Farming is one of the oldest professions, but today those amber waves of grain (and soy) are a test bed for sophisticated robotic solutions to problems farmers have had for millennia. Learn about the cutting edge (sometimes literally) of agricultural robots at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 with the founders of Traptic, Pyka, and Farmwise.
Traptic, and its co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson, you may remember from Disrupt SF 2019, where it was a finalist in the Startup Battlefield. The company has developed a robotic berry picker that identifies ripe strawberries and plucks them off the plants with a gentle grip. It could be the beginning of a new automated era for the fruit industry, which is decades behind grains and other crops when it comes to machine-based harvesting.
Farmwise has a job that’s equally delicate yet involves rough treatment of the plants — weeding. Its towering machine trundles along rows of crops, using computer vision to locate and remove invasive plants, working 24/7, 365 days a year. CEO Sebastian Boyer will speak to the difficulty of this task and how he plans to evolve the machines to become “doctors” for crops, monitoring health and spontaneously removing pests like aphids.
Pyka’s robot is considerably less earthbound than those: an autonomous, all-electric crop-spraying aircraft — with wings! This is a much different challenge from the more stable farming and spraying drones like those of DroneSeed and SkyX, but the choice gives the craft more power and range, hugely important for today’s vast fields. Co-founder Michael Norcia can speak to that scale and his company’s methods of meeting it.
These three companies and founders are at the very frontier of what’s possible at the intersection of agriculture and technology, so expect a fruitful conversation.
Students, grab your super discounted $50 tickets right here. You might just meet your future employer/internship opportunity at this event.
Startups, we only have 5 demo tables left for the event. Book your $2200 demo table here and get in front of some of today’s leading names in the biz. Each table comes with 4 tickets to attend the show.
The Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision (Rosselkhoznadzor) had issued a public statement saying that the country had obtained the required rights to export beef to China, Lenta.ru reported on Friday.
According to the watchdog, deliveries were likely to begin as early as over the past weekend, the report said.
Aside from that, the Russian agency that oversees exports of animal derivatives or products had also added that the Chinese Government of President Xi Jinping had authorized two Russian enterprises for supplying beef meat into the pork-loving nation’s market, Lenta.ru wrote.
Beijing’s latest decision comes months after Chinese officials opened up the country’s market for exports of Russian poultry meat. A spokeswoman for Rosselkhoznadzor, Yulia Melano, was quoted saying late on Friday that Beijing had chosen the Bryansk Meat Company, owned by agricultural powerhouse Miratorg, alongside another producer of marbled beef in Russia, GK Zarechnoye, to import beef into the world’s second-largest economy amid an 18-month-long U.S.-China trade war over tariffs.
Russia’s agriculture ministry said in September it hoped that – after years of talks with Moscow – China would open its market for Russian beef and pork within 12 months.
The deal on beef was reached days after Russia’s watchdog issued a warning that it could temporarily limit supplies of some types of fodder and fish from China. Russia is still in talks with China about pork supplies.
Unusually warm weather has not affected Russia’s winter grain crop, Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported on Thursday, citing the acting head of Russian weather forecaster Hydrometcentre.
This winter has been unusually warm and dry in Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter. An increasing lack of moisture in the soil has been seen by analysts as the main risk for crops sown in the autumn of 2019 and due to be harvested this summer.
RIA quoted Hydrometcentre’s acting head Roman Vilfand as saying the development of the crop was “absolutely normal”.
Among sown winter grain, 4% of the crop was classed as in a bad condition, compared with 8% around a year ago, an official at the Hydrometcentre told Reuters in a statement in November.
Vilfand repeated the same numbers, according to Russian media.
The country’s farmers have planted winter grains for the 2020 crop on 104% of the originally planned area, or some 18.2 million hectares compared with 17.6 million hectares a year ago.
In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it revised downwards its forecast for Russia’s grain harvest in 2020, lowering its projection to 74 million tons based on official and unofficial data from the Russian government and industry experts following initial results of the 2019 harvest.
The Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor) has decided to temporarily ban the import of citrus from China after intercepting harmful organisms in shipments of these fruits, Retail.ru reports.
After issuing a warning to China on December 13, 2019, the watchdog made the measure effective on January 6, it said.
In August last year, Russia suspended the import of many stone fruits from China, such as plums, nectarines, apricots, peaches, and cherries, as well as of apples and pears, as a result of the regular finding of harmful organisms, such as the Oriental fruit fly, during inspections.
After the implementation of the ban, China invited Russia to audit the agricultural inspection and quarantine control systems. However, according to reports, Russia was not satisfied with the results of the audit.
The announcement issued on the official Rosselkhoznadzor website states that Russia would temporarily restrict citrus imports from China until this country establishes effective measures to comply with Russian standards regarding the safety of imported food.
