Sometimes we only know there was a revolution by looking in the rear view mirror. That is not the case with the disruption in agriculture today. We can see the innovation and disruption that’s occurring in real time all around us.
With the need to produce more food using fewer inputs, agriculture is seeking new products, practices and technologies. As a planet we must use fewer chemicals and less water. Subsistence farmers need to close the yield gap. Production farmers want yield boosts and cost savings. Consumers are demanding healthier, clean food and ingredients.
Big data is causing the disruption to meet these needs.
Start with the vastly increased supply of information everywhere from the plant genome to water management, fertilization, climate, soil, machinery, and crop protection systems. Add the expanding ways to get and use data both in both farming practices and advances in crop genetics. On the production side, this is changing the value chain in big ag as access to big data is transferring power to the farmer and smaller companies, while the big companies consolidate and struggle to innovate.
Disruption will take big ideas, new business models and bold people. A new generation of independent companies are harnessing big data to generate new insights, practices and products. Traditional ag companies and supply chains will have to adapt if they want to keep up.
There are four main areas where I see big data being used in the food chain:
– Development of new seed traits: Discoveries and access to the plant genome with new ways to measure, map, and drive information into better products, faster.
– Precision Farming: Although sometimes confused, big data and precision agriculture are not synonymous. Big data takes advantage of information derived through precision farming in aggregate over many farms. The resulting analytics, insights, and better decisions can then be deployed through precision farming techniques.
– Food Tracking: Use of sensors and analytics to prevent spoilage and food borne illnesses.
– Effect on Supply Chains: Seismic shifts in the supply chains of seed, crop inputs, and food driven by the democratization of technology and information.
The traditional process used to create successful crop varieties is costly, labor intensive, and can take 10 years or more. Big data speed things up. An explosion in biological information has occurred from advances in genomics: first, the onset of sequencing the genomes of model organisms and, second, the rapid application of high throughput, or automated, experimental techniques.
This deluge of genomic information can be created and analyzed in the cloud. Biological research that used to start in greenhouses and fields now starts at the computational level (in-silico) where data can be analyzed, experiments planned, and hypotheses developed. From here, a much smaller number of plants needs to be validated in the field for performance across a wide range of environments, when a breeder can then determine which exact hybrid is best for a particular area. I’ve seen this amazing shift over my career. I no longer wear boots to visit breeding stations – the work is done mostly in labs. The new developments are not only cheaper and faster; we are able to do things we just couldn’t do before.
Traditional genetic engineering tools brought drought, herbicide, and pesticide resistance traits to the market. Continued development will produce crops with improved quality and reduced economic and environmental costs.
Many crops in development will be beneficial for farmers and consumers alike.
Through better tools, the time to field will be faster and cheaper. It will also be performed by smaller labs with less infrastructure. More data will be made available and analyzed through shared databases. Plant genomics innovation and cloud biology is empowering new and diverse start-up companies.