Real AI for Agriculture and Food Security

By Michael Hainsworth

“We have this exponential opportunity to be able to do things much larger than ourselves,” says Karn Manhas. The CEO of Vancouver’s Terramera which is using Real AI to reduce the Agriculture industry’s carbon footprint while putting more food on our tables – and money in the pockets of hard-hit farmers. “We’re transforming how we grow food and the economics of agriculture.” The economics of farming don’t look good.  Neither does the impact on the environment. 25% of greenhouse gas emissions are tied to agriculture and food production. Yet Statistics Canada reports we have 47% less farmland in Canada today than what we had in the 1970s. And farmers are only making 7 cents on every dollar’s worth of crops sold.

“How we change the economics of agriculture is reimagining how agriculture works.”Karn Manhas, CEO, Terramera

Despite the grim statistics, Manhas has a goal: reduce synthetic pesticide use by 80% globally by the end of the decade while simultaneously increasing the efficiency of the soil. Terramera is doing this by empowering farmers to take carbon from the environment and embed it into the earth. For every 1% increase in carbon farmers can inject into the soil, productivity increases by 20%, but they can’t accomplish this task without the use of artificial intelligence. “The difficulty from a biologist perspective is that everything’s connected. We don’t know how all of these things interact with each other, everything from microbes and soil microbes, to the weather, to all kinds of factors in terms of what we grow, how we grow, what we’re putting onto the farm,” Manhas states, adding, “The only way to do that would be to create an AI with sufficient data data to be able to capture enough of the factors that are going on from the environment to the soil to the plants that we’re growing, to be able to advise how to actually best achieve those outcomes in a systems-wide way.”

Most soil has about 1% carbon. The blackest, richest soil you’ve ever seen probably has 5%. While research by Terramera concludes that increasing the carbon in soil by 1% increases an acre’s productivity by 20%, Manhas believes they can improve productivity by as much as 70% by constantly feeding fresh data into an algorithm that’s constantly learning from a stream of IOT devices and other sources.

Getting carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ground is crucial to addressing climate change. It’s those changes in the environment that have led to droughts where it normally rains. These changes to any given ecosystem have led to a rise in crops lost to pests – and a spike in the use of pesticides to combat them. Leveraging technology from Microsoft Azure FarmBeats, Terramera is collecting that “big data” from multiple sources, including Internet of Things sensors in the field, real-time weather patterns, and GPS. Manhas predicts that if Terramera’s work was scaled globally, we’d feed another billion people while pulling more carbon out of the environment.

But is the “salt of the Earth” farming community ready to go high tech? “Farmers are just like, all of us, they’re a subset of the population. So you have people who are technophiles and Luddites, you have farmers that are technophiles and Luddites, you have the whole spectrum across farming.” He points out that we don’t need to get all farmers onboard right away, but if we can show the value and economic return to the growers, we’ll bring more onboard. Getting more farmers onboard with Real AI may not be much of a real challenge: Manhas points out that Canadian farm gate incomes have dropped more than 50% since 2016.

“How we change the economics of agriculture is reimagining how agriculture works,” Manhas adds. If we can build the tools to understand the chemistry of plant growth, what we grow, and what’s going on in the soil, Terramera believes we can create a much more holistic outcomes-based approach. He points out that this isn’t just a trade-off between using these chemicals and protecting against loss or leveraging Real AI to increase sustainability, profits, or yields. “All of those things are connected.”

Leveraging Real AI, Terramera is increasing plant health with less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Manhas says we have no choice but to advance new technologies because, “we’re eating the planet to death.”

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