The Rush towards Agri-Tech
Sunu Thomas does some loud thinking on t0he present state of affairs in implementing technology in agriculture.
Finding a solution to feed the world
Silicon Valley decides it must find a solution to feed the world. And that time is running out. And that, the solutions need to happen in business cycles. And so you have a plethora of solutions, half thought/quarter thought solutions in vertical farms, aquaponics, soil moisture monitoring, humidity and temp monitoring, robotics, IoT, AI, etc. And then slapping on a big data platform to thrust this inference down the throat of a hapless farmer who always has been handed over solutions.
Real value is far away from all this.
There is need for people who understand both agriculture and technology intensely, and more importantly, know the limits of what today’s technology can do. For example, the hottest technologies of 2017 were Blockchain, IoT, drones/robotics and AI. Any guess to which among them was the least practical, as far as agriculture was concerned?
Well, if you guessed AI, you have some understanding of the ground realities. AI was so overhyped, it stunned the average person. Among the technologies mentioned above, blockchain is going places. Found itself right in the middle of the traceability solutions by IBM, etc.
IoT? Many implementations were amateurish at best – without seeing the larger picture of where things are moving. For example, reading data off a cabbage patch and fine-tuning it to produce the best cabbage patch ever.
Why is that amateurish? Because vertical farms are taking over daily produce.
As of now, Plenty Inc., got itself into good company with Amazon and vertical farms are proliferating everywhere, and this is especially useful in desert regions. Just see the huge savings in supply chain.
Most farm technology can be divided into tech for a small farmer vs tech for industrialised farming. As is seen from agri-tech so far, tech for the small farmer is many times harder.
But before all attempts, it would be great to see 10-year (at least) road maps for agri-tech.
I am yet to see a Gartner-like (at least they try) road map for 10 years for Agricultural Technology.
Perhaps these three below mentioned camps could help make distinct roadmaps to see where it is all going and where there could be synergies.
Camp 1 – Cargill, Monsanto, etc
Camp 2 – Permaculture folks, and
Camp 3 – Organic Consortiums.
Ecosystem building should be the main purpose of the large agri-tech players, just like how Apple and Google do. But these large agri-tech companies do not play the elder statesman and hence their small units for agritech compete with smaller entrepreneurs. And thus, it is extremely hard for entrepreneurs to figure out what to make. Their agri-tech entrepreneurial brainwave results in, for example, a sensor based big data solution for the first cabbage patch they saw.
But in reality, the world of agriculture is much harder. Because we have hardly understood plants. 99% of the microbes are still not understood. Max Planck Institute researchers think plants have feeling and they communicate with others. Common agri science knows each plant as an ecosystem with the nematodes and earthworms and microbes and the insects all playing to create equilibrium. And it just would look like most solutions in agri-tech we have today are just forced thick add-ons that are an embarrassment in front of the harmony plants have devised over millions of years.
Defence, Space and Agriculture are three fields where any technology or thought can easily sink in. We have seen huge close partnerships in Defence and Space industries. But it is hard to see them partnering with Agriculture. And this is so much needed.
For example, commoditise the Mars Rover and its associated tech. Because, robots on the farm need to be resilient before they need to be autonomous. Agri needs the best solutions out there, cheap.
So it's a long time before I will see resilient grass cutters in tight spaces; on-spot DNA analysis weeders; capillary action water lifters; sub $100, 1 kVA solar motor pumps; bee friendly wireless networks; cheap and light exoskeletons; resilient open source per-village CNG/compost plants, etc.
Sunu Thomas, R&D and Operations Head, Ceino Technologies, is software professional with 20+ years experience in 4 domains – Cloud-mobile, Telecom, Embedded Systems and Agriculture, IoT in Agriculture. In the farm space, Thomas has been running a profitable plantation for 5+ years, building and maintaining a zero pesticide, complex ecosystem of teak and silver oak trees, Robusta coffee plants and Malabar pepper vines.