More than 10,000 feet above the earth's surface, a cluster of satellites trains its sights on a rural swath of the Indian subcontinent. The satellites are equipped with high-resolution imaging technology, but they're not tracking a fugitive, or spying on behalf of a foreign government; in fact, the subject of their surveillance sounds far more mundane: wheat fields. The satellites are able to capture and communicate valuable geospatial data on farmland, from damage assessments to yield predictions—not just on behalf of India's wheat industry, but for corn, rice, sugarcane and even dairy farmers worldwide. On its own this data has value, but it becomes a far more powerful resource when integrated into the diverse ecosystem of emerging technologies, from the macroscopic to the molecular, that form the field of hyper-efficient smart farming known as precision agriculture.
What's on the horizon will impact a wide array of businesses: CPG and retail, beauty and fashion, CSPs and 5G rollouts, cloud computing, hospitality and travel, infrastructure, the space economy and national security.
Tech Trend:Precision Agriculture
Key Insight: Precision agriculture is a new approach to crop and livestock cultivation that emphasizes efficiency, applying technology to grow and harvest a higher volume and quality of output using fewer resources than traditional methods. It can encompass everything from retrofitting existing farms with sensors and networked robotics, to aeroponic indoor farms and lab-grown meats.
Disruptive Impact: The field represents a growing market opportunity for suppliers, including satellite operators, networked robotics manufacturers, data architects and synthetic biologists, whose products and services can help connected farms maximize their yield. Among the farms and growers themselves, precision agriculture will drastically heighten competition, accelerating the demise of those that are slow to modernize. Ultimately, the ability to make precise tweaks and achieve unique characteristics in plant and animal products will mean that the relationship between humans and food may soon change forever, with the privileged having access to exotic superfoods and the most needy receiving low-cost, healthy sustenance at scale.
Examples: NASA has a dedicated program, Harvest, to improve crop yields while supporting sustainable farming using satellite data. Microsoft's Azure Farmbeats is a cloud-based platform that seeks to link together the disparate data sources that facilitate precision agriculture, from satellite imagery to sensors embedded in the soil. The system allows farmers to aggregate and manage that data, Other emerging players in precision agriculture include John Deere, Artemis, Apeel, and Infarm.
3 Things You Should Know
Precision agriculture spans machine learning... Agricultural companies, farmers, and food manufacturers can benefit from deep learning for food recognition. Plantix, a cloud-based AI system, identifies pests, disease, dehydration and malnourishment when a farmer uploads photos of unhealthy plants. Automated picking systems by Abundant Robotics and FFRobotics scan and “read” produce to determine ripeness. Dairy farms can monitor milk quality with SomaDetect’s optical sensors and machine learning system, and Blue River Technology uses deep learning to automatically detect and spray weeds.
...vertical farming... Vertical farming is a burgeoning industry in which crops are grown in stacked layers inside of climate-controlled environments. In the past, the expense of robots, artificial light, and other equipment made vertical farms difficult to scale, but today, thanks to brighter, cheaper LED light bulbs, cloud-based AI systems, and more available agricultural sensors, vertical farms can now cultivate crops like lettuce, spinach, basil, garlic, and snow peas, delivering 10 to 20 times the total yield of conventional farms with far less waste.
...and even synthetic biology. Gene editing gave us the ability to steer selective breeding in agriculture, but synthetic biology gives scientists and farmers the power to design entirely new or significantly altered organisms to achieve certain characteristics. One application is in cultivating lab-grown meats, but synbio can also be applied to mitigate costly risks in precision agriculture—generating an enzyme that increases water retention in crops, for example, or a new species of flavorful tomato that actively repels pests.
Dispatch from the Fringe: Mycological Microfarms
Go to dinner at a fancy farm-to-table restaurant and you're likely to get an earful about the origins of every ingredient on the menu. But ask a waiter at the Standard East hotel in New York where the mushrooms on your chlilaquiles were grown, and he may simply gesture to a glass-walled container above the bar. The unit, made by the precision farming startup Smallhold, is a climate controlled microcosm designed for cultivating mushrooms. Data from the apparatus is sent to the company daily, and conditions are recalibrated to optimize for growth. These automated microfarms, some of which can produce a hundred pounds of mushrooms a week, are already popping up in restaurants and grocery stores in select markets, bringing precision agriculture nearer to the end consumer—there are even grow kits available for home setup. With no major transportation, no preservatives, and no packaging, this futuristic and cost-effective form of farming may be closer than you think.
Terroir-as-a-Service Neutral, 2031
A selling point for fine wines, terroir refers to the environmental elements that shape the characteristics of a particular harvest, everything from the weather that season to the mineral content in the local soil. But as precision agriculture gives farmers the ability to tailor growing conditions in a tightly controlled environment, they no longer have to rely on unique site selection or meteorology to achieve a certain result in their products—terroir has essentially become programmable. Intent on surviving in this new landscape, heritage farms known for their irreplicable products encode, encrypt, and archive the complex data sets that make up their terroir each year, and license it to smart farms. The legacy farms are able to protect and profit off of this agricultural IP, while precision farms are able to recreate the conditions—and thus reproduce the crop—from any region or year on record.
Think Like a Futurist
Before you dismiss the futures of precision agriculture as unrelated to your business, run this trend through our Stakeholder Matrix. It facilitates a structured audit of the individuals, agencies, and firms that play a role in your forecasted future. From left to right, the columns range from Familiar, those key stakeholders that are already closely involved with the organization, to Theoretical stakeholders that may have never before been considered, but could feasibly become a factor as the organization evolves.
Example: If you work in healthcare, CPG, energy, pharmaceuticals, beauty, the cold chain or the space economy, you have plenty of adjacent stakeholders related to precision agriculture. If you're an IT company, CSP/ MNO, work in hospitality, cybersecurity, infrastructure, national security, stretch yourself: theoretical stakeholders are already visible.
Output: The result is an organized overview of all your organization's current and potential future stakeholders. The process of filling out the Matrix can help uncover gaps in the value network, reveal untapped resources, and identify new targets for collaboration.
Client Case Study: An FTI client in the financial services industry revealed tensions between smart city initiatives, which were considered partners, and data privacy activists, who were potential adversaries, and explored ways to appease one set of stakeholders without instigating the other. The matrix revealed the need to imagine future theoretical regulators and geopolitical tension––and, believe it or not, it saw new growth initiatives in urban agriculture.
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2021 Trend Report Launched
Our 14th Annual Tech Trends Report, featuring more than 500 tech and science trends across multiple industry sectors launched at SXSW last week. This year, we have multiple options for you: summary of key insights (15-minute read) deep-dive reports on topics like AI, blockchain, and automation (45-minute reads), and a massive 504-page PDF with all of our trends, scenarios and strategic guidance.