Feeding the world by AI, machine learning and the cloud
Although the world population has continued to steadily increase, farming practices have largely remained the same. Climate change is a major threat to the ability of the agricultural industry to feed the world sustainably. According to the World Bank, 70% of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture and droughts and heat waves continue to threaten crops. This is where the challenge lies in feeding the world while minimizing the environmental impact of agricultural practices.
The answer to this challenge, according to Thomas Jung, head of IT Research and Development at Syngenta, is regenerative agriculture. Soil is as crucial as clean water and clean atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture aims to produce more food with less environmental impact, by improving the soil’s health.
” So, not much has changed but we need to feed greater numbers of people,” he said. “How can we address the challenge of feeding the world in sustainable ways without exploitation of our soils ?”
Regenerative Agriculture efforts seek to find ways to keep plants healthy, make crops more resilient to climate change-induced droughts, heatwaves, as well as reduce water use in agriculture.
Therefore, what’s necessary is, “moving beyond the traditional agriculture and the way we’ve been doing this for probably 100 years or more. Jung says, “This is a leap.” “This is an ongoing agricultural revolution, and artificial intelligence will play a decisive role .”
Although farmers have a wealth of knowledge about their fields and crops, Jung says that AI and machine-learning tools can help in cataloging more detail, refining algorithms and creating solutions. Jung says that we will be closer to understanding the planet’s ecosystem as more data is collected and new algorithms are developed. In the next three years, breakthroughs such as soil regeneration and living with sustainable agriculture across disciplines will be possible.
There’s a lot to be done for open source, democratized data and fair data. Jung says that industry needs to embrace this. Jung says, “This cannot be a NGO or volunteering thing. This is how I believe our industry should work.” So we really want to share, we want to lead by example, we want to nurture the community, and through that, win altogether.”
This episode of Business Lab is produced in partnership with Infosys Cobalt.
Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace. Innovation in agriculture is our topic today. It is not easy to feed the world’s population. Farmers in the industry face many challenges, including drought and supply chain issues. Technology can improve crop health, diversity, yields, and sustainability. Scientific collaboration is what I have for you. Thomas Jung is my guest. Thomas Jung is the Head for IT Research and Development at Syngenta. Infosys Cobalt sponsors this episode of Business Lab. Welcome, Thomas.
Thomas Jung: Thank you, Laurel. Thank you for having us.
Laurel Ruma: Could you define and tell us about regenerative agriculture? Why is this important to Syngenta
Thomas Jung: It’s important to Syngenta much as it is important for the world really, because the principle is that we want to grow more food with less environmental impact. The foundation of agriculture is soil. It is essential for all we do and all the ways that we provide our food. However, it is often overlooked. Regenerative agriculture is a collection of practices that we wish to use to improve the health of our soils. There are many principles that can be applied to this, but the most important is to minimize soil disturbance. To keep our plants healthy, agriculture still uses many tilling techniques. We can do without as much as we need, and the soil can continue to work its magic.
We can also diversify crops to ensure we don’t take too much nutrients out of the soil. Crop rotations allow us to plant different things in different times and spaces. Last but not least, optimizing the use of our inputs. This includes biological inputs and chemical inputs. These are all ways we can help our plants grow. We can also do this in smarter ways to ensure that the soil remains healthy and the fields are not being exploited as is the case everywhere else.
Laurel Ruma: What kind of challenges is the agricultural industry facing right now? Climate change is definitely one of them.
Thomas Jung: Sure. It’s probably one of the largest, right? I mean, drought you mentioned in the intro, water, actually 70% of the world’s water is used in agriculture, and that’s an enormous figure. How can we use less water? How can we make plants more resistant to drought in areas where there is not enough or no water? Heat is a major concern, as heatwaves are sweeping across all continents. So how can we prepare our plants for this? And how can we help them while they suffer? Carbon is also important in the context of climate change. How can we make agriculture more efficient in capturing carbon from the soils we use? There are many options available to us in addressing climate change.
Unfortunately, this is not the only problem. Another big challenge is the world population. We still use the same farming methods, even though the world population has grown by five percent in just 100 years. Tractors and fertilizers are moving across the fields. While not much has changed, we still need to feed more people. How can we address the challenge of feeding the world in sustainable ways without exploitation of our soils? How can we be respectful of soils, respect the environment, and conserve and restore? This requires our science. Syngenta, as a farming community and as an ag sector, can play a lot in this space.
Laurel Ruma: Right, and one of those things is that focus on people, focus on the population of the world, focus on feeding people. Your Syngenta research and development team has a mission. So what do they do? And how can you incorporate the philosophy of doing less harm into your work?
