Data: farming’s next major bumper crop

Integrating information | Compiling knowledge from GPS, soil tests and plant genomics will make agriculture more sustainable

In life and in industry, there are periods when a particular innovation is all the rage.

In agriculture, the mid-1990s saw an era of genetically modified crops, while nutraceuticals were big in the early 2000s and biofuel was in vogue in the late 2000s.

It might now be time for the era of big data and precision agriculture, considering Monsanto’s recent $930 million purchase of Climate Corp., which monitors and predicts changes in weather, says Armand Lavoie, managing director of Kirchner Private Capital Group, an investment bank and asset management firm.

Lavoie was one of the panelists at the Agri Innovation Forum, a November agriculture investment conference in Winnipeg.

Angelos Dassios, partner with Paine & Partners, a California firm that invests in food and agribusiness, said Monsanto’s purchase of Climate Corp. is about selling information services to farmers and harnessing the yield potential of seeds.

“Monsanto will tell you, I think with good reason, that all of this data will ultimately get us from 160 bushel per acre corn to 300 (bu.),” said Dassios.

“You have to figure out where the next leg (of yield increases) is going to come from. Today, there’s a lot of potential that exists in the seed that’s already out there. It’s figuring out how to better utilize the individual acre…. What’s the exact chemical regimen you want to put in the ground? What’s the exact fertilizer? When do you want to plant?”

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A recent New Yorker article profiling Climate Corp. said the company’s mission is to help people and businesses respond to the extreme weather associated with climate change.

The firm provides detailed field scale weather data to help farmers make planting, spraying and harvest decisions.

Roger Beachy, who recently became director of the World Food Centre at the University of California, Davis, and was named executive director of the University of Sask-atchewan’s Global Institute for Food Security earlier this year, said agricultural data is much more than predictions of when rain will fall.

Scientists and software developers are going to use information, such as the genomic data of plants, climate data for weather predictions and GPS data, to establish integrated farming systems.

“You start to realize we are collecting a lot of information. At the same time, we don’t know how to use it very well,” said Beachy, who was part of a team that developed the first genetically modified virus resistant tomato.

“The ability to begin to integrate the knowledge from soils and the knowledge from genomics of plants, all the way down to the genomics of the microbiology in our gut … would imply that we need to learn how to integrate the information … to make an agriculture that is one, more productive, secondly, more sustainable, and thirdly, more likely to provide the nutrition we require.”

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Ignacio Martinez, another panelist at the Agri Innovation Forum, said agri-chemical companies want to become service providers, selling information and advice to farmers.

“You see Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto talking about offering integrated solutions to their customers,” said Martinez, a partner with Flagship Ventures, an investment firm in Massachusetts.

Beachy said data and precision agriculture tools could address environmental challenges such as water quality.

“How good is the soil? Does it have the right fertilizer content? If you put fertilizer in, will it stay in? Will it go into the plant or will it get run off into the watershed?” he said.

“This sustainability platform (in agriculture) is going to be increasingly important. Farmers should watch for it.”

With increasing attention on the environmental impacts of agriculture, Dassios said legal liability is another reason why information is likely to become a critical component of food production.

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“A variable rate sprayer could come in and provide an application of a particular chemical at a particular rate in a given field,” he said, speculating on future developments. “There will be an order that’s put through seamlessly … and a record for that company, ‘yes, I sprayed this particular field on this day’ … and there’s evidence and proof of that. The information leads to tools, which leads to systems. The systems, that’s the real promise and real opportunity.”