In May last year, Rosselkhoznadzor lifted an import ban on stone fruit from North Macedonia and Serbia, imposed in August 2018. Some fruit from the two countries was banned after the watchdog said it had found the Monilinia fructicola fungus in Serbian peaches and apricots and in batches of fruit from North Macedonia.
Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains beneath the emptying corn crib. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner — and the thirsty crops struggle to mature.
From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the United States.
Meanwhile, several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is, is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says.
But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impact are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some damage brought on by decades of intense tillage by early European settlers. Their practices drove around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate, contributing 23 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Now black farmers are finding ways to capture that carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. They are employing strategies included in Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown,” a guide to the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.
One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative agriculture, a methodology first described by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, the use of cover crops and crop rotation. Both systems harness plants to capture greenhouse gases. “No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis,” Hawken says.
Here are examples of how farmers are putting these practices to work.
Leonard Diggs, Pie Ranch Farm, Pescadero, California
After working in an auto parts store during high school, Leonard Diggs swore, “I will never have another job working inside.” True to his word, Diggs went on to manage sustainable farms in northern California for over 30 years.
Diggs is developing a 418-acre incubator farm at Pie Ranch, where beginning farmers will establish their own regenerative enterprises. In collaboration with the Amah Mutsun tribal band and nearby farmers, he is creating a landscape-level ecosystem plan that integrates forest, riparian corridor, native grasslands, perennial and annual crops. The management practices that emit carbon, such as some annual crops, will be balanced out with perennial areas that sequester carbon, achieving carbon neutrality overall.
“We need to realize that working landscapes provide not just products but also ecosystem services like carbon sinks, water recharge and evolutionary potential,” Diggs explains. He envisions a food system where farmers derive 30 to 40 percent of their income from the value of ecosystem services and do not have to “mine” the soil to make a living. He is working with researchers to establish baseline data for the amount of carbon in the soil, and the composition of bacterial and fungal communities. The goal is for the farm to capture more carbon than it releases over time.
Unlike many incubator farms that emphasize annual crops and allow farmers to stay for just a few years, Diggs is working with a longer horizon. “We need to plant orchards and perennials, get them established over 10 years, and hand new farmers a working landscape. Instead of making them leave as soon as their businesses get established, we will move the incubator to a new area, and the farmers can stay.
“We need agriculture that does not lose our carbon, and does not deplete our people.”
Keisha Cameron, High Hog Farm, Grayson, Georgia
Not everyone in the black farming community is as excited about fiber as Keisha Cameron. Given the prominent role of the cotton industry in the enslavement of African Americans, many farmers eschew cultivation of textiles. “We are largely absent from the industry on every scale,” she explains. “Yet these agrarian artways and lifeways are part of our heritage.”
At High Hog Farm, Cameron and her family raise heritage breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, horses, chickens and worms in an integrated silvopasture system and sells fiber and meat. One of her favorite varieties is American Chinchillas, rabbits which consume a wider diversity of forage than goats and fertilize the pasture with their manure.
The family is also working to establish tree guilds, a system where fruit trees are surrounded by a variety of fiber crops such as indigo, cotton and flax. Its goal is a “closed loop” where all the fertility the farm needs is created in place. It packs a lot of enterprises into a small space. “We have 5 acres,” she says playfully. “Just enough to be dangerous.”
In his book “The Carbon Farming Solution,” Eric Toensmeier writes that silvopasture traps 42 tons of carbon per acre every year. This is because pasture stores carbon in the above and below ground biomass of grasses, shrubs and trees. Also, animals raised on pasture have healthier digestive systems than those raised in confinement, and emit lower amounts of methane.
In addition to healing the climate, silvopasture is a joyful practice. “I get to play with sheep and bunnies. What could be better?” Cameron poses.
Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm, North Charleston, South Carolina
When Germaine Jenkins first moved to Charleston, she relied on SNAP and food pantries to feed her children. “I did not like that we couldn’t choose what we wanted to eat, and there were few healthy options. I was sick of standing in line and decided to grow my own stuff.”
Jenkins learned how to cultivate her own food through a master gardening course, a certificate program at Growing Power and online videos. She promptly started growing food in her yard and teaching her food-insecure clients to do the same through her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank. In 2014, Jenkins won an innovation competition and earned seed money to create a community farm.
Today, Fresh Future Farm grows on 0.8 acres in the Chicora neighborhood and runs a full-service grocery store right on site. “We are living under food apartheid,” explains Jenkins. “So all of the food is distributed right here in the neighborhood on a sliding scale pay system.”
