74. The Monkey and the Pedestal

Technology trends for Food/Agtech leaders

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.

This week’s edition includes the following topics,

  • Analysis: How innovation & scaling involves solving the difficult problems first, and thinking big.

  • Technology trends (Micro edition!): Micro irrigation, Micro robots, Microprime, and Micro-processing.

  • Research review: A new study finds “Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods”

  • Tidbits from the world of Ag/Foodtech about research and production, CPG & supply chain, developing world, sustainability and social issues.

  • Read, Listen, & Watch recommendations: My first podcast on writing, Tim Hammerich with Louisa-Parker Smith, philanthropist and researcher Surinder Sehgal.

Analysis

The Monkey and the Pedestal

Let’s say you’re trying to teach a monkey how to recite Shakespeare while on a pedestal. How should you allocate your time and money between training the monkey and building the pedestal?

Image source from X blog

The right answer, of course, is to spend zero time thinking about the pedestal. The story says you should focus on solving the most difficult problem first, because if you cannot solve the difficult problem, then solving the easier problem is a waste of time and resources.

How is this relevant to problems in agriculture?

Before we go there, let me talk about BharatPe, a fintech company in India. Ashneer Grover (not grower!) is the co-founder of BharatPe (“Bharat” means India), a rising fintech company in India. BharatPe was founded in 2018 and it is already valued at $ 2.85 billion! BharatPe figured out the architecture of the existing payment interface was the same for peer to peer or peer to merchant payments. This realization propelled the product and business strategy, and led to rapid growth.

Ashneer Grover has one fundamental rule in life. “If you have to do something, do it big,” the 39-year-old co-founder of BharatPe says. “Because, if you must do something smaller, it takes an equal amount of effort.”

How is this relevant to problems in agriculture?

The diversity in agriculture practices around the world is mind boggling. There are different crop types, soil types, environments, weather conditions, mechanization levels, policies, labor conditions etc.

If you reflect on the sentiment of doing something means doing it big, and apply it to agriculture it poses some interesting questions.

How do you define big, when there is so much diversity in conditions? Will doing something “big” in one context, easily translate to other contexts? If it doesn’t, then by definition you are not doing something “big.” You see it’s direct impact on how certain problems in agriculture don’t tend themselves to the VC model. Connie Bowen talked about some examples during my conversation with her,

“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 which is probably expensive to develop to see and physically remove the berries. And you have to do it in the context of a crazy labor system.”

Is solving the problem of strawberry picking a big problem to solve? Will you consider it a big problem if one has to invest a similar amount of resources and effort to solve the problem of raspberry picking? And blueberry picking? And blackberry picking?

What if the monkey learnt how to recite Shakespeare in a way so it would take a similar amount of effort to teach it how to recite Milton, or Lin Manuel Miranda? What about teaching a chimpanzee to recite Shakespeare? If you didn’t learn much about teaching a monkey about recitation, while teaching it how to recite Shakespeare, you might not have solved the big problem of teaching monkey’s to recite.

If I relate the monkey story to the well known Haber-Bosch process, Haber taught the monkey to recite a word, but Bosch got the entire mammal kingdom reciting from Shakespeare to Cardi-B. Vaclav Smil, in his seminal book “Enriching the earth” wrote,

Bosch’s conviction that unprecedented difficulties could be overcome in order to commercialize the process proved to be correct. He lead a successful effort, much aided by Mittasch and Lappe, to transform a laboratory device into a continuously operating high-pressure, high-temperature synthesis process, a prototype for a new kind of chemical syntheses, in just four years.

And it is the challenge for entrepreneurs, and researchers, and the entities funding them (whether it is VCs, governments, or corporates). The monkey and the pedestal or the do something big philosophies are correct in the context of agriculture and technology. In fact, if anything, they are even more true, if you want to build a big business, or have a big impact in the world of agriculture and agtech.

