72. Tail wagging the dog?

Demand driven agriculture, Amazon India moves, research to find drought resistant crops

Hi. If you are new here, I am Rhishi Pethe, and I am excited you’re in the “Software is Feeding the World'' community. Every Sunday, you will receive this free newsletter at the intersection of technology and agriculture systems. I am a product manager at Project Mineral (focused on sustainable agriculture) at X, the moonshot factory. The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.

Today’s edition includes,

  1. Benson and CropTalk partner to not wag the dog by its tail

  2. Amazon India addresses farmer needs for inputs, advisory services, and logistics

  3. New phenotyping methods show potential to find drought resistant genes

  4. Around the Coffee Shop with brief news updates

  5. Read, Listen, and Watch recommendations on articles

Tail wagging the dog?

When I worked at Amazon, I used to hear the phrase (and would say it myself) at least 4-5 times a day.

Start from the customer and work backwards.

When I worked in logistics, and supply chain, we always talked about demand driven supply chains, with the demand coming from the end consumer or customer.

To a large extent, the story of US agriculture is the exact opposite. (Maybe this is a global story)

Ethanol requirements, subsidies incentivize a majority of row crop farmers to grow corn and soybean. What is grown is not driven by consumer or market demand, but farm output is pushed to the market to find uses for it. COVID, consumer preferences, and regulation wants to flip the story on its head, and make agriculture more demand driven.

The story of Toyota Manufacturing Systems (TMS) from the 70s is about production and supply efficiencies. The concepts of Kaizen (continuous improvement), Jidoka (automation with human touch), Andon cords (autonomy of decision making), Just-in-time (reduce waste, and respond to customer demand) were instrumental in improving manufacturing efficiency and product quality. The TMS was set up to respond to customer demands of quality, reliability, and variety. Japanese car companies were able to make a product which met customer preferences at a lower cost. It was very different from “Everyone can get a Model-T as long as it is black.”

Companies like Benson Hill are taking an integrated food value chain approach. Starting from the seed, Benson Hill links farmers with consumer trends and markets. Benson will partner with CropTrak to establish a seamless and end to end connection from farm to fork. 

The CropTrak platform increases the efficiency to geo-locate acres contracted by Benson Hill, collect soil samples and measure protein content. It can potentially upload data from existing farm management information systems and equipment. The information is delivered to CropOS, Benson Hill's technology platform that combines data analytics and artificial intelligence with plant biology and food science. It produces crops optimized for taste and nutrition, with better agronomic performance. The platform can assist in the assessment of sustainability impacts on the farm.

The seamless connection still depends on the intermediate value chain players. It enables visibility, data and product provenance to provide a cohesive story of the product. The partnership will act as a good test bed to see if Benson HIll can recommend, measure, and assess farmer conservation practices like reduce tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation etc.

Traceability is an important tool. The main benefit of traceability is touted as letting the consumer know where their food came from. My thesis is that most consumers care less about product provenance, but more about what attributes the product has, and do they reflect the values they care about. To me, the main benefit of traceability is about being demand driven by downstream consumer signals. Traceability helps identify which parts of the supply chain need to react when and how to change in consumer demand. Food recalls are one example, and food grains grown in a certain way are another example.

Even though labels like organic, sustainable, natural, etc have definitional issues, and involve marketing spin, they do attempt to reflect values that consumers care about.

It is exciting to see a change (though there is a loooooonnnng way to go) to a more demand driven world. 

Amazon India: Farmer stores and logistics infrastructure 

There are more than 110 million farmers in India. It is no surprise that Amazon India is launching services to service farmers.

Last week, when I wrote about the  Pinduoduo results, I speculated (pure and wild speculation!) if PDD will offer its infrastructure as a service (similar to Fulfillment by Amazon.) This week Amazon India has launched “Kisan Store” (Farmer Store.)

Farmers across India can buy agriculture inputs such as seeds, farm tools & accessories, plant protection, nutrition and other agricultural products at affordable prices, with the added convenience of delivery at their doorstep. 

The Amazon Easy store owners will help farmers browse the selection, identify a product they like, create their Amazon accounts, place orders and checkout to buy. Farmers can choose from a selection of thousands of agricultural products from over 20 plus brands. Farmers can choose from any of the 5 Indian languages including Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam. Farmers can visit any one of the 50,000 plus Amazon Easy stores across India and avail assisted shopping facility. This selection is offered by hundreds of Small and Medium Businesses present across the nation. 