Jenkins relies on what she calls “ancestral muscle memory” to guide her regenerative farming practices. Fresh Future Farm integrates perennial crops such as banana, oregano, satsuma, and loquat together with annuals such as collards and peanuts. The farm produces copious amounts of compost on site using waste products such as crab shell, and cardboard and wood chips is applied in a thick layer of mulch. “We repurpose everything — old Christmas trees as trellises and branches as breathable cloche for frost-sensitive crops,” Jenkins explains. They even have grapes growing up the fence of the chicken yard so that the “chickens fertilize their own shade.”
Jenkins’ farming methods have been so successful at increasing the organic matter in the soil that it no longer needs irrigation. It is also less vulnerable to flooding. “Two winters ago, we had 4 feet of snow. Our soil absorbed all of it,” Jenkins says.
Toensmeier writes that for every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, we sequester 8.5 tons per acre of atmospheric carbon. If all of us were to farm like Jenkins, Diggs and Cameron, we could put 322 billion tons of carbon back in the soil where it belongs. That’s half of the carbon we need to capture to stabilize the climate.
As Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm, explains, “Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”
In southern Israel’s stifling heat, rows of salicornia, commonly known as sea asparagus or sea beans, grow under translucent tarps, planted into ground more sand than soil, irrigated with saltwater. This environment would kill most plants, but these segmented succulents look beautiful — green and healthy. In partnership with researchers at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, local farmers are exporting them to markets in nearby countries.
Sea beans taste like salty cucumber and grow wild in coastal areas around the globe. But in recent years researchers have begun to focus on them for agriculture, especially in dry coastal regions such as India, Israel, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. These researchers’ efforts are defining what extremes the plant can withstand, its nutrient needs and how to get it to grow faster and with greater yield. As the planet warms and the seas rise, resilient crops such as sea beans might become climate saviors. But only if we are willing to eat them.
Climate change is already affecting our food supply. In a paper published this year, researchers calculated that the available calories from the world’s top 10 food crops were 1 percent less annually than they would have been without the impact of climate change. Surveys show the potential for drought tops people’s climate concerns worldwide, but when it comes to growing crops, says Hope Michelson, an assistant professor of agriculture and consumer economics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “it’s not just the amount of rain” that matters. Crops are also sensitive to variations in how quickly that rain falls, high and low temperature extremes, the frequency and intensity of storms and the length and timing of growing periods.
Food crops that can withstand such conditions will be increasingly important, and much discussion around climate-friendly food focuses on consumer choices and what they mean for broader adoption of these crops. Essentially, there has to be a market for climate-resilient foods to have a significant impact. Consumers can vote with purchasing dollars to support farmers who grow foods that will persist in difficult conditions, and those that require fewer resources.
But outside factors, the food and beverage industries among them, exert influence over our choices. While data on adults is mixed, research shows that food marketing strongly influences children. A 2009 article in the Annual Review of Public Health found evidence “that television food advertising increases children’s preferences for the foods advertised and their requests to parents for those foods.” A more recent look at the data in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded, “Evidence to date shows that acute exposure to food advertising increases food intake in children but not in adults.”
Federal, state and local governments shape our eating habits, too, through tax initiatives, zoning laws, food assistance programs, school lunch nutrition standards, research funding and more. Government policy, Michelson says, is very influential “with respect to agriculture and what people are growing and where they’re growing it.” Eli Wheat, a farmer and lecturer at the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment, also sees the outsized influence the government has on food production and choice. “The federal government is so deeply engaged in subsidizing food production in our nation that it basically is not allowing free market forces to act,” he says.
Still, while most researchers recognize the importance of large-scale actions, such as those by large companies and government regulations, to influence the food system, many emphasize that individual food choices also can have an impact.
“You can most definitely … make a movement with your pocketbook,” says Samantha Mosier, an assistant professor in the political science department at East Carolina University. She points to trends in soda consumption, which has declined significantly in recent years. “Some of this has been brought on by the millennial generation trying to be healthier and to avoid some of the pitfalls of our older generation,” Mosier says. Soda giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi are investing in lower sugar options such as kombucha, coconut water and sparkling water.
“When you think about land use and the predictions for climate change, much of it depends on consumer preferences,” says Christine Foyer, a professor of plant sciences at University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. “People decide what they eat, and economics drives the crops which drives the science. Everybody matters.”
Environmentally sensitive eating often focuses on reducing meat consumption, and for good reason. “The environmental cost particularly of beef is enormous,” Foyer says. Last year in the journal Science, researchers estimated that globally, “[m]oving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by (7.7 billion acres)” and greenhouse gas emissions by about 7.3 billion tons.
But plant-based choices matter too.