So if you want to solve big problems, be very careful on how you define your problem statement. Understand who you are solving the problem from, what you will learn as you work on the problem, whether your learning will help to solve adjacent (or different problems) to get more leverage.

Oftentimes, the framing of the problem, and the questions you ask, is often more important than how you formulate your solutions.

Here’s to asking better questions, and better framing of problems. Happy building!

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Technology trends (Micro-edition)

Micro-irrigation

Many parts of the world are already experiencing the effects of climate change. My home-state of California is going through a historic drought. My origin country of India is facing unprecedented challenges of water availability for agriculture as well as human uses. I wrote all the way back in the first edition of this newsletter (Water crisis: Rice is the mad king)

India’s water crisis is deepening day by day. Water availability and quality are huge areas of concern with agriculture using about 90% of freshwater.

In edition 27 (Flatten the curve), I talked about drip irrigation and the work done by Netafim in India,

Water savings from using drip irrigation compared to pivot and conventional sprinkling are due to increased efficiency: 95%, 85% and 75%, respectively, with a payback in 3.5 to 4.5 years. Israeli irrigation company Netafim is a leader in providing drip irrigation systems in many places. Using a network of sensors to capture data in real time, it is possible to detect, read and record a series of parameters to deliver precise irrigation based on hyperlocal needs in sugarcane fields.

Drip irrigation can be expensive for countries like India. For example, it cost $ 52 million to provide drip irrigation for 60,000 acres, and the equipment lasts 50 years. ($ 17 per acre per year, with farmers financing the first five years)

The conversion from flood to drip irrigation can be expensive due to initial investments, energy costs, and filtration expenses. Micro irrigation based on gravity can solve some of the problem. For example, 

N-Drip’s Gravity Micro Irrigation System helps farmers irrigate precisely and efficiently, optimizing yields without requiring expensive pumps or filters. The System provides an easy-to-install economic solution by using the field’s existing infrastructure and is powered by gravity. As a result, water flows efficiently using sustainable energy while lowering labor costs and money spent on fertilizers.

Drip irrigation works well for non-commodity crops, and it is an option for regions with dry conditions, or limited access to water for irrigation. Drip irrigation reduces water usage, results in healthier foliage, prevents fungus, reduces soil erosion & nutrient run off, reduces weeds, does not require lot leveling & drainage, and can work with low pressure.

Micro-robots

Efficiency in farming operations leads to larger equipment and larger equipment leads to more efficient farming operations (efficient here also means larger!) We have definitely seen it in the US Midwest, with X9s rolling. The larger equipment does come with a set of problems, and it works in commodity row crops only. Outside of commodity row crops (or even within commodity row crops), there is a need for smaller size equipment for specific tasks like weeding and mowing assistance, looking for problems. The key drivers for agricultural robots are,

The key drivers for agriculture robots are: 

  1. Reduction of use of chemicals 

  2. Save labor costs

  3. Reduce soil compaction 

AigroUP is an agriculture robot to assist with weeding and mowing. Aigro UP focuses on tasks too realistic to automate, but highly time consuming right now. The Aigro UP is a narrow machine for orchards, and uses sensors for continuous motion. It relies on RTK GPS, and smart sensors in the field. It is an electrical robot with 2 swappable battery packs, and can run for 10 hours with a single charge.

For commodity crops as well, we have innovation (and a cute name) with the RowBot. The RowBot can go between rows of corn, and capture some interesting information around plant health, diseases incidence etc. The key question is around economics, and scalability of this form factor within the context of commodity row crops.

One would think saving labor costs is a problem only in developed countries. You see it as a problem in developing countries like India as well. As the overall economy of the country grows, more people want to find employment outside of farming for a variety of reasons.

  1. The social status associated with a factory or a service sector job is higher compared to labor on the farm.

  2. Moving away from the rural area gives a better chance for education, and opportunities to your children, compared to staying in a rural area.

