peak of the harvest, growers often leave some produce to rot. Even Japan’s exquisite and expensive strawberries are becoming too costly to pick because of a shortage of workers, in part caused by an ageing population. Despite worries about food shortages in the coming years, many farmers are more worried about labor shortages.”

Japan has longed dream of replacing aging workers with robots. In some parts of the agricultural sector that dream may turn into reality.

“Just as the mechanical reaper transformed the economics of cereal farming, a new wave of agricultural automation promises to do the same in other areas of horticulture. Because picking apples is very different to plucking strawberries, the machines are taking various forms. Some have giant mechanical arms and are towed behind tractors through orchards and vineyards. Some are fully autonomous and able to scurry around on their own, even in paddy fields, like the robotic rice-planter developed by Japan’s National Agricultural Research Centre. Others trundle about inside experimental greenhouses.”

The article notes that farmers in the agricultural sector have jealously watched robots assume competitive tasks on factory floors. “Automating factories,” the article notes, “is easier than automating farms, which are far less predictable environments: the weather constantly changes, the light alters, the ground can turn from grass to mud, and there are animals and people wandering around. Moreover, unlike car parts, fruit does not come in standard sizes. It moves around on branches in the wind, changes shape and color, and can be hidden by leaves.” All of these are daunting challenges, but technology is just beginning to advance far enough to tackle some of these challenges. In order for robots to move from the laboratory to the field (or orchard), however, they must be both effective and cost efficient.

“Farmers, like factory owners, … want a return on their investment. ‘It is actually not hard to pick an orange, but it is very hard to pick an orange cost effectively,’ says Tony Stentz of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Because robots can work all day without a break, they have one advantage over manual labour. But it is their potential for accurate information-gathering that is proving to be an equally important talent. Crop-tending robots that use vision systems, laser sensors, satellite positioning and instruments to measure things like humidity can build up a database of information about each plant. This can be used to detect the onset of disease, says Dr Stentz. A ‘smart sprayer’ can then deliver precise amounts of chemical to only those plants that require attention instead of spraying an entire field. By observing the development of each plan, crop yields can be predicted more accurately. Automated harvesters will then use the database to identify and gather individual produce whenever it is ready for harvest.”

“Sounds great,” you say. “Where can I go to buy these mechanical wonders?” Unfortunately, you can’t. But, the article reports, “on a small scale it is already possible to see fully automated horticulture in action.”

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has an experimental greenhouse growing cherry tomatoes on raised platforms. It is managed entirely by small robots. Each plant is equipped with sensors which keep track of its condition. If a particular plant is getting a bit dry, one of the robots is summoned to water it. When a tomato is identified as being ripe, the robot uses its vision system to locate the fruit on the vine and pick it with a mechanical arm. Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory, says there are a number of ways in which automated systems could improve crops and ‘remove some of the hard tedious work from greenhouses’. A plant-centred system using sensors would record not just an individual plant’s progress but also the condition of the soil it is growing in. If nutrients are needed they can be delivered precisely, which would cut down on inputs.”

In an earlier post entitled Urban Farmers, I mentioned an idea raised by Dickson D. Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University. He suggests that some farms should move indoors; specifically, into high-rise buildings in urban areas so that food is grown closer to those who will eventually consume it. In fact, he believes that with climate change and the world becoming ever more urbanized, the rise of urban farms will be inevitable. It seems to me that Despommier’s urban farms and MIT robotic farming techniques make a perfect match. Despommier claims that “if climate change and population growth progress at their current pace, in roughly 50 years farming as we know it will no longer exist’ [“A Farm on Every Floor,” New York Times, 23 August 2009]. The Economist article also predicts that farming could change dramatically as a result of automation. As an example, it talks about how the grape growing sector could change:

“Greater mechanization may prompt farmers to change some of their ways and the varieties they grow. An example is Californian raisins, which are traditionally harvested by hand. Workers cut off bunches of grapes and lay them on trays between the rows to dry. As many as 50,000 people used to be required for the harvest. But due in part to declining acreage and increased mechanization, that has now fallen to 20,000-30,000. Mechanization has come about in a number of ways, according to a report by Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis. Growers, sometimes using varieties that reach optimal sugar levels earlier, slice the canes holding the bunches of grapes so they begin to dry while still on the vine. Modified grape harvesters with rotating fingers then knock off the raisins. If completely dry they are gathered immediately, and if not they are laid onto a continuous paper tray in the vineyard to dry. About 35% of Californian raisins were harvested in 2008 using the continuous-tray system and another 15% dried completely on the vine. The university reckons the traditional hand-harvesting method cost $494 an acre in 2006, compared with $282 an acre in 2008 for the mechanized continuous-tray method. Newly planted vineyards could be even more efficient by using a higher density of vines trained to grow over trellises designed to help with mechanical severing and harvesting.”

Moving from grapes for raisins to grapes for vine, the article notes that pruning vines is an important activity which may also someday be mechanized.

“Vision Robotics, a company based in San Diego, has demonstrated a prototype vine-pruning robot. Good pruning requires skill to balance the growth of the vine. The vines also need to be trimmed at certain locations and at precise angles to grow the best grapes for winemaking. The robot is a bit slower than a good human pruner, but it will speed up. It should be able to prune vines at about half the cost of manual labour, says Derek Morikawa, the chief executive of Vision Robotics.”

The article moves on to discuss tree-based crops and the orchards through which robots may soon be roaming:

“[Vision Robotics] is also developing apple- and orange-picking robots with multiple arms. These too rely on building 3-D models of trees and the fruit growing on them. Mr Morikawa thinks the crop-scouting ability of such automated machines will prove highly valuable. Supermarkets, for instance, like uniformity so if they want, say, apples of a certain size and in a particular state of ripeness, a farmer could use the model to identify exactly where such apples are growing. The take-up of mechanization will depend on where the produce is going and how carefully machines can pick it. Light bruising from mechanical harvesting may be acceptable for fruit going to the juicer, but not for fruit displayed on a supermarket aisle. Even though grape harvesters, which shake or knock grapes from vines, have been around for about 40 years, some growers still pick by hand. To compete with hand-picking, robot harvesters will need to twist, pluck, cut or suck produce from stems and handle it as gently as possible. Many factory robots are already capable of doing things like this, and some already sort soft fruit passing along conveyor belts. But operating outside on a farm is much harder. For one thing, lightweight mechanical arms are needed to reach high into trees and pick with precision, despite wind and uneven terrain. Inside a sheltered greenhouse, however, robots feel more at home.”

Although automation will continue to play an increasing role in the agricultural sector, machines will never completely eliminate humans; especially those working small farms in developing countries. But even hardscrabble farmers in impoverished countries may someday benefit from tools now being developed by researchers in the forefront of the precision agriculture field. They may discover that they will get better results using different seeds and/or different fertilizers than their neighbors. Douglas William Jerrold, a 19th century English dramatist, wrote, “If you tickle the earth with a hoe she laughs with a harvest.” Tickling the earth is the art of farming; and, the art of farming will probably never disappear. The art of farming, however, can tickle a larger harvest from the earth when it is supported by science.

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