In the future, plants’ ability to withstand extreme conditions will become critical. Scientists are working to increase hardiness in today’s staple crops such as wheat and corn through gene editing, genetic engineering and traditional breeding to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, reduce water requirements and resist pests. In China, for example, researchers have used CRISPR to develop a strain of wheat that resists powdery mildew, a damaging fungal growth predicted to worsen with climate change. Meanwhile in India, the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) developed early-maturing groundnuts to help farmers harvest before drought. Farmers who adopted these varietals earned an additional $119 per 2.5 acres, according to the organization.
Another strategy is to find and cultivate crops already thriving in harsh environments and work to improve their attributes. A study published last year in Plant, Cell & Environment and co-authored by Foyer notes that environmental stresses such as extreme heat “are among the main causes for declining crop productivity worldwide leading to billions of dollars of annual losses.” Each region has different growing challenges. Some plants such as sea beans are salt tolerant, while edible cactus and millet can withstand severe temperature stress.
Foyer also points to legumes and pulses — which include fava beans, cowpeas, chickpeas and lentils — because “they have their own nitrogen fertilization,” reducing the need for fertilizers. Nitrogen-based fertilizers require energy to produce, can cause pollution and marine die-off when runoff enters streams and waterways, and may contribute to global warming as source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet another climate-friendly option is sea vegetables. Seaweeds such as kelp are farming powerhouses: high nutrition value; fast growing; and zero land use for growing. Not only that, but “when you grow kelp, you’re growing it in ocean water and [the kelp is] absorbing carbon dioxide,” Wheat says. “And when you suck up that carbon dioxide, you also change the pH and reduce the consequences of ocean acidification.”
Changes require work
Not all climate-resilient foods are new and unusual. Okra, mushrooms, sweet potatoes and pomegranates are all resilient choices in many regions. So, too are edible “weeds” such as dandelion and burdock, which are hardy enough to survive our efforts to eliminate them. Yet as warming gets more extreme, researchers say we may have to adopt less familiar foods.
For many people, that won’t be easy. What we eat has deep cultural significance, rich in memories and meaning. We cling to what we know, and changes require work. Then there are economic considerations, says Mosier. When people are concerned about the economy, food choices based on environmental impacts can take a back seat to simply putting enough food on the table.
Some recent examples point to how changing diets isn’t impossible. Quinoa and the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger masquerading as beef, are two recent success stories that at first seemed unlikely to win over U.S. consumers. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2016, “Americans consume more than half the global production of quinoa, which totaled [34,000 metric tons] in 2012. Twenty years earlier, production was merely [544 metric tons].” The Impossible Burger, although it makes up a small percentage of the U.S. meat market, is for sale in more than 15,000 restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. It has been so popular that the company experienced a production shortage last summer, soon after announcing a partnership with Burger King. Production has caught up with the surging demand, and diners can find Impossible meat at White Castle, Red Robin and a host of smaller restaurants, as well as at grocery stores.
These foods owe their rise in large part to marketing and lobbying dollars, but there are other ways to find success. Anastasia Bodnar, policy director of Biology Fortified, a nonprofit organization focusing on issues in agriculture and biotechnology, says that chefs and restaurants also can have an impact on how people think about food.
“If you can make it cool, make it sexy, make it something that people want to see, that’s going to end up in the news, then that interest gets perked up and then the market goes along with it,” Bodnar says. “You see all kinds of weird invasive fish on menus that have been rebranded with different names.”
Meanwhile, Wheat sees a parallel between the acceptance of new foods and society’s acceptance of LGBTQ people. “It’s that point of personal connection that helps people change their attitudes,” he says. “I feel like a lot of that happened because of parents being brave and saying to their neighbors, ‘I love my son, I love my daughter.’ … This question of kelp, it is maybe different than the question of queerness, but I think the actual agent of change is the same. It really comes down to a personal introduction.”
Whether familiar or foreign, our food crops will need to feed an increasing number of people in an increasingly hostile environment in the future. While structural, top-down change may be necessary to shift the entire food system to one that will weather the effects of climate disruption, such changes can be influenced by individual choices.
Back in Israel, on farms in the dry and salty desert, sea beans grow green in seawater. In India, rows of millet persist through drought. And in the frigid but warming waters around Seattle, kelp forests undulate with the tides. Such foods reduce pressure for climate-unfriendly land use change and thrive in environments that make other plants shrivel. That is, they are suited for the future — which means we, too, can be more resilient to change.
Editor’s note: Jenny Morber’s travel and access to researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev was paid for and provided by the Murray Fromson Journalism Fellowship.
This story originally appeared in Inside Climate News and was co-published with The Weather Channel as part of Collateral, a series on climate, data and science. It is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
As millions of acres of American farmland sat under historic floodwaters last spring, a remarkable pattern began to emerge.