Entrepreneurs like Jaisimha Rao, are building small robots for small farms through their entrepreneurial venture Tartan Sense. The value proposition of the robot is very clearly and succinctly stated,

From Tartan Sense Website

If companies like TartanSense can make an economically viable product, which works in the smallholder market it would be a wonderful development for certain parts of the world. This robot is electrically powered, and the company video claims to save more than 50% on input costs like chemicals, and water.

TartanSense’s robots are one incarnation of the “beautiful convergence” Jehiel Oliver, CEO of Hello Tractor talked about in my conversation with him in edition 66.

Given the small size of the farms, low horsepower tractors are ideal in Africa. Jehiel is excited about a convergence of small, low-power electric tractors powered by the sun. These tractors will not be dependent on energy grids, which can be unreliable or unavailable in certain parts of Africa.

Ducksize.com (yes ducksize.com!) offers an interesting framework to compare different types of robots, whether it is the different types of applications or different types of crops.

Micro-prime

Leaps By Bayer, and Cavallo Ventures announced a $ 15 million (USD) series A investment in agriculture and biotechnology innovator, Andes. Other new investors Builders VC, Germin8, Accelr8 and Wilson Sonsini participated, alongside existing investors KdT Ventures and Endurance.

Andes is building a novel seed treatment technology called ”Microprime.” Microprime integrates seeds with a portfolio of microbes, to colonize the seed’s root structure. It starts biological nitrogen fixation, and enables the crop to draw nitrogen from the air instead of relying on synthetic N fertilizers.

The self-sustaining Microprime seeds reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. The production of synthetic fertilizer requires large amounts of energy, and accounts for 3% of global GHG emissions.

The first generation of Microprime treated corn seeds will provide the equivalent of 30 to 50 lbs/acre of nitrogen through biological nitrogen fixation. The company is creating second generation microbes to  double the amount of nitrogen provided by the Microprime seeds.

If Microprime can address 60 to 100 lbs / acre of N needs, it has the potential to significantly cut down the synthetic fertilizer needs.

For 150 bushels, we recommend 180 pounds of nitrogen per acre. For 200 bushels, you go up to 240 pounds, and for 250 bushels, go to 300 pounds. For 300 bushels per acre, we recommend more than 360 pounds of nitrogen per acre”

It remains to be seen if this technology works consistently, in different environments, and at scale.

Micro-processing

Climate change is definitely having an impact. According to Eric Snodgrass, Science fellow at Nutrien, the planting window in Illinois has shrunk by 5 to 10 days during April and May since the 1980s. Severe events like hail, flood, fire, cold or drought make a huge impact on yields.

Reduction in GHG emissions is definitely an imperative for the longer term. In the short to mid term, the adoption of sustainable farming practices has shown more resilience to climate variability in the short term, and more profits in the long term.

Researchers from Michigan State University and Landcore are building models to predict and quantify the impact of sustainable practices on yield outcomes, and variability. Landcore is partnering with Compeer, the 3rd largest farm credit co-op in the US, to support the development of models using satellite imagery.

Land Core, a nonprofit, works to advance soil health policies and programs to create value for farmers, businesses and communities, is partnering with Compeer, the third largest farm credit cooperative in the country, to support development of the first-of-its-kind model. The model will help insurance agencies, farm lenders, and banks to understand the relationship between practices, soil health, and resilience to different weather events.

Personally, I am very excited about the use of data and machine learning algorithms, to fine tune our understanding of risk and its relationship to different farming practices. The variability of agriculture in different parts of the world will be a challenge to solve for these machine learning models. They will need large amounts of good quality ground truth data, robust and flexible modeling infrastructure, and validation and adoption by different parties. 

