“Software is Feeding the World” is a weekly newsletter for Food/AgTech leaders about technology trends.
This week’s edition includes the following topics,
Analysis: What we eat today will have an impact on future generations.
Technology trends: Autonomy and automation continues with some interesting designs for specialty crops and row crops.
Tidbits from the world of Ag/Foodtech: Agrifintech news from Asia and Africa, transportation improvements in Brazil etc.
Analysis: We & our children will be what we eat today
When I was a kid growing up in India in the 1980s, my parents followed a particular philosophy for food and cooking. This was before the economic liberalization phase which started in 1991 in India. There were not a whole lot of options available for processed food.
We would get fresh groceries almost every day or every other day, from the daily open air grocery market, which was less than a mile away. My mother would cook a hot breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday. The food was simple, nutritious, and prepared from the freshest local & seasonal ingredients.
Image by Rhishi Pethe: Local grocery market in Vadodara, India (December 2019)
My parents didn’t even buy a refrigerator for many years, as they didn’t want food sitting in it for too long. (The family was vegetarian so there was no need for storage of meat, milk was delivered everyday and boiled in the morning to keep it fresh/safe) I didn’t realize it as a kid, but it was a lot of work for my mother and father to follow that philosophy day in and day out.
It was Alice Waters, Indian version.
Alice Waters is famous for her slow food movement in the US (and other western countries). Last year, she published a book “We are what we eat: A slow food manifesto” around the 50th anniversary of her iconic restaurant Chez Panisse. Her interview with Vogue last year highlighted some of her philosophy and how our food choices impact our planet.
Fast food values, like uniformity, convenience, cheapness, and speed, have infiltrated our entire lives, anesthetizing us to natural beauty and our own capacity for change. Her antidote? Living by what she calls slow food values, like beauty, seasonality, stewardship, and simplicity. Doing so, she writes, can change our relationship with food, each other, and the planet itself.
She said the following in an interview with the New York Times,
I cannot compromise when it comes to wholesomeness. Our health begins in the ground. Period. The health of the soil is the most important thing right now for our health and for the climate. I cannot accept any excuses, because I don’t believe they’re true.
And I have great hope for what could happen in cities if farmers’ markets became the place to buy food, so that people didn’t have to go to the outskirts and buy from Costco.”
I have to admit that I have some disagreement with her philosophy, along with some areas where I agree with her.
Preparing the food the slow food way (like my mom did when I was a kid and still does to this day) is not feasible for many people. It often puts an excessive burden on women in the family, due to traditional gender roles. The traditional gender roles don’t go away easily, even for women who work outside the house.
Convenience in preparing your food is a huge factor for many busy people, who are trying really hard to make ends meet. Food that is processed for convenience, but not at the expense of nutrition and quality should be welcomed. We have come a long way from when humans spent a huge amount of time and energy to procure, prepare, and eat their food. Here I very much follow historian Rachel Laudan’s philosophy rather than Alice Waters’.
Waters' excessive reliance on organic, seasonal, local ingredients from farmers’ markets as the characteristics of “slow food” (good food) can be problematic. Organic crops typically have lower yields compared to conventional crops, and so require more land to grow the same amount of food. You can read about the consequences of a sudden move to organic production in Sri Lanka in 2021 (73. When marketing becomes policy)
It has been proven time and again that transportation and logistics are a small portion of the environmental impact of food, and so it is more important what you eat vs. where the food is from. The efficiency of modern supply chains lets us try Florida oranges in Canada, California garlic in New York, Indian mangoes in Chicago. The variety of global food products available to us has definitely enriched our lives, and made us aware of different foods, and traditions.
Selling directly to consumers is not everyone’s cup of tea. As a farmer, you not only have to know how to grow your crop, but then you need to understand marketing, customer service, logistics etc. to service a direct-to-consumer channel. Every farmer cannot succeed at it, and due to this middlemen play a valuable role to get farm products to markets.