Even among fields that sat side-by-side, with the same crops and the same soil type, researchers and farmers noticed that some bounced back faster than others.
What made the difference?
The fields that were slow to drain and remained waterlogged longer had been farmed conventionally — tilled, left bare and unplanted over the winter. The fields that drained quickly and were ready for sowing hadn’t been tilled in years and had been planted every winter with cover crops such as rye and clover, which help control erosion, improve soil health and trap carbon in the soil.
“There’s a pretty stark contrast,” said William Salas, interim CEO of Dagan Inc., a firm that specializes in geospatial data.
As the disastrous 2019 farming season unfolded, Salas and his colleagues decided to analyze whether conservation methods, such as planting cover crops and using “no-till” farming — which research shows can prevent erosion and improve the soil’s ability to filter water — had any effect on whether fields could be planted this year.
Using satellite images of this year’s planting across counties in three states and the company’s database of conservation practices, they got a clear answer.
“Our preliminary analysis (PDF) found that fields with more intensive conservation had a significantly higher success rate of plantings,” Salas said.
As the extreme weather that caused flooding in the Midwest this year dovetailed with the scientific warnings, climate change and its impact on agriculture started to get more attention — including among farmers, lawmakers and farm groups that have been reluctant to connect the dots. Even in the Trump administration, top agriculture officials who have brushed off climate change warnings in the past began talking about farming as a potential climate solution.
Within that shifting conversation, agricultural soil health is becoming an increasingly urgent topic in climate policy circles. Healthy soil will be especially critical for sequestering carbon in farmland, and scientists project that as extreme weather events become more common in American farm country, more resilient soil will be crucial for farms to remain productive.
Rodney Rulon, a corn and soybean farmer from central Indiana who has planted cover crops for decades — and, unlike many of his neighboring farmers, was able to produce a crop this year — traveled to Washington, D.C., in December to speak to staff members of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus specifically about soil conservation.
“It’s hard to deny,” Rulon said. “The conversation about resilience as it relates to climate change is changing.”
The shifting conversation on Capitol Hill
The National Climate Assessment released in late 2018 warned that climate change will exact a dire toll on American farms. It projected more drought, more heat — and more extreme rainfall.
A few months later, the Midwest flooding began, swamping fields as farmers watched helplessly. In the months that followed, 2019 notched two records: It became the wettest year on record in the lower 48 states, and a record 19 million insured acres were left unplanted, costing taxpayers an estimated $4.2 billion in insurance payouts.
In May, as farmland lay soaked and muddied, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on climate change and its potentially ruinous impact on American farms. A few months later, a new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held one exploring the same theme. That was followed in December by a Senate Climate Solutions Caucus meeting on cover crops that Rulon attended.
Lawmakers introduced at least two pieces of legislation this year to start to address the issue: one to boost incentives for farmers to adopt soil conservation practices; another, in draft form, to give a tax credit to farmers and ranchers who store carbon on farm and rangelands. The top Democratic candidates for president also included agriculture in their policy plans addressing climate change.
“We’re not there yet, but the conversation is changing,” said Rob Myers, a coordinator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. “I’m seeing a lot of things that have surprised me this year.”
In a recent poll, conducted across five Midwestern states for the Union of Concerned Scientists, voters said soil health was becoming an important political issue. A majority of voters (PDF) in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas told pollsters they would be more willing to back a presidential candidate with proposals to boost healthy soils.
“No one is closer to that reality than farmers and that’s what’s driving the conversation,” said Tim Fink, policy director of the American Farmland Trust, a conservation group.
Too little, too late?
Most of the discussion in policy circles and the agricultural industry continues to center around voluntary measures within a farming system that continues to avoid regulation even as emissions rise (PDF).
Despite the potential for storing carbon on American farms and reducing emissions, most farming practices that are good for the soil — and sequester carbon — are rewarded through government conservation programs that aren’t directed at climate change specifically. These programs are chronically underfunded and oversubscribed.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have little hope in the short term of addressing a problem that critics say has been ignored for too long and requires, like so much in tackling climate change, an immediate response.
But they say they’re teeing up ideas that could inform legislation when the political moment comes.
“We’re under no belief that 2020 is going to be the landmark year for some big climate legislation on the Hill,” said Juli Obudzinksi, interim policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “That being said, there’s a lot of momentum. Candidates are talking about this. Bills are coming out.”
Progress is happening on the farm, too, as more farmers use conservation farming methods, including less tillage and more cover crops.
“There were 20 million acres in cover crops and 104 million acres in no-till,” Myers said, referring to 2017 Census of Agriculture figures. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.”
The potential for carbon markets
As agriculture has come increasingly under the microscope for its greenhouse gas emissions, discussions of a cap-and-trade system have re-emerged.