Thomas Jung: Right. Our mission is to help the farmer and the plant. Our mission is to assist the farmer in growing healthy food for the entire world. There are many ways to accomplish this. Syngenta’s greatest immediate impact and our role in the ecosystem is to find better ways to ensure that the plants are healthy. We have many options. This is a rapidly-growing field. It’s biological products. How can we stimulate the ability of plants to help themselves essentially using products that they produce? We actually help them by multiplying this and applying principles from nature in order to help plants rebuild their strength. This is an area where we have a lot of potential and we are excited to expand our science in this area.
We can also innovate in conventional crop protection, chemical, biological, so we can find better solutions, that are more targeted and specialized, that can combat very specific pests. That way, we don’t have to go over any potential harm. Instead, we can target based upon better science, better understanding what happens in a field, and knowing exactly what a plant is suffering from. All of this will require our technology and our research-and-development to learn more. Our growers have a lot of knowledge. Although agronomy has advanced tremendously in comparison to 100 years ago, a lot is still being done manually and with a lot more personal thinking. The digital science field is vast and we have a lot to do.
Laurel Ruma: So, it’s kind of a leap here. This is manual processes and systems. How does artificial intelligence and machine-learning factor into your work? You may be at the forefront of some of these technologies but then you have to translate the results and outcomes to farmers.
Thomas Jung: Very right. We are certain to make a leap in this area. That’s Syngenta’s ambition. As I mentioned, we need to move beyond traditional agriculture and the way that we have been doing it for probably a hundred or more years. This is a huge leap. This is an ongoing agricultural revolution, and artificial intelligence will play a key role in it. Typically, it takes the industry more than 10 years to find new crop protection products. It takes a lot of research and testing to make sure that the products we create are safe and effective. We need to find faster ways to do it, and smarter ways to do it.
Chemistry is vast. There are estimations that are probably 10 to the power of 60 active molecules that could make a difference one way or the other. How can we find the chemical needle in the haystack? There are many great things that smart PhDs have discovered over the years. But what have they missed or not been able to see? It is impossible to search this space for anyone, for any lab, or even an automated lab. This is another great area for artificial intelligence, machine learning, and putting our data into action.
Laurel Ruma: And you mentioned the cloud, so your division made the shift to the cloud with the help from Infosys and other partners, and now you’re 100% cloud. The whole company is also on track to do the same. What has the shift to cloud allowed you, your division, to do in innovation? And what are the company’s goals now that this is the plan? What’s the future of the cloud?
Thomas Jung: Yeah, it’s great timing actually that you’re asking, because Syngenta as an overall company, we just shut down our last and very final data center service last week. Now, Syngenta is fully cloud-based. R&D has been cloud-based for several years. We only have a limited amount of high-performance computing capability locally for a few use cases. High-performance compute is also done in the cloud. Cloud is almost a commodity for us. The whole cloud business is something we have been doing for years and now we are just starting to reap the benefits.
We don’t think of cloud as what it will enable, but rather how we use it. It’s almost like business as usual for us. First, it gives us agility that we didn’t have in the old world. It’s the ability to explore, to experiment, to spin-up a server, to spin-up a service, or just to put gigabytes upon gigabytes of photos somewhere, instantaneously. It’s difficult to replicate that scientific agility in a fixed datacenter around the world. This allows our scientists to do their best work.
The other bit is simply scalability. Given the huge data volumes we collect and the processing we do, it’s difficult to forecast. We have an idea of where we’re going, but we can’t do a two-year forecast of what volumes we want to be processing in December ’24. Cloud really allows us to do exactly what science requires. We can respond to our needs in a matter of hours or days. We aren’t restricted to our old school forecasting business. Our scientists can concentrate on their science, which is a huge advantage. We can focus on the digital magic of our people and less on IT issues.
Perhaps thirdly, and this is to me one the greatest benefits, are collaborations. We can’t solve everything we’re talking about here, so how can collaborations be most effective? Not only can we share our data, but also our algorithms, and the way that we work? How can we use the ideas and creations of other universities, companies, and organizations, and how can this be shared best? Connecting corporate networks is a challenge. Each one is different. I believe that cloud-based collaboration is a foundation for effective collaboration.
Laurel Ruma: So, lots of efficiencies by shifting to the cloud for the internal team. How does this translate into value for customers?
Thomas Jung: Three types of customers maybe to differentiate here, and I mean my team is an IT team. My team’s customers direct will be our scientists and, first of all, the digital scientists. These data scientists who look at our data and draw much more intelligent conclusions than they could before. They are smarter than their customers. They have always had their computer under their desk, trying to create algorithms. They now have much more power than they could ever imagine. They are now connected to their colleagues and have access to more innovative tools.