I do agree with her on the importance of soil health, sustainability, human rights and when she says “We are what we eat.” The newsletter “Thin Ink” improved upon it and called it “We emit what we eat.”
What we eat has a certain GHG footprint, and it depends on factors like land use change, farm, animal feed, processing, transport, retail, and packaging.
Given that emissions live for a long time in the environment, what we eat today will have an impact in the future on our children’s and grandchildren’s lives as well.
“We are what we eat” misses the future implications of what we eat today. A more accurate statement is “We and our children will be what we eat.”
Autonomy and robotics in specialty and row crops
When I spoke with Connie Bowen in my Conversation with Rhishi series, (54. Connie Bowen: Exploring diverse voices and financing in agriculture), I asked her if the venture capital model worked for AgTech or not. Unsurprisingly, Connie gave a very thoughtful and nuanced answer.
There are some ag tech companies that are certainly a fit for venture capital, but there are a lot of ag problems that probably can't be solved by venture capital funding.
An example is robotics equipment. For a strawberry farm, strawberry picking is a pain point. It is bad enough that farmers are throwing money at robots. But you have to change the way you grow strawberries. You have to change the genetics and planting formation of the crop. You have to figure out a hardware system that is probably expensive to develop that has to see and physically remove the berries. And you have to do all of that in the context of a crazy labor system.”
Interestingly enough, Ag Robotics startups continue to get funded by VCs, with acquisition by a larger OEM being a likely outcome.
One of the challenges with Ag Robotics, is the difference in physical and environmental context for different crops (for example picking lettuce is very different than picking strawberries is very different than pistachios). Ag robotics (especially in specialty crops) address the challenge of high human labor costs, and the challenges in getting enough people at the right times to do the work. There are many other larger immigration, human rights, and health issues associated with it.
Ag Robotics startup Tevel (they raised $ 20 million last year from corporate VCs like Kubota, and others) is using some interesting technical approaches to make their technology more adaptable to different situations.
Tevel is designing a system of interconnected drones (Flying Autonomous Robots or FAR). The FARs are tethered to a ground unit, which can harvest tree-grown fruits and carry out tasks like pruning, trimming, and thinning, typically done by human labor.
The technology is quite sophisticated and includes vision systems, trajectory planning and execution, robotics, and machine learning. It is an integration of software and hardware. The tethered design (see video below) is especially interesting as it gives more flexibility compared to existing integrated systems for fruit or vegetable picking in the market.
It gives it more flexibility to work with crops of different heights and density, with potentially different row/tree spacing. In theory, Tevel could swap some crop group specific FARs from a hardware standpoint, while keeping the same ground unit, and running different machine learning, and path/trajectory planning algorithms.
Tevel is offering a service model (fruit picking-as-a-service) to its initial trial customers, which makes sense, given the early nature of the technology. In the longer term (assuming this tech can work at scale, and is economically viable), using existing distribution networks for sales, service, & customer support will be more viable.
Tree crops are different from row crops as row crops are harvested only once at the end of the season and the entire crop is harvested. Human pickers have to make hundreds of decisions based on color, appearance, touch etc, whether a particular fruit on the tree is ready for picking or not. A vision based system can do that tirelessly and reduce the variance in the type of fruit that is picked. It provides consistent grading and quality control by default.
Over the last two weeks, I talked about Deere, CNH, AGCO, and other OEM majors making moves in autonomy and robotics. Other players are not staying silent, as they need to compete and are heavily relying on partnerships and collaboration.
Horsch and Trimble are partnering together to provide self propelled sprayers, autonomous seeders and planters which are upto 100 foot wide.
The technology removes the need for a driver for the planter (it has no cab), though it still needs to be tendered for seed by a human. Seed tenders help reduce downtime by hauling bulk quantities of seed directly to the field where conveyors or auger systems unload it quickly and easily into a planter's boxes or center-filled hopper to enable growers to plant more acres per day.
