The disrupters of Silicon Valley and its tributaries have trained their GPS on the most fundamental of all human needs — food. In San Francisco earlier this spring, 1,300 venture capitalists, gene scientists, bio-tech visionaries and startup aspirants gathered to probe what they consider to be the nearly digitally virgin terrain of agriculture. It’s a terrain that’s being profoundly transformed by the biggest disrupter of all: climate change.
How Tech Aims to Save Big Ag From Climate Change
As attendees at the fifth annual World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit trooped from ballroom to ballroom at the Hilton, plotting the future of agriculture, more than half a million acres of Central Valley fields, once filled with tomatoes, lettuce, almonds, and other crops sat empty for another day of nothing happening. They are fields out of commission, fallowed by two symptoms of climate volatility that are challenging the agricultural practices in the Central Valley and across the country — too little water, or water that’s too salty for cultivating crops.
Everyone at the summit, who paid almost $2,400 to be there for two days, is well aware that climate change is reshaping agriculture: Temperature, rainfall and the imbalances that lead to extreme weather are all in a kind of atmospheric free-for-all, as greenhouse gases accumulate and volatility accelerates. And that’s just the beginning, as the federal government’s National Climate Assessment told us last year: There is more turbulence to come. Losses will likely accelerate as the weather changes; new pests and diseases that were wholly unanticipated a decade ago are heading north across the US, following the heat; extreme destructive events multiply in their number and intensity.
As the summit convened, the Midwest was reeling from a devastating cyclone that left hundreds of thousand of acres underwater. A team of scientists of scientists from UC Merced sounded the alarm last year in the peer-reviewed journal agronomy: “Adaptation,” they said, “was a matter of the utmost urgency.” For farmers in California, they warned, there is accelerating volatility — year after year of never-before-experienced deviations from what had been the norms of heat and rain.
Or, as Howard Yana-Shapiro, chief Agricultural Officer for the Mars Corporation, put it in an interview at the Hilton, “Nothing we knew in the past is a fact today.”
That’s sobering news for Big Ag, which requires predictability above all. Mainstream food production counts on using the same seeds across vastly different ecological zones, sustained by a set of identical and reproducible chemical inputs. But the rate of disruption in the fundamental elements that foster food growth — sun, rain, soil — is outpacing the ability of even major seed breeders to keep up.
It’s not knowing what’s coming that haunts the attendees at the Ag-Tech Summit. Mars was at the summit because the three main ingredients the company relies on for its candy — peanuts, cacao and mint — are experiencing devastating losses, and Yana-Shapiro is running test plots in Davis to find more resilient ways of growing them. Land O’Lakes was there because dairy farmers face a combination of plunging prices and shifting conditions for the silage they grow for their cows. Driscoll’s was there out of concern for how much water they’ll be able to supply for their berries. And two giant grain traders, Cargill and ADM, were anxious about destabilization of their cereal and grain supplies.
How, Then, Will We Grow Food?
Into this whirlpool of disruption come the disrupters.
It’s about a hundred miles from the Hilton in San Francisco to the heart of the Central Valley, around Modesto, but it might as well be a million. There was barely a farmer in sight, among the men and women boasting name tags like Amazon Web Services, Google Launchpad, Rabo AgriFinance (a bank), Lazard (financiers), Microsoft, Immarsat (satellites that provide ag-related imagery), IBM, Wells Fargo, and Evogene (specializing in gene sequencing).
The self-titled Captain of Moonshots Astro Teller, who is CEO of X, the company in charge of Google’s advanced technology division, launched the proceedings with a brief staccato call for a ‘moonshot’ for agriculture. He wasn’t overly specific as to what that would be — it was a roomful of potential competitors and start-ups seeking cash — but he came to the Continental Ballroom with a portfolio of already-launched initiatives by X of what the company calls “computational agriculture.” That means applying artificial intelligence to the hurly-burly hard work of conjuring food from the earth — from sensors that can signal the prime time for harvest to autonomous vehicles capable of harvesting crops or applying pesticides at record-breaking speeds.
The thing about food, you start talking about the moon but you always end up closer to Earth. In the hallways of the Hilton, under the wannabe chandeliers, came the buzzwords, like mantras: sustainability, resilience, good for the planet, ROI (return on investment), and, soon enough, win-win.
Prowling the conversations and presentations, never seen but omnipresent, was the "unicorn," the billion dollar company-to-be that would transform farm fields and enable them to withstand the onrushing changes — the way Uber transformed the taxi business.
Was the unicorn a new robot capable of traversing apple orchards and plucking fruit without human intervention? Could it be the new hyper-sensitive pest monitor which can provide a stream of acre-by-acre data about pest populations and narrow the target for spraying insecticides? Or was it the microbe dropped into the soil that encourages crop-friendly nematodes (aka, worms) to reproduce and populate the fields, but kills the nematodes hostile to crops?
Maybe it’s the new genetic interventions that can sterilize pest populations and — Hey! — genetic interventions could even someday allow plants to flourish in a drought! (This one is nowhere near any horizon, however distant, due to the complex genetics of how plants integrate and use water — but this was a conference of relentless optimists.)
Top of the list was more data.
“Imagine if all of the data we have access to today is a grain of sand,” Matt Crisp, Vice President of Benson Hill Bio Systems, a leading bio-tech firm, intoned from the dais. “Then in 10 years we’ll be walking on the beach.”
For example: Install pest-tracking sensors that use an algorithm to identify which insect species in a field threaten the crop, and which don’t. Insert sensors into the soil to monitor water absorption, and identify where additional irrigation might be essential. Or, suggested an executive at the European airplane manufacturer Airbus: Hire our satellite fleet to capture photos that can tell you where fields are drying and whether cover crops are enriching soils.