In 2009, legislation that became known as the Waxman-Markey bill outlined the first economy-wide carbon emissions trading system in which American farms voluntarily could participate. Greenhouse gas-emitters would be able to purchase credits from farms that took carbon-storing steps on their land. The bill passed the House, but not the Senate, after the fossil fuel industry and agriculture lobby worked to scuttle the legislation. At the time, critics said it would be too difficult to calculate what constituted a trade-worthy credit.
But that was a decade ago, and mounting evidence since has made clear that cutting emissions from agriculture and land-use will be critical in the battle to forestall climate change.
“Ten years ago, farmers didn’t see themselves as sequestering carbon, but we’ve had 10 years of education. Now it’s seen as something viable,” Myers said.
Even Sonny Perdue, the conservative Secretary of Agriculture who questions the link between human activity and climate change, has countenanced the idea of a cap-and-trade system.
“Farmers and producers have been really intense victims of climate change,” Perdue said in a budget hearing in April. “We’ve been really guilty of not talking about how farmers can be part of the solution. It’s amazing the tons of greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions that we can capture in our soils if we have, I think, the incentivization of maybe a carbon market from agriculture do that.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which was instrumental in taking down Waxman-Markey and worked with the fossil fuel industry to cultivate doubt about climate change, also has started to embrace the idea that farmers might be part of the solution, although only if they can profit from a carbon market.
While Farm Bureau leaders continue to question the link between human-induced emissions and climate change, a related public relations organization, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, released a short film this year that portrayed farmers as heroes in the climate battle. The “docudrama,” as the group called it, said agriculture was striving to be “one of the first industries with a negative carbon footprint.”
“The intent really is to create a conversation around agriculture’s role as a solution,” Erin Fitzgerald, the alliance’s CEO, said in an interview with InsideClimate News this summer after the film’s release.
Fitzgerald explained that the film was timed to coincide with a meeting attended by a number of major farm and industry groups, including the Farm Bureau, as well as environmental groups, to discuss the industry’s response to climate change. “We didn’t think we could get everyone in the same room,” Fitzgerald added. “There’s never been a place for all these farmer groups to get together.”
Private industries, too, are jumping at the idea of participating in carbon markets.
In February, some of the biggest names in agriculture, including ADM and Cargill, announced that, in collaboration with environmental groups, they would build a carbon market by 2022. That effort — the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium — will allow farmers to generate credits by sequestering carbon or other conservation measures that they could sell to companies trying to reduce their carbon footprints.
This summer, a company called Indigo Agriculture announced the establishment of a new private marketplace through which farmers can generate credits by storing carbon on their farms. Farmers who enrolled in the program received $15 per ton of carbon dioxide stored.
Market-based approaches such as these could gain more traction, especially as the farm economy suffers amid President Donald Trump’s trade wars and low commodity prices.
“A lot of industry action on this is issue is because they think it’s in their best financial interest,” said Tara Ritter, a senior program associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “The market is beginning to value and demand these things, and there’s a lot more pressure to be green.”
But critics say these market-based approaches might not lead to any meaningful greenhouse gas reductions.
“We want farmers to be rewarded, especially in a farm economy that’s really bad,” Ritter said. “But we’re concerned about offsets, whether it’s a carbon market or tax.”
These approaches also allow the current resource-intensive, carbon-emitting agricultural system to continue and expand.
“We’re heading in the wrong direction if we keep going with the status quo,” Obudzinksi said. “If you look at the trends in agriculture, we’re seeing increased consolidation, increased emissions, more monocultures. If we’re serious in this country about addressing the climate crisis, we can’t keep going down that road.”
Russia’s Rosselkhoznadzor said on Monday it would impose temporary restrictions on imports of citrus fruit from China starting on Jan. 6, RNS reports.
The agriculture safety watchdog, which first warned about possible restrictions on Dec. 13 after finding pests in several supplies, said that measures taken so far by China had not proven effective.
“Rosselkhoznadzor noted that the measures taken by the Chinese side to comply with Russian requirements have not proved their effectiveness. The Russian department continues to systematically identify dangerous quarantine objects in exported products. In this regard, the Rosselkhoznadzor, prior to the adoption of effective corrective measures by the Chinese side, has been forced to introduce temporary restrictions on the supply of citrus fruits from China to Russia from January 6, 2020, ”the report said.
The restrictions will be in place until China takes practical steps to meet Russian safety requirements, the regulator said on its website.
Earlier, Rosselkhoznadzor warned its Chinese counterpart about the possible introduction of temporary restrictions on the supply to Russia of citrus fruits and potatoes from China in case of repeated detection of quarantine harmful objects in plant products. The watchdog also said it informed the Chinese department about the strengthening of quarantine phytosanitary control over the import of citrus fruits and potatoes from China to Russia.
