Sunday, May 25, 2014

A New Integrating Technology for Farming

Source of this illustration

There is a good article in The Economist on a coming agricultural technology. I quote a long section because of its importance:
Monsanto’s prescriptive-planting system, FieldScripts, had its first trials last year and is now on sale in four American states. Its story begins in 2006 with a Silicon Valley startup, the Climate Corporation. Set up by two former Google employees, it used remote sensing and other cartographic techniques to map every field in America (all 25m of them) and superimpose on that all the climate information that it could find. By 2010 its database contained 150 billion soil observations and 10 trillion weather-simulation points. 
The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions. 
FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name........ 
The benefits are clear. Farmers who have tried Monsanto’s system say it has pushed up yields by roughly 5% over two years, a feat no other single intervention could match. The seed companies think providing more data to farmers could increase America’s maize yield from 160 bushels an acre (10 tonnes a hectare) to 200 bushels—giving a terrific boost to growers’ meagre margins.
The article also mentions a Du Pont Pioneer-John Deere partnership and a Land O’Lakes-Geosys partnership to develop comparable systems.

As society seeks to find ways to feed two or three billion more people, with little more agricultural land available and threats from climate change and other environmental degradation, an increase in yields is a big deal. Moreover, as people want better diets with more meat, the production of grain crops will have to increase much faster than the population increases. Five percent in two years and 25% overall increase is a very big deal.

Clearly the article focuses on a very high technology, one that is quite capital intensive. Indeed, the article stresses that accepting this technology would require major cultural change from American farmers, and they may not accept it in large numbers.

Still, this seems a technology most likely to first be used in the United States (and perhaps in parts of South America). American farmers already have highly mechanized farming technology and long experience accepting changes in cultivars and tilling practice. There is a lot of data available on American farms. The market for new technologies in the USA is huge, justifying major investments by companies seeking to introduce new products into that market.

Will this technology transform the labor intensive agriculture in Asia or the capital poor agriculture in Africa? Perhaps in the long run, but perhaps not as quickly as would be desired.

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