To meet the world’s growing demand for food, we need to change what we grow and how we grow it
To feed the planet’s growing population, global agriculture will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than in the previous 10,000–at a time when climate change is making our crops less productive.
Until now, the world’s approach to meeting this challenge has been to standardize what we grow and how we grow it. Modern agriculture practices focus on cultivating a few crops known to have high yields—today, rice, wheat, and maize provide nearly half the world’s plant-derived calories. We also standardize how we manage the crops we grow—most crops are treated uniformly on a per acre or per hundred acre basis with chemicals for issues like pests, weeds, and disease and fertilizers. But, an agriculture system that’s optimized for productivity and simplicity comes with risks.
Intensively growing just a few varieties of plants makes our food supply vulnerable to pests, disease, and a changing climate. Over time, it also depletes the soil of nutrients and minerals, reduces the diversity of the soil’s microbiome, and diminishes the soil’s ability to store carbon. Overuse of fertilizers and chemicals also negatively affects soil health, creating a vicious cycle that makes our farmlands less productive and the food we grow less nutritious.
Mineral is developing new technologies to help build a more sustainable, resilient, and productive food system
What if new technologies could help us embrace nature’s diversity and complexity, instead of simplifying it? If breeders could unlock the genetic diversity of the 30,000 edible plant species that exist worldwide, they might be able to identify plant species and varieties that would be resilient and productive under the pressure of climate change. If growers could understand how each and every plant on their farm is growing and interacting with its environment, they could reduce the use of fertilizer, chemicals, and precious resources like water, and explore sophisticated growing techniques like intercropping and cover cropping that restore soil fertility and increase productivity.
Building a complete picture of the field
We started our journey talking with breeders and growers around the world to learn about the challenges they face. From soybean farmers in Argentina to kiwifruit breeders in New Zealand, we heard from breeders that they need to gather much more information on many more varieties of biodiverse plants—and quickly, if they are going find varieties that are resilient and productive in the face of climate change.
Growers face hundreds of decisions every season, and we heard how current tools aren’t equipping them to meet the challenges they face. Even though they use digital tools like sensors, spreadsheets and GPS, their data is either siloed or doesn’t fully represent agriculture’s complexity.
The Mineral team saw an opportunity to build new software and hardware tools that can bring together diverse sources of information that until now were simply too complex or overwhelming to be useful. The team started by gathering readily available information on the environmental conditions in the field—for example, information on the soil, the weather, and historical crop data.
The Mineral team saw an opportunity to build new tools to help breeders and growers embrace the complexities of growing food.
Next, the team began to unearth new data on how plants in the field were actually growing and responding to their environment. To do so, the team developed a prototype plant buggy that rolls through the fields, inspecting crops up close. Over the past few years, the plant buggy has trundled through strawberry fields in California and soybean fields in Illinois, gathering high quality images of each plant and counting and classifying every berry and every bean. To date, the team has analyzed a range of crops like melons, berries, lettuce, oilseeds, oats and barley—from sprout to harvest.
By combining the imagery gathered by the plant buggy with other data sets like satellite imagery, weather data, and soil information, the team is able to create a full picture of what’s happening in the field and use machine learning to identify patterns and useful insights into how plants grow and interact with their environment.
Mineral’s robotics, sensing and software tools collect and interpret diverse data from the field
The Plant buggy: roving the fields to collect plant-level insights
New insights into how plants grow
By combining data collected from the field, like plant height, leaf area and fruit size, with environmental factors like soil health and the weather, Mineral’s software tools can help breeders understand and predict how different varieties of plants respond to their environments. By mapping and imaging plants in the field, growers can troubleshoot and treat individual plants instead of entire fields, reducing both their costs and environmental impact. Tracking how the plants are growing over time can help growers predict the size and yield of their crop, enabling them to make better yield projections.
Reimagining the future of food production with partners around the world
Today, Mineral is working with and learning from innovative breeders and growers in Argentina, Canada, the U.S. and South Africa. We continue to expand our collaborations with organizations around the world spanning the private, nonprofit, academic and government sectors. Together we will embrace nature's complexity and diversity to build a more sustainable, resilient, and productive food system.