Amazon has been working on this project for more than 6 years. In 2018, Amazon introduced assisted shopping service in tier-II, tier III and rural areas under its project ‘Udaan’, rebranded it as Amazon Easy.

Amazon India has equipped these offline stores with training materials with skills to search, browse, and navigate on Amazon.in, manage payments, refunds, returns etc. The store owners get a commission from Amazon, depending on product category (1% to 15%.) This is a great program to spur entrepreneurship, establish the Amazon brand, and access the next set of 200-300 million customers in rural India. The Amazon Easy stores can break the barriers to online shopping for a large number of Indian consumers.

Image source: NDTV.com

Amazon has rolled out a platform to provide crop plans to improve yields, provide pest and disease alerts, and farm management software through a mobile app. The digital tools are supported by a team of agronomists who can provide agronomic advice to farmers. The program includes proactive and reactive crop plans. Proactive crop plan is based on scientific crop and soil management practices and is aimed to get better yield and quality. Reactive crop plan is an intervention-based initiative where farmers can raise alerts on pests and diseases and get remedial solutions.

Over half of India’s population is employed in agriculture, and the sector makes up around a fifth of the country’s GDP. But the majority of farms are smallholdings relying on manual labor and outdated practices; while the infrastructure around the farm — from pre-harvest inputs and supplies to post-harvest transportation and storage — is riddled with inefficiencies that lead to wasted food and lost income for farmers

Post harvest supply chain

Amazon is building a temperature controlled supply chain infrastructure to preserve the quality of produce and reduce waste for farm produce.

Amazon India is making a play for farmers wallets from the input side, and providing infrastructure for off-take. Amazon is innovating around the core services of input procurement, advisory services, supply chain, cold chain, connectivity, access to markets etc. Amazon’s strategy to establish a footprint of retail locations, connected to the online shopping experience leverages the trust of local human relationships. It connects the local trust with the supply chain and technology infrastructure of Amazon. Jehiel Oliver, CEO of Hello Tractor made a similar point in the context of Africa and core technologies in my conversation with him in edition 66 (Jehiel Oliver: Tractor-as-a-service),

Innovation helps around the edges. Everybody's not going to be a Google, an Amazon, or an Apple. Most people innovate around core technologies [transportation infrastructure, banking, reliable internet connectivity etc.] that have already been proven. In African agriculture, the core technologies don’t exist. In African markets, do you want to build something marginally valuable, or do you want to build core technologies?

When I had a conversation with Patrick Gerlich, Bayer head for Indonesia in edition 66, he talked about a similar strategy employed by Bayer. Bayer is establishing “Better Life Farming” stores in Indonesia to complement the local relationships with their product portfolio and expertise, with a goal to have 3,000 centers by 2030.

The objective is a holistic approach to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. We help small farmers build viable businesses and follow sustainable farming practices. We aim to provide them with access to technology, knowledge, finance, risk management tools, and off-taker markets. The outcome is financial security, increased know-how and improvement in their livelihood.

Research Review: Finding water efficient crops with leaf stomata phenotyping, Indigenous and hereditary crops

Plants "breathe in" carbon dioxide through tiny pores in their leaves called stomata. That carbon dioxide drives photosynthesis and contributes to plant growth. But the stomata also allow moisture to escape in the form of water vapor.

Scientists used optical phenotyping and machine learning techniques to understand stomata structure and function, and then link it to genetic information to understand how we can breed crops that are more efficient with water usage, and so have drought tolerance.

The amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide exchanged between the leaf and atmosphere depends on the number of stomata, their size and how quickly they open or close in response to environmental signals.

If rainfall is low or the air is too hot and dry, there can be insufficient water to meet demand, leading to reduced photosynthesis, productivity and survival.

The team was able to do the work in 120 hours, compared to about 16,666 hours when done manually, an improvement of 138X!!!

The model showed very high R2 values of 0.96 or higher, indicating a very robust and accurate model. (The closer the dots to the diagonal the better the model)

The research team was able to identify regions of the genome and genes that might control stomata patterns on the leaf surface. The use of thermal cameras can assess the temperature of leaves, as a proxy for water loss.

These techniques provide an interesting tool kit for scientists to try to influence genes tied to stomatal architecture. The stomatal architecture is tied to water use and photosynthetic efficiency. This linkage can help researchers create drought resistant varieties.

