“These are exciting times, these are challenging times, but the breakthroughs are incredible,” says Erik Andrejko, VP of Science at Climate Corp. When it comes to finding ways to feed our ever-increasing population while combating the effects of climate change, Andrejko sees some clear parameters: “It’s going to be about integrated solutions—integrating information from different sources from different pieces of equipment. Data science will tie together the information and this data will maximize the use of resources to produce the most food for the least amount of inputs.”
As Andrejko notes, however, the existing critical flow of information doesn’t run as smoothly as possible. One of farmers’ biggest grievances when it comes to implementing precision agriculture technologies is the capability—or lack thereof—to sync different programs on a single platform. “It’s not a solved problem today,” says Andrejko. “Things like the Open Ag Data Alliance are key steps to help get to this level of interoperability, but it’s an important element that we need to meet the food security needs of the future.”
Launched in January 2014, the Open Ag Data Alliance (OADA) has developed into an industry group geared towards improving interoperability between different ag technologies, resolving issues surrounding data ownership and intellectual property, and making agtech affordable for farmers at every scale. In addition to Climate Corp, partnership and support for the OADA comes from many industry leaders, including GROWMARK, CNH Industrial, and Purdue University’s Open Ag Technology Group.
As agriculture technologies continue to develop, one hurdle farmers and developers will need to overcome is how to handle the mountains of data that wind up on their computers. “In some cases there is so much data that the challenge is to turn the big data into information and turn the information into insights that the farmer can apply to make decisions,” says Andrejko.
For Monsanto, which purchased Climate Corp in Fall 2013, ensuring open access to ag data is just as important as ensuring open access to agriculture technology. “Looking back in Monsanto’s history, one of the main aspects of our open architecture model has been our decision to license broadly,” says Robb Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto. “When biotech and the first GMOs were developed back in the mid-90s, our thought was ‘how can we bring this technology to the marketplace?’”
In addition to open access, Fraley sees two innovations in particular as powerful tools for helping farmers increase their productivity to meet the food demand of a population that’s predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050. “Bringing together the scientific understanding of the gene with the data science tools that let us understand the field, and in many cases the weather, lets us integrate that information to provide farmers with optimal decision-making support,” says Fraley.
Ensuring farmers have broad access to the latest technologies is one thing, but ensuring that the technologies provide straightforward, easy-to-use tools is another. “The technology has to be an easy tool. It has to work for the farm manager, the farmer, the farm laborer,” says Fraley. “It has to have an enormously high level of reliability.” According to him, the partnership with Climate Corp allowed the entities to marry their expertise in order to ensure that the technology achieves its purpose, but that it makes farmers lives easier in the process.
While Monsanto and Climate Corp have made substantial strides in helping farmers learn more about what’s happening in their fields, both Andrejko and Fraley cite climate change as a substantial obstacle that agriculture will need to overcome. “As we pivot into the effects of climate change and helping to manage the environment, we will see more variability,” says Fraley. “We may not see temperature extremes that change the cropping, but at the same time a one or two degree temperature fluctuation changes when the insects hatch or when disease breaks out.” As more farmers experience the effects of climate change, Monsanto and Climate Corp are focusing their efforts on developing methods that can help farmers manage environmental risks.
“California is going through a very challenging period and, at the same time, the Midwest is experiencing a historical amount of rainfall. We are experiencing a much more erratic climate,” notes Fraley. Despite these challenges, farmers across the country are producing impressive amounts of food. Both Andrejko and Fraley clearly intend to continue their companies’ respective and joint efforts to develop agriculture technologies that can aid farmers in continuing to overcome adversity at a global level.
“If you give every farmer in the world a better seed, they’ll grow a better crop. A lot of the tools that we’re developing for U.S. farmers that have computer compatibility in their farm and on their tractor will be modified for small farmers in India and Africa,” says Fraley. “Both the advances in biotech and data science are transformational for global farming.”
In the effort to find solutions to farming’s biggest challenges, both present and future, some scientists are spending an increasing amount of time looking at the microbiome. A microbiome is a colony of bacteria. These microscopic ecosystems are all around us, and even exist inside our bodies.
“In the microbial space, the opportunities are really just beginning,” says Fraley. “What’s interesting is seeing how these tools are being applied for the first time. We didn’t have the tools that would let us take a teaspoon of dirt, extract the DNA, sequence the DNA, reconstitute the DNA, and produce a printout of the microbial population in the field.”
In Andrejko’s view, understanding what’s happening at the plant-level requires taking a look at what’s happening in the soil. “We think that understanding the soil and the atmosphere, not just the plant, are cornerstones to bring the pieces together and provide integrated information solutions,” he says. “Almost everything that happens to the plant happens in the soil. Precipitation, nutrients, diseases—they all move through the soil.”
Helping farmers ramp up their production while combating an increasingly difficult climate poses a substantial challenge for both Monsanto and Climate Corp. According to Fraley, an equal challenge faces their efforts outside the fields and laboratories. “With all this technology and innovation, there are challenges when it comes to communicating to consumers. It’s not unique to GMOs or biotech. We’ve got folks who don’t believe in climate change, yet the science is pretty clear.”
Throughout the years, Monsanto has endured its fair share of heat over various issues, especially GMOs. Many interests groups, social commentators, and organizations are anything but quiet when it comes to expressing their disapproval of creating or consuming foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
“When we talk about biotech crops, 95 percent of the farmers in this country and a quarter of the world’s farmers use biotech crops,” says Fraley. “I think it’s pretty clear that biotech and agriculture technology in general are going to change the industry and change farming around the world, and that’s a good thing.”
The controversy over GMOs and other biotech developments does not deter Fraley. “I think the gap that exists between what is possible with the science and what people understand are comfortable with. We are pushing some challenging limits there, and so the responsibility for all of us is to communicate more.”
Issues, obstacles, and impediments aside, Fraley and Andrejko think there is one thing that everyone can agree upon: “It’s interesting to have so much attention in the agtech space and its a very important need in the world to have continued integration of technology in this area,” says Andrejko. “I’m just very excited to be in this space and to have other people involved with the technology.”