- Elliott Grant, PhD, is the CEO of Mineral, an Alphabet company.
In November at COP27, world leaders gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh and lamented the impact of agriculture on the world’s climate. Collectively, food production contributes about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Bold initiatives to reduce meat intake, protect biodiversity and sequester carbon in farmland have been announced.
But however worthwhile and serious these efforts may be, they ignore a hard truth. Climate change, supply disruptions and inflation, resistance to pests and diseases, regulatory requirements, outdated incentives, and new practices such as vegetation—all increase complexity and risk for farmers. The problem is not that farmers don’t care about the environment. In fact, I know they care a lot because it supports their livelihood, and farmland is often their greatest asset. The problem is that farmers don’t have enough tools to produce more, while using less, under increasingly difficult conditions.
If cultivation is so important, why not get the best technology?
Despite the hype, private and public investment in agricultural technology is much lower than investments in other climate solutions, such as clean energy (for example, venture capital and private equity invested nearly 70 times more in clean technology than in agricultural technology in 2021). If we are serious about helping agribusiness transform and adapt, they need access to the latest technology and the best science, adapted to the daunting challenges of the global food system. Take data, for example. As an industry, agriculture remains one of the least digitized sectors, according to McKinsey & Co. This poses a profound problem in our efforts to address the wide-ranging challenges facing agriculture today.
In the past two years, software engineers have seen the dramatic results of decades of research on artificial intelligence, or artificial intelligence. Recent examples are called “large language paradigms” such as GPT or LaMDA that can have a persuasive conversation with a human, generate code, or write articles in response to a prompt. Image recognition and computer reasoning are good enough to enable cars to drive themselves on city streets. Algorithms can predict the complex shapes of proteins. Some of these programs can create patterns from data that lead to new knowledge and understanding. The problem is that these computer models need large amounts of high-quality data to be useful. If farming is not digital enough, you will miss the AI train.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic. Smart equipment that senses every plant, drones that can fly autonomously and spot diseases, and cheap sensors that can monitor soil are all coming. Within a decade, advances like these will increase the data available to farmers by orders of magnitude. The industry is working on standards to improve the security of farm data and manage data use. Farmers have established networks—such as cooperatives, extension services, and 501(c)(5) nonprofit organizations like the Iowa Soybean Association—that can act as agents of change, educate, and ensure that the interests of individual farmers are protected.
This trend is why Alphabet has incubated Mineral in X, its moon factory, for the past five years. During that time, we sought to verify that the technology had matured to be ready for the market, and that the opportunity to build an independent farming company was real. Effective January 1, 2023, as a new Alphabet company, Mineral is applying the latest advances in artificial intelligence and computer science to meet the existential challenge of helping farmers around the world make land more productive and sustainable.
We’ve spent years testing and experimenting on farms around the world – and now we’re eager to get these tools into the hands of more farmers, to help them meet their goal of producing 70% more in the next 30 years using less land and fewer inputs.
Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you. Job 12:8
It’s not about creating a new gadget or smart app. Mineralogy is a foundational effort to bring farmers, crop breeders, advisors, and researchers a radically new way to measure the plant world–along with human intuition–gain a better and deeper understanding.
Elliot Grant, PhD, is the CEO of Mineral, an Alphabet company that applies the latest advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cognitive technology to make farming more sustainable.