While Silicon Valley has transformed every industry from health care to banking, agriculture has remained largely untouched — until now.
Ever since OpenAI’s breakthrough with ChatGPT, the term AI has been thrown around so many times it’s starting to lose its meaning. Nevertheless, artificial intelligence has seeped into every industry from enterprise software to autonomous vehicles, taking around 10% of global venture dollars in 2022.
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Agriculture has not been immune to the AI revolution that has gripped the tech world. It’s perhaps one of the most interesting use-cases for AI. While ethicists lament racism and bias embedded into algorithms — and ChatGPT gets weirdly perverse — AI in agtech is playing a much more consequential role in furthering two goals for agtech: making lots of food, and doing it sustainably.
“AI in agriculture is much less about disrupting the grower. It’s not,” said Rien Kamman, CEO and co-founder of Netherlands-based greenhouse startup Source.ag. “These growers and farmers, they’re truly amazing. They’re craftsmen. They’re really good at what they do. But we need to give them all the tools they need to be successful.”
Here are some of the most promising applications of AI in the agriculture section.
Indoor farming, either by way of greenhouses or hydroponics-driven vertical farming, has been the apple of Silicon Valley’s eye when it comes to agtech. Around 20% of funding in the sector was dedicated to indoor farming in 2022, Crunchbase data shows.
For example, Source.ag uses AI to make granular adjustments to water, electricity and heat within indoor farming setups. The process allows growers to cut down on energy usage while almost guaranteeing how much produce they will yield at the end of the season.
“It’s kind of bizarre,” Kamman said. “A pilot has a lot of support systems, like an autopilot and a way to help chart the right route. But a lot of farmers and growers do not have such advanced support systems.”
The largest funding rounds for agtech in 2022 came from startups using AI in indoor farms to control humidity, airflow and water. Plenty, a vertical farming startup that sells lettuces, raised $400 million in January. Gotham Greens, its competitor, raised $310 million in September.
“We also do this multivariate analysis of climate where you can look at the relationships among humidity and airflow and carbon dioxide and the fertilization and the lighting,” said Matt Ryan, CEO of Soli Organic. “What combination of factors gives you the best recipes for growing each crop? So we are used to that AI-driven technology just like everybody else is.”
Crop protection is one of the farmers’ biggest issues. In order to grow more plants, farmers need to shower pesticides and other treatments over acres of land that can be fatal to nearby crops and bees, and contribute to water pollution.
But new technologies aim to target plant-killing agents with precision. Enko Chem, a Connecticut-based crop protection startup, functions almost exactly like AI-driven drug development platforms in the pharmaceutical industry. AI, after scanning through a database of plant and disease compounds, targets the unique compounds found in a specific disease or insect while sparing crops and the rest of the ecosystem.
“If you can target a very specific pest instead of saying, ‘Well, we’re an herbicide, so we will annihilate all plants,’ and if you can be very selective for the pests that you’re going after, not only do you get better efficacy, but you’re better for the environment,” said Jacqueline Heard, CEO of Enko Chem.
Other companies, such as Canada-based Precision AI, use drones and AI to map out exactly which parts of a farm need to be sprayed with crop protection products. It also measures how far the product will be sprayed.
Weather forecasting startups have quickly found favor in insurtech, proptech, travel and defense. But they’re also quickly making their way into agtech.
Since the majority of agriculture happens in open fields, farmers are adopting technologies that not only predict the weather, but also offer insights on how it will impact crops.
Startups such as California-based Jupiter Intelligence warn agriculture workers of potential droughts, wildfires and floods in their area so they can prepare for sudden weather changes.
“AI-based systems can give much more predictive insight to what the likely risk ranges are for farmers,” said Jason Pontin, a partner at DCVC and investor in Jupiter. “You can buy better financial products, like insurance products, since you’re literally betting the entire farm.”
Another, California-based startup, ClimateAI, allows growers to not only anticipate weather changes, but take advantage of them. If a specific area is expected to see more rainfall, growers can plant crops that rely on more rain.
The promise and pitfalls of AI
While AI is promising, the majority of the farming world doesn’t have access to the kind of cloud technology or internet access that allows AI to make acute real-time predictions or automate certain processes.
Nevertheless, startups are heralding it as a quickly adopted nascent technology.
“AI is being used across so much of agriculture today and that adoption was faster [than what we’ve seen before],” said Heard. “A lot of progress will be made because it accelerates everything. It makes drug discovery faster, it accelerates breeding. It allows farmers to predict where and when they need to add inputs to their farm.”
There may come a time when, like crypto and web3, the AI bubble bursts. But for now, it’s plowing forward.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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