Other methods are being employed to breed drought resistant crops.Tunisia is looking to old seeds for climate change adaptation. Wheat varieties developed in the 1980s are being blighted by disease in Tunisia, but farmers say that traditional varieties appear to be more resistant. Tunisia's gene bank is working to "reclaim its genetic heritage." Since 2008, it has been collecting traditional seeds from farmers, and also working to recover indigenous Tunisian seeds stored in gene banks around the world. So far, it has been able to repatriate more than 7,000 samples of seeds from fruit trees, cereals and vegetables out of over 11,000 located worldwide.

I wrote in edition 31, (“Dipping into Indigenous Knowledge”)

Climate change is a reality. We need to find crop varieties that can survive and thrive in changing conditions, especially semi-arid conditions. Researchers are digging into the diets of Indigenous people in arid regions of North America to find candidate crops.

The research provides a framework to select a diverse set of adaptable crops, resilient to climate change. These crop can address some of the economic disparities in arid lands. The candidate list of crops were based on the diets of the Comcaac, O'odham, and Pima Bajo peoples of the Sonoran Desert. The researchers highlighted different crop types with high potential, with perennial polycultures. Some of the criteria used to evaluate crops were agro-ecological functions, human health, community well-being and agronomic suitability.


Jiayang Xie, Samuel B Fernandes, Dustin Mayfield-Jones, Gorka Erice, Min Choi, Alexander E Lipka, Andrew D B Leakey, Optical topometry and machine learning to rapidly phenotype stomatal patterning traits for maize QTL mapping, Plant Physiology, 2021;, kiab299, https://doi.org/10.1093/plphys/kiab299

Nabhan, GP, Riordan, EC, Monti, L, et al. An Aridamerican model for agriculture in a hotter, water scarce world. Plants, People, Planet. 2020; 2: 627– 639. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10129

Around the Coffee Shop

Gene editing will make your toast tastier. Europe is running its first CRISPR edited trial with gene editing. The editing lower levels of asparagine, which can be converted to the potentially cancer causing chemical acrylamide when bread is baked.

Carbon Robotics raised a $ 27 million Series B round. Carbon Robotics builds an autonomous robot that utilizes high-power lasers to eradicate weeds through thermal energy, without disturbing the soil. The robot allows farmers to use less herbicides (herbicide resistance is real) and reduce labor to remove unwanted plants while improving the reliability and predictability of costs, crop yield and more.

Carbon is mile deep. ADM goes net carbon neutral in its mills. At its U.S. flour mills, this has included energy efficiency projects, technology updates, and the replacement of older facilities with new state-of-the-art mills. Further, ADM has lowered the carbon footprint of its U.S. flour milling network through the purchase of renewable energy certificates. These represent electricity generation from renewable sources, such as solar, wind or hydro. ADM's facility permanently sequesters carbon dioxide a mile underground, preventing it from being emitted into the atmosphere.

A good reminder from Simply WS as to why farmers won’t share their on farm data and what you do about it. “Farmers don’t trust your company.

A study from CGIAR showed that additional investments in international R&D of only $ 2 billion a year can offset climate change’s impact on hunger, protecting 66 million people from high risk of hunger due to climate change. Higher rates of $ 4B per year can help food systems approach zero hunger, reduce N pollution by 21% and P pollution by 14%.

The global carbon market grew by more than 20% in 2020, with most of that growth contributed by the EU. The data shows that the total value of emissions trading schemes was $271 billion in 2020, five times more than in 2017. On the other hand, the US carbon market grew by 16% to $26 billion over the same period.

Read, Listen, and Watch

The Mother Load by River Raccoon is about the Upper Iowa River Watershed, soil erosion, and nitrate leaching. Very fascinating, and concerning.

The stream load, or mass, of nitrate being transported is similarly astonishing. In the five plus days Since 12:01 a.m. on the 26th, the river has transported 2.6 million pounds of nitrogen, the equivalent of about 20 rail cars of anhydrous ammonia. Almost a million pounds was transported Monday alone. In terms of crop acreage, 13 pounds of nitrogen per crop acre has been lost in only the past 5 days.

Amit Varma, “The Seen and the Unseen” podcast, “Tragedy of our Farm Bills” talks about the history and potential issues with the farm bill controversy in India (February 2021.)

Farm to Incubators documentary (trailer only) by Amy Wu. It tells the story of minority women agtech entrepreneurs. Tim Hammerich is partnered with Amy to tell similar stories through his podcast.

So, what do you think?

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