While digital tools and the data collected from sensors, spreadsheets and GPS struggle to fully capture agriculture’s complexity, Alphabet’s X lab, the former Google division that launched the Waymo self-driving car unit has unveiled “Mineral”, a computational agriculture project working to take agriculture to the next level. “Mineral” is looking to change the current standardized management practices of the crops we grow, meaning they want to change the fact that most acres are uniformly treated with chemicals for issues like pests, weeds, and disease and fertilizers. Believing they can make massive chemical and fertilizer reductions and at the same time provide a healthier crop and a healthier environment.
To put this next step in agriculture in perspective, consider how the compound microscope allowed scientists to explore the microstructure of plants and discover the existence of cells, leading to the discovery of bacteria and ultimately to the insight that bacteria and other microorganisms were the cause of many illnesses. Prior to that, the prevailing belief was that bad odors made people sick. The team at Google X-Lab and the piece of infield equipment they created called “Mineral” are trying to bring the same level of transformation to how our food will be grown through what is known as computational agriculture, where farmers, breeders, agronomists, and scientists lean on new types of hardware, software, and sensors to collect and analyze information about the complexity of the plant and its soil.
Focused on solving issues around sustainability, “Mineral” is using collected data from their plant buggy and combining it with satellite imagery and weather data to create predictive models for how the plants will grow using machine learning and other AI training techniques. From what I understand, over the past few years, the plant buggy has been running through strawberry fields in California and soybean fields in Illinois, as it gathered high-quality images of each plant and counted and classified every berry and every bean. Keep in mind, we currently eat only a small percentage of the 30,000 edible plant species that exist worldwide, so Mineral is hoping to unlock genetic diversity in not only some of those species but all of our foods in order to identify varieties that would be resilient and productive under any pressure that a changing climate might present.
As consumers demand more sustainability in the way we grow our crops and how we impact the soil and the environment, computational agriculture will most likely become a norm sooner than later for top growers. By knowing how every plant on your farm is growing and interacting with its environment, you will more easily be able to reduce the use of fertilizer, chemicals, and water, while at the same time exploring sophisticated growing techniques like intercropping and cover cropping that restore soil fertility and increase productivity.
In the coming years, I suspect we see new tools created that will enable farmers to start asking entirely new kinds of questions that deal with manage the individual plants rather than the entirety of the plot? What if crops could be bred 10X faster, 10X cheaper? What if any farmer could have access to the best advice anywhere, rather than being limited to personal or local know-how? Learn more about Alphabet’s X Lab and what they are working on HERE. (Source: Techcrunch, Verge, Engadget)