Taking root roughly 12,000 years ago, agriculture was a turning point in humanity. The hunter-gatherer lifestyles followed by nomadic humans were replaced by permanent settlements and a stable supply of nutrients.
The increase in volume and availability of consumable calories partially explains why our global population has skyrocketed from 5m people 10,000 years ago to more than 7Bn people today. But as the projection for human headcount soars to ~9.7Bn by 2050, there are valid concerns that boosting agricultural production by at least 70% to meet rising demand will not be easy.
Before COVID-19 caused farm labor shortages, developed countries have seen labor participation in agriculture rapidly decline for decades. Between 1900 to 2000, the segment of Americans working as agricultural professionals plummeted from 41% to 2%. Automation - from the first seed drills to modern combine harvesters - may have contributed to this trend, but it is also true that young workers are ditching the arduous farm jobs their ancestors once held.
Beyond labor constraints, the arable land that growers rely upon to produce food in the first place is changing for the worse. Two of the biggest drivers behind this shift include:
Soil depletion: In industrially farmed soils, beneficial organisms like mycorrhizal fungi are killed off by intensive tillage, monocropping, and a cocktail of chemicals. In aggregate, these practices have left millions of acres of healthy soils devoid of the vitamins, minerals, and microbes that make their way into our food supply. As a result, each successive harvest yields less nutritious foods.
Climate change: Sustained droughts and warming air temperatures, driven in part by emissions from industrial agriculture - are complicit in driving nutritional declines in plants. The rising levels of CO2 have indeed helped plants grow bigger, faster. At the same time, carbon levels are catalyzing the “great nutrient collapse” - leading crops to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose (a type of sugar) at the expense of other nutrients like protein, iron, and zinc.
In light of these challenges, the agricultural sector is facing pressure to adapt to produce more nutrient-dense food with less arable land and a neutral to positive environmental impact.
As a result, farmers are increasingly relying on science and technology to breed crops and animals for desirable traits, in addition to molding nature to meet our needs. These innovations contribute to what’s colloquially referred to as precision agriculture.
But since the advent of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, a majority of agricultural technology (AgTech) has perpetuated the “get big or get out” model of consolidation by catering to the needs of industrial operations. For large, specialized tractors and harvesters to perform optimally, we clear fertile land of its plant, animal, insect, and microbial life to make way for perfectly level fields and the over-application of synthetic inputs to control weeds and pests, which crowd vulnerable monoculture cropland.
With declining soil fertility and increasing demand for food, it is time to start designing tools that meet the needs of the ecosystem rather than the other way around.
The last trend in farm automation machinery was rooted in short-term productivity and economies of scale. But the next era of “smart” farming will be about improving IQ - i.e., the decisions a machine makes in the context of a specific field. In place of 64-row corn planters, ultra-light autonomous robots must free the dwindling number of laborers from repetitive, physically demanding tasks and enable operations of all sizes to increase the diversity of their agroecosystem.
Similar to what the Oura Ring and Whoop Band have done for human productivity, AgTech must also assess the health of the underlying ecosystem to produce nutritious goods while restoring soil health and increasing biodiversity. Several areas where technology, in particular, can scale regenerative farming efforts include:
Weeding: Between 1974 and 2014, over 3.5Bn pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) were applied to US croplands to control weeds. However, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous application of GBHs has led to a surge in superweeds with a high tolerance to Roundup. This systemic issue has cost farmers over $1 billion in crop damages and forced many onto the pesticide treadmill, which requires superweeds to be sprayed with increasingly potent treatments.
To reduce the number of chemicals applied to cropland, Blue River Technology pioneered See & Spray, which uses computer vision and machine learning (ML) to direct tailored doses of herbicides where weeds are present. But incremental solutions aren’t enough.
Today, a new cohort of companies, including Aigen and Naio Technologies render chemicals obsolete with autonomous robots - eliminating weeds via electrocution, heated canola oil, and lasers without disturbing fertile topsoil. In doing so, farmers now have an economically viable and scalable path to regenerative organic farming.
Monitoring: Farmers have always played the role of an agronomist, surveying their landscapes to determine which crops to plant in what area to maximize yield without compromising soil health. But even the most experienced grower lacks the ability to process thousands- if not millions- of observations taken over subsequent seasons. By deploying robots, drones, and AI/ML algorithms out into the field, agricultural practices can shift from prophylactic and reactive to prescriptive and predictive based on historical trends paired with present-day data - e.g., weather conditions and soil microbiology.
The real value of plant monitoring equipment comes when these machines collate heaps of imagery to bridge the gap from analysis to action. Dropcopter, for example, uses drones to monitor crops, in addition to dispersing pollen from above orchards. On the ground, EarthSense is building rovers equipped with LiDAR and other technologies to automate phenotyping - collecting terabytes of data about plant count, health, stress response, and more. Growers can leverage this information to assess the health of crops on a plant-by-plant basis or even reduce the time needed to commercialize nitrogen and carbon fixing plants created by groups like Andes Ag, Loam Bio, and The Salk Institute.
As machinery adapts to address the needs of modern farmers, so must the business model. To accelerate the adoption and affordability of new AgTech, equipment manufacturers are offering Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS). Producers benefit from higher flexibility and lower Capex; service providers, on the other hand, derive recurring revenues and build lasting customer relationships. In a not-so-distant future, we foresee AgTech platforms emerging to offer plug-and-play hardware, IoT, and software solutions to optimize growing from seed to harvest and beyond.
Previous agricultural innovations, including the plow, the tractor, and the combine harvester have allowed our ever-expanding species to feed itself with inexpensive, nutrient-poor foods that strip the land of sustenance. Now we must shift farming goals from a focus on crop yield to a more integrated emphasis on ecological health, microbial diversity, and soil quality.
The key to healthier food is healthier soil, which produces the nutrients and bioactive compounds that make their way to us through the plants we eat. The more root symbionts (microorganisms) in our soil, the more efficiently plants cycle nutrients - from minerals to secondary plant metabolites and beneficial fatty acids. ReGen Ventures is looking for innovators building technology that works with nature to support the next regenerative farming revolution.