According to the agency, China is one of the largest suppliers of plant products to Russia. For 11 months of 2019, 240.6 thousand tons of fruits were delivered to Russia from China, including 151.2 thousand tons of citrus fruits.
Modern agriculture involves fields of mind-boggling size, and spraying them efficiently is a serious operational challenge. Pyka is taking on the largely human-powered spray business with an autonomous winged craft and, crucially, regulatory approval.
Just as we’ve seen with DroneSeed, this type of flying is risky for pilots, who must fly very close to the ground and other obstacles, yet also highly susceptible to automation; That’s because it involves lots of repetitive flight patterns that must be executed perfectly, over and over.
Pyka’s approach is unlike that of many in the drone industry, which has tended to use multirotor craft for their maneuverability and easy take-off and landing. But those drones can’t carry the weight and volume of pesticides and other chemicals that (unfortunately) need to be deployed at large scales.
The craft Pyka has built is more traditional, resembling a traditional one-seater crop dusting plane but lacking the cockpit. It’s driven by a trio of propellers, and most of the interior is given over to payload (it can carry about 450 pounds) and batteries. Of course, there is also a sensing suite and onboard computer to handle the immediate demands of automated flight.
Pyka can take off or land on a 150-foot stretch of flat land, so you don’t have to worry about setting up a runway and wasting energy getting to the target area. Of course, it’ll eventually need to swap out batteries, which is part of the ground crew’s responsibilities. They’ll also be designing the overall course for the craft, though the actual flight path and moment-to-moment decisions are handled by the flight computer.
Example of a flight path accounting for obstacles without human input
All this means the plane, apparently called the Egret, can spray about a hundred acres per hour, about the same as a helicopter. But the autonomous craft provides improved precision (it flies lower) and safety (no human pulling difficult maneuvers every minute or two).
Perhaps more importantly, the feds don’t mind it. Pyka claims to be the only company in the world with a commercially approved large autonomous electric aircraft. Small ones like drones have been approved left and right, but the Egret is approaching the size of a traditional “small aircraft,” like a Piper Cub.
Of course, that’s just the craft — other regulatory hurdles hinder wide deployment, like communicating with air traffic management and other craft; certification of the craft in other ways; a more robust long-range sense and avoid system and so on. But Pyka’s Egret has already flown thousands of miles at test farms that pay for the privilege. (Pyka declined to comment on its business model, customers or revenues.)
The company’s founding team — Michael Norcia, Chuma Ogunwole, Kyle Moore and Nathan White — comes from a variety of well-known companies working in adjacent spaces: Cora, Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Google X, Waymo and Morgan Stanley (that’s the COO).
The $11 million seed round was led by Prime Movers Lab, with participation from Y Combinator, Greycroft, Data Collective and Bold Capital Partners.
In one of the opening scenes of a Black Mirror episode, a tiny bee drone pollinates a daisy, which basks in the bright glow of a sunny day. In a TV series known for its exploration of a dark and dystopian future, the scene is rare. It portrays a tech-enabled future where robotics are used to enhance lives, not harm them.
But later on, that bee is joined by thousands of more bees in a coordinated attack on a woman. It’s clear that the bees are working together as a single force, using real-time data to achieve a common goal.
This episode stands out among others because it covers a type of technology that’s largely unknown and unexplored by most mass media channels. It points to repercussions of a technology that most people have never heard of, but which is set to change everything we know about the Internet of Things: swarm robotics.
Swarm Robotics is an exciting field of practice inspired by the proliferation of the Internet of Things. Until recently, robotics technology had focused on creating advanced robots that worked alone — think of automated factory floors and friendly robotic baristas that are beginning to pop up in Silicon Valley cafes and various airports.
But now, thanks to insights drawn from the most unlikely of places, nature, the field of robotics is evolving into something much greater, and, as Black Mirror suggests, perhaps more sinister. But, before we go too far down that speculative road, it might be a good idea to first get a basic understanding of how swarm robots work, the technology behind them and what they’re truly capable of right now.
Why Learn About Swarm Robotics Now?
Swarm technology is inspired by swarm intelligence, which draws inspiration from the lives of social insects in nature. One major component is improving communication and response to feedback while working as a team. It involves understanding how constant changes in other robots within the group should affect the group’s functionality.
Most of us understand how IoT is transforming our homes into smart networks that give us all kinds of convenient benefits. But, your connected thermostat, your smart fridge and your Alexa-enabled washing machines all rely on a central “authority” that guides/manages/instructs/informs them on what to do. The smart window blinds that open each morning and allow you to greet the sun without getting out of bed aren’t talking to your connected security system to check whether your neighbor happens to be standing near your bedroom window.