Some of the more advanced ideas actually signaled a return to earlier knowledge: the soil. After a half a century in which soil has been treated as a kind of platform for an environment constructed from synthetic agri-chemicals, attention is returning to how plant crops might draw what they need from soil itself. In other words, a 10,000-year-old idea dating to the domestication of agriculture is in vogue once again, with a Silicon Valley bio-tech twist.
“Biology is the next building material to solve the challenges of agriculture,” Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot-Bio, commented in an interview.
Pivot-Bio has looked inside the genomes of microbes that spend their life in soil, and figured out a way to unlock their ability to turn nitrogen into mineral nourishment for plants. Which means unlocking capacities they used to have before industrial agriculture.
“When modern fertilizers came along,” Temme said, “the microbes lost their ability to metabolize nitrogen in a way that was beneficial to the plants. They went into hibernation.”
His genetic intervention is aimed at triggering that nascent function back into action.
Who is Disrupting What?
Over the two days, a question hung in the air: What precisely are the disrupters aiming to disrupt?
There were promises of small-scale disruption to be sure, including those non-chemical soil treatments designed to short-circuit the reproductive capacity of nematodes — aka, worms — that attack crops; the sensors for identifying already moist areas in fields and thus guide more targeted irrigation; and Pivot Bio’s nitrogen stimulant for micro-organisms, reducing the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer applications. All could conceivably reduce the need for synthetic chemicals and ensure less wasted water.
In his keynote, Neal Gutterson, the Chief Technology Officer of Corteva, the agri-chemical division of the two merged chemical giants DowDuPont, offered five company goals on PowerPoint — aphorisms for agriculture.
“Our job,” he said, “is simplifying the life of farmers and consumers. Consumers want cleaner labels, less waste, environmental sustainability, increasing yields, and to reduce our environmental footprint.” For America’s largest agri-chemical company, that meant, for one, more efficient ways of delivering the company’s agri-chemicals. For example, more use of drones to identify areas of insect infestation — and thus target the application of pesticides. It also meant more active bio-tech initiatives, including genome alterations aimed at increasing yields. Gutterson highlighted the company’s development of a new herbicide, called Enlist Duo, that he claimed is less “prone to drift” onto a neighbor’s field than the herbicides of their competitors, such as the glyphosate weedkiller produced by competitors like Monsanto.
But there’s a bigger picture. Climate change strains the half-century of agricultural practices that are based on fighting nature, breeding seeds that require pesticides to survive, or geoengineering them to enable resistance to the company's own herbicides, as in the case with glyphosate, hence insulating the seed through chemical interventions from the environment around them. It’s a system heavily dependent on fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers and mono-cropping, and contributes greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The world’s three dominant agri-chemical companies — Monsanto/Bayer, Corteva (the renamed agricultural chemical and seed division of the merged DowDuPont), and Syngenta, now owned by ChemChina, the largest chemical company in China — were among the ‘Platinum’ sponsors of the conference, their logos plastered behind the speakers on the dais, speakers who were there to consider how to shake up the status quo that those companies contributed mightily to creating over the last half-century.
Indeed, several big disruptions were already happening far from the Hilton and independent of any of the initiatives suggested there. The ‘bomb cyclone’ that hit Nebraska and elsewhere in the Midwest left hundreds of thousands of acres of farm fields and crops underwater, demonstrating the fragile status of the Midwest’s commodity agriculture.
And on the very same day the summit commenced at the Hilton, a federal judge in San Francisco, in a courtroom barely a mile from the Hilton, declared Monsanto’s corporate parent Bayer liable for the cancer caused by its weedkiller Roundup to a 70-year-old man who had applied it to his property outside Santa Rosa for several decades. That verdict presents a direct threat to the financial stability of Monsanto’s new corporate parent, and to the practice of tying a seed so closely to a chemical. (One week later, the court ruled that the man, Charles Hardeman, was entitled to $80 million) in damages. Bayer/Monsanto is appealing the verdict.
“A real ‘disruption’ would be if your seed doesn’t need to be blanketed with glyphosate,” quipped Charles Baron, a co-founder and Vice President of the Farmers Business Network, which provides data to farmers independent of the major seed and chemical companies.
In the face of the biggest climate disruption in recorded history, the billions of dollars in the room and the sharpest technical minds were thinking of how to bulletproof the status quo with greater and greater levels of technological intervention.
The conference, like the phenomenon we all face, had a poignant ring of sci-fi — as some of the world’s most sophisticated players in agriculture, high-tech, and venture capital, accustomed to a playing field they can shape, contended with a new global playing field already shifting in a million ways they cannot guide and over which they have little control.
For its part, Bayer celebrated its participation in the summit by announcing its latest innovation — a newly hybridized broccoli with a higher crown that simplifies the machine harvesting of broccoli. It’s name: High-Rise broccoli.
The summit ended. The search for the unicorn continued.
Mark Schapiro is an investigative journalist specializing in the environment. His most recent book is "Seeds of Resistance: The Fight To Save Our Food Supply," an investigation into the seeds needed to survive climate disruption and the fight to control them. His previous book, "The End of Stationarity: Searching for the New Normal in the Age of Carbon Shock" reveals the hidden costs of climate change. Schapiro is also a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter, @schapiro.
"Reckoning in the Central Valley" is a collaboration between KQED Science and Bay Nature magazine, examining how climate change is laying bare the vulnerabilities of California agriculture. Bay Nature magazine is an independent, nonprofit publication that reports on the environment in the greater Bay Area.