Robots to Save Food Crisis

Our global population is devouring food in record numbers, depleting valuable resources at alarming rates. The romantic vision of a family farm is more of a postcard of our nostalgic past. Today, agriculture is big business that relies heavily on data driven technologies and robotics to maximize yield.


Mark Bryant is a farmer in Ohio with 12,000 acres, on which he raises corn, soybeans and soft red winter wheat. He is rarely on a tractor, because that isn’t how farms work anymore.

Instead, Mr. Bryant’s days are spent surveying dashboards full of data gathered from the 20 or so iPhones and five iPads he has supplied to his employees, on which they report on his acreage in real time, thanks to software from a Google-funded startup called Granular. Data gathered from aircraft, self-driving tractors (below) and other forms of automated and remote sensors—for yield, moisture and soil quality—are also essential to how he does his work.


“Just imagine, up until Granular came, for us everything was done on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet,” says Mr. Bryant.

Mr. Bryant isn’t atypical. Increasingly, this is how farming must be done for a farm to remain competitive.

“If we’re really going to be professional farmers and feed everybody in the world, we really have to utilize this technology to do the job,” says Jeremy Jack, a farmer in Belzoni, Miss., which bills itself as the “Catfish Capital of the World.”

Here’s the problem we face: We live on a planet of 7 billion people that is projected to have more than 2 billion more mouths to feed by the middle of the century. Another billion or so people will enter the middle class in that time, radically accelerating their demand for calories in the form of meat and other energy-dense foods. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that the world’s farmers will have to produce 70% more calories by 2050, on less land (perhaps much less land) and with less water than they do today.

The alternative is people starve, governments clamp down and there is, as there was during the 2007-2008 global food crisis, blood in the streets.

There is currently a lot of debate about the sustainability of our agricultural system, which is heavily dependent on both water and fossil fuels. People also are divided over GMOs vs. organic, and grass-fed vs. factory-farmed. But in any scenario, with any mix of ad-hoc solutions to these issues, one fact remains: America’s family farmers—97% of America’s 2.1 million farms are family farms—are going to have to produce a lot more food per acre, on top of a century of productivity gains unprecedented in the history of agriculture.

America has more arable land than any other country on Earth, but that amount is shrinking—3,000 acres are lost to development every day. Despite this, 889 million acres, or 40% of our land area, is devoted to farming, and the U.S. is by far the biggest exporter of grain.

In a very real sense, America feeds the world.

Getting more food from every acre without devastating the land for future generations requires accomplishing two contradictory things at once: Making farms ever larger—consolidation leads to efficiency, as in any other industry — and allowing farmers to understand every single thing happening on their farms, down to a resolution of single days, square meters and even individual plants.

The result is a panoply of farming technologies that surprised me, but maybe that’s just because advances in tractors hardly get the media attention that the tiniest iteration in consumer technology warrants.

And these are technologies that are already in use.

The world’s largest producer of autonomous four-wheeled vehicles isn’t Tesla or Google, it’s John Deere. And the cab of one of these self-driving tractors is now so full of screens and tablets that it has come to resemble the cockpit of a passenger jet—an accurate comparison in more ways than one, since perhaps only the airline industry can match farming in the degree to which its vehicles have become automated.

“When you think of John Deere you think of a bunch of mechanical engineers who are designing big steel parts, but we have 2,600 employees who come in every day who are writing software,” says John May, chief information officer of John Deere. (For reference, a tech company like Facebook, which has been hiring like crazy of late, has only about three times as many developers.)

The result is that John Deere and its competitors aren’t just turning out tractors, combines and trucks that can drive themselves and even each other, automatically coalescing into tight formations as they cross a farmer’s field, like fighter jets at an air show, they are also turning out wirelessly connected sensors that map every field, as well as planting and spraying machines that can variably apply seed and nutrients to a field, as if they were 20-ton print heads for 3D printers.

Unlike most other areas of technology, this is happening today. John Deere has been selling self-driving tractors for 15 years. What’s new is data-centric companies with Silicon Valley pedigrees, like 2 1/2-year-old Granular and aerial surveillance startup DroneDeploy, that have the ability to tap into all this machinery and run farms as efficiently as Google runs its data centers.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.57.01 PM

As I struggled for an analogy to describe what’s going on in America’s farms, Sid Gorham, CEO and co-founder of Granular, suggested something unsexy but apt: Farming is finally getting its Enterprise Resource Planning software. This banal but critical area of software, dominated by the likes of SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, is what allows giant corporations to manage their entire supply chains and all their connected parts, including cash flow and human resources.

This change is revolutionary for those participating in it, like Mr. Bryant, who used to run his farm with paper forms, an Excel spreadsheet and a hard-won collection of gut feelings about when to plant and when to sow.

Or in other words, the way we will feed the 10 billion people whom demographers project will eventually inhabit this world will be by managing every acre of our farmland with the same precision that allows a company like Apple to deliver tens of millions of iPhones within weeks of each other.

* Thank you to WSJ’s Christopher Mims for his contribution to this post

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