Swarm bots are different. They communicate laterally with one another in a constantly changing environment, with no direction from a higher authority to tell them what to do.
Scientists are now beginning to understand how swarm robotics can have pragmatic applications in the Internet of Things and the world stands poised on the brink of another tech revolution.
The time to learn about swarm robotics is now- the evolution of swarm robotics is forever intertwined with IoT and leaders who want a jump on learning about new directions in tech will want to keep their eyes peeled for new content in this area. Here’s where you can learn how it works, its current applications and what the future looks like in terms of research and development.
What is Swarm Robotics?
Swarm robotics is simply an area of robotics that focuses on coordinating large groups of fairly simple robots using local rules. As stated, swarm-bots are inspired by the lives of social insects such as bees and ants. Among them, the power of the community is leveraged to perform tasks outside the capabilities of the individual.
In swarm robotics, the group of robots isn’t just any group. It’s constituted by mimicking the functional characteristics of insect swarms:
Simple, almost identical members
Lack of synchronicity
The Inspiration for Swarm Robotics
Social insects have a lot to teach us, from the wasp’s nest-building and the honey bee’s coordination to the termite mound’s construction and the trail-following of ants. For a long time, we thought that these were mysteries we would never understand.
However, in recent times, research has demonstrated that we can mimic these complex systems without the sophisticated knowledge initially thought of as necessary. In a social insect colony, individual members don’t know about the status of the colony as a whole. There is no leader to guide all other individuals in their roles.
Instead, the colony’s knowledge is distributed among agents, and they have systems of exchanging this information. However, individuals cannot accomplish their roles unless the rest of the swarm plays their part.
In the colony, individuals can exchange vital information, such as a food source or imminent danger. The interaction is based on the locality concept so that no individual knows the situation as a whole. They will modify their behavior based on how their mates familiar with the situation behaved. For example, among termites, changes in the behavior of worker termites are determined by the nest structure.
The simple yet complex organizational system of each agent comes from observing and mimicking others’ interactions with one another and the environment. These interactions move throughout the colony, which is what helps the colony accomplish tasks that cannot be accomplished individually. The interactions are called self-organizing behaviors.
Self-organization combines four characteristics:
These properties are also desirable when thinking of a system of swarm robots:
Robustness. They should continue working regardless of whether some individuals fail or if there are environmental disturbances.
Flexibility with Decision-Making. They should be able to create different solutions depending on the task.
Flexibility with Roles. They should adapt to changing their roles depending on the need at the time.
Scalability. They should be able to work in different group sizes, from a few robots to thousands of bots.
These criteria inform the development of any swarm robotics technology.
Desirable Characteristics in Swarm Robots
Based on the definition and the properties above, these are the criteria used in developing multi-robot technology and systems:
The swarm must consist of autonomous robots, which can sense or actuate in real-life settings.
They should consist of a large group or as large as control rules will allow.
They should be homogenous – there can be several types within the swarm, but not too many different types.
They must not be independent – i.e., the main task to be completed must require collaboration.
They must only have local sensing and communication capabilities – they shouldn’t understand the overall picture/role of the swarm.
The characteristics embodied by swarm intelligence are borrowed from social insect colonies. In fact, biologists have played a major role in bootstrapping research for swarm bot technology.
A robot swarm is defined as a self-organizing multi-robot system whose main characteristic is high redundancy.
We can also say they have localized sensory and communication capacity, with no access to global information. The collective swarm behavior is the total of individual robots’ interactions with their peers and their surroundings.
Why Invest in Swarm Robotics?
Because of the above characteristics, swarm robotics can help us realize flexible, scalable and fault-tolerant systems across dozens of business and industry verticals.
Swarm-bots also enable the development of systems that can handle a variety of operating conditions and environments. Flexibility is possible because the swarm is self-organized and well-distributed. The robots allocate themselves dynamically to different tasks according to the requirements of their immediate environment; they don’t rely on any global information or pre-existing infrastructure.
Swarm robotics also enables the creation of scalable systems so that the introduction or removal of individuals doesn’t impact swarm performance. Localized sensing and communication enables scalability – provided the density of the swarm isn’t significantly changed; each individual interacts with the same approximate number of peers.
Through swarm robotics, we can create systems that are adaptable to the failure of one or more of the system parts/constituent robots. Therefore, failure of individuals doesn’t result in failure of the entire swarm. This fault tolerance comes from the high-redundancy of the swarm; there’s no centralized control, leaders or individuals in predefined roles.
In Part Two of the series, we’ll look closer at some of the exciting real-world cases where swarm bots are already starting to have an impact.