But also practical scientists who are out in the field looking after plants, testing products, or working in a laboratory, such as biology, chemistry, etc. We’ll always need them, so this isn’t going to be a digital only science. They can learn from the real world using the data we have stored in the cloud. This data is being brought back into the labs and into our scientific realities. Our colleagues can plan better, they can learn from the outside world, and we are closing the loop with real-life data rather than lab data.
Lastly, and most importantly, growers, who are able to access specific recommendations and real-life data, are making a big difference for plants. Cropwise is a Syngenta tool that farmers can use to plan and implement their field operations. It also allows them to better understand what practices are appropriate at any given time. This helps them to choose the right seeds for their situation or simply understand what’s happening in the field. We’re making it available to farmers around the world because it’s cloud-based. However, our scientists are also closing the loop so that they can share what they learn with our growers. We have a two-way learning process here. Instead of waiting for years, we can transfer the learnings into the world.
Laurel Ruma: And you mentioned earlier how important collaboration is. What value does Syngenta gain by encouraging open science and experimentation, and offering the opportunity to collaborate with algorithms and scientists, et cetera?
Thomas Jung: Yeah, I mean, we’re taking big data literally here, and I think we can only create a real breakthrough if we work together. Syngenta is a large company with super-smart people. However, our data sets are limited in what we can do. To solve the problems we discussed earlier, we will need to all work together. I believe that industry collaboration is key to real breakthrough. We want to be the leading team, being collaborative and working across borders, not just between industries but also across universities and companies.
In the public sector, for example, just to call out a couple maybe. We have been working with the Open Data Institute in order to publish some of our data in an easily accessible format, raw data, so that scientists around the world can use it. This is because we want to participate in joint R&D. We don’t just share data with the community; we also care about data standards. So we’re a board member of AgGateway, that is a consortium of I think what 200 or more food sector companies working on how do we actually drive digital agriculture? We’re working to ensure that the standards are universally accepted and that there are no exclusive ideas from any one member of the food chain. However, we can still connect our data.
The private sector is also important. Basel is where we are headquartered, which is a cluster of science and chemical sciences. Many pharma companies are located around here. We can also exchange a lot between pharma and agriculture. We can learn about chemistry, practices, how our labs work, and how we work. We are in constant contact with our colleagues from the region, as well as other countries, and it is a very natural cluster.
Last but not least, one of my most exciting perspectives that I discovered a few years ago, and not many, was how many opportunities there are if you look across industries. So I recently hired a digital expert from Formula 1. Why? Technically speaking, controlling or steering a Formula 1 racecar remotely isn’t that different from driving a tractor. Although the vehicles may be very different, there are many similarities in the technology. Understanding IoT in this case and understanding data transfer between the field and control centers, it doesn’t matter which industry we work in, we can all learn. We also have a partner who is an expert in image recognition. Syngenta can bring agronomic expertise, while our partner can provide technical knowledge on how to create most of the images. Although the skills are not directly related to agriculture, they can be used in a completely different field. I’m looking for talent from all industries and anyone who is willing to help our cause.
Laurel Ruma: That’s really interesting thinking about how much data F1 processes on a single race day or just in general, the amount of inputs from so many different places. It’s very similar. You are dealing with data databases and trying to create better algorithms to reach better conclusions. You can see that Syngenta is part of an ecosystem. So how can outside factors like regulation or societal pressures help Syngenta create better products and remain part of the inevitable agricultural revolution?
Thomas Jung: It’s a great point, because regulatory in general, of course, is a practical burden to some, or may be perceived as one actually. It’s a welcome driver of innovation for digital science. One of our key examples is our current work with the Environmental Protection Agency (USA), which has stepped up to cease supporting chemical studies on mammals by 2035.. What does this mean? Although it sounds like a threat, it is actually a catalyst for digital sciences. We are grateful for this request. We are now looking at ways to use data-based science for proving the safety of the products we invent. Few universities in the US have received funding from EPA to assist with our science. We are now working together to ensure that we reach a data-driven science and stop doing real-life tests.
This is a great opportunity, but we still have a lot to do. 2035 seems a bit realistic to me. We are not yet close. We can model a cell today, for instance. Organ-on-achip is a popular trend. We can model an entire organ, but we cannot model a system or an ecosystem at this stage. There is a lot of room for us to explore. I’m glad regulators are a partner and even a driver. It’s a tremendous help. Another dimension you mentioned is societal pressure. It is important that society continues to push for causes such as regenerative agriculture. This is because