Trimble provides a safe geofence with a safe reference signal, which is one of Trimble’s specialties. It is provided through a reliable base unit, which creates an accurate positioning system on the farm. The geofence is important as it prevents farm equipment from leaving its allowed area of operation.
(We use a geofenced app called Life360 for our kids. We have created geofences around important places like our home, kids’ school etc. to know when family members enter or leave those geofenced locations)
Is GEM just EM?
When I worked at The Climate Corporation (2017-2020), one of the required training was Agronomy 101. It included a field trip in the midwest, including a trip to some of Bayer’s research farms. One of the fields had multiple rows of corn with varying length.
The different lengths indicate the amount of land needed to get the same yield over the last few decades. The row length for corn from 50 years ago is much longer compared to a few years back. Much less land is needed now for the same yield. Improved genetics (including GMOs) is supposed to have played a huge role in the yield increases.
Solving the G x E x M equation is considered the holy grail in agronomy. The G x E x M equation says that the outcome of a crop (for example, yield) is a function of the genetics (seed), environmental conditions (soil, environmental, weather, climate etc.) and management practices followed to grow that crop. This equation is correct conceptually, but how much of the yield improvements can be attributed to the G, E, and M factors?
A recent analysis done for 3,000 irrigated corn fields in 3 regions in Nebraska over 14 years (2005 to 2018), found that G had the smallest impact of the three, with most of the gains coming from climatic changes and agronomic practice improvements.
Fig. 2. Total yield gain and contribution from changes in climate and adoption of agronomic and genetic technologies for each region: Lower Niobrara (LN), Tri-Basin (TB), and Upper Big Blue (UBB). Also shown are the averages across the three regions. Numbers inside bars indicate the relative contribution of climate (green), agronomic management (yellow), and genetic improvement (red) to the total yield gain.
The high-input, high-yield irrigated maize-production system in Nebraska provides an ideal context to quantify the relative contribution of agronomic and genetic technologies to yield gain and to estimate changes in yield potential over time.
The researchers found that 48% of the yield gain was associated with a decadal climate trend, 39% with agronomic improvements, and, by difference, only 13% with improvement in genetic yield potential.
The results of the analysis are different from the prevailing wisdom, that genetics have driven most of the improvements in yield over the last few years. Does it mean that genetics based yield improvements are slowing down?
It is very much possible that as climate change becomes worse, climactic contributions will drop, and finding the right resilient genetics and management practices will be more important. The study was done in a high-input, high-yield irrigated maize production system; it would be interesting to see a similar analysis for rain-fed farms in different parts of the world.
Climate and agronomy, not genetics, underpin recent maize yield gains in favorable environments
Gonzalo Rizzo, Juan Pablo Monzon, Fatima A. Tenorio, Réka Howard, Kenneth G. Cassman, Patricio Grassini Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2022, 119 (4) e2113629119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2113629119
Midstream category is one of the most actively funded categories in India. Logistics and transport, food processing, cold chain storage, food waste mitigation, and food safety and quality testing are among the sub sectors included in the category.
The Food Security Fund will finance 250,000 hectares of commercial and smallholder farmland for high-yield, climate-smart production. It will also finance local warehouses to compensate for Africa’s lack of adequate grain and crop storage. Providing farmers with financing, impetus, and market linkages forms the basis for productivity and economic empowerment in Africa. The “Conversation with Rhishi” series editions with Eli Pollak (Kenya) and Kellan Hays (Zambia) told a similar tory.
Brazil investments in grain transportation reduces transportation costs, and narrows the competitive edge of American production.
Arya raises $ 60 million to build a network of small scale warehouses and storage facilities, along with online tools, financing solutions, and market linkages
Kenyan mobile commerce platform Copia raises $ 50 M funding. Copia has a network of 25K agents (small shopkeepers) who act as order and delivery points. It can serve most remote locations. So, what do you think?
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My name is Rhishi Pethe. I lead the product management team at Project Mineral (focused on sustainable agriculture). The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.