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Research paper

Nature: Animal-based foods produce twice the emissions of plant-based

A new study shows GHG emissions from food systems are a third of the global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Animal-based foods account for 57 percent of those emissions, and plant-based ones make up 29 percent. The detailed breakdown of how much each agricultural practice, animal product, crop and country contributes to carbon emissions can help focus and fine-tune reduction efforts. This study’s total emissions are ~90% more than FAOSTAT total emissions in 2010 because the older study did not consider farmland carbon dioxide emissions.

The study “uses data on 171 crops and 16 animal products from more than 200 countries, along with computer modeling, to calculate the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide contributed by individual elements of the global food system, including consumption and production.” The study does not account for activities like savannah burning, peat drainage, and peat fires.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Animal-Based Foods Are Twice Those of Plant-Based Foods,” by Xiaoming Xu et al., in Nature Food. Published online September 13, 2021

The study takes a comprehensive look at on-farm management practices, and downstream activities like processing and packaging. Beef production was the top emissions contributor, accounting for 25% of the total, followed by cow milk, pork, and chicken meat among animal based products. In crops, rice is the second highest contributor with 12% of the total.

Fig. 3 | GHG emissions from the productions of top-contributing commodities. a, Top ten plant-based food commodities. b, Top ten animal-based food commodities.

The research provides insights into development of mitigation strategies for food related GHG emissions. For example, impact of practices like no/reduce till on soil health and emissions, impact of reforestation, if some transition happens from animal-based to plant-based diets.

Xu X, Sharma P, Shu S, Lin T-S, Ciais P, Tubiello F N, Smith P, Campbell N and Jain A K 2021 Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods Nature Food 1–9.

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Tidbits

Research and production

What’s the difference between hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics?

CPGs and supply chain

Nestle CEO (founding member, CNBC ESG council) supports regen agriculture and netzero by 2050.

Cargill RegenConnect™ links farmers to the emerging carbon marketplace and helps scale the voluntary adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.

Nationwide revival of flours (similar to micro-breweries??)

A search for lower-carbon motor fuel is pitting food companies against the energy industry over tightening supplies of a humble commodity: vegetable oil.

Israeli seed developer Equinom and plant-based business Meatless Farm have tied up to leverage Equinom’s high-protein yellow pea varieties. Meatless Farm products use 90% less land and 70-80% less water compared to meat counterparts.

Developing world

Livestock farming is essential to half a billion poor families in the developing world. Criticism of livestock farming in the west, risks the health of the world’s poorest as they rely on meat for nutrition.

Sesame street: Nigeria generates an average of $1,400 per metric tonne of sesame exported. Sesame seeds, or beni-seeds as they are locally known, are among the most commercially viable crops critical to the agricultural economy of Nigeria.

Sustainability, and social issues

More soil carbon equals more effective rainfall?

If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30% and raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4%, reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17%. 

In 2020, the Brighter Future Fund was funded by Tillamook & awarded grants of up to $5,000 to 150 farmers across the country, with 96% (100% goal for 2021) awards to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women.

Read, listen, and watch

📚 “Growing uncertainty in the Central Valley” How a drought and a pandemic have put the California Central Valley food production system on the edge. (New Yorker article by Anna Wiener, 17 min read)

🎧 I co-hosted a podcast (first time ever!! - 55 minutes) about writing with DJ McCauley. We talked with author Sarah Mock about book writing, newsletters, and Twitter. My key takeaways were:

  1. Write for a specific audience.

  2. Respect the intelligence of your audience and take them along on the journey.

🎧 Tim Hammerich with Louisa Parker-Smith, Global Head of Sustainability for AGCO Corporation. The conversation touched on future tech trends, sustainability, electrification, manufacturing, and climate change. It is not your typical discussion about carbon markets. Definitely worth a listen. (39 minutes)

📺 Surinder Mohan (Suri) Sehgal is an India-born American philanthropist with a long career as a crop scientist, seedsman, entrepreneur, and leading expert in the global hybrid seed industry. His wife was an au pair at Henry Kissinger’s house! (28 minutes.)

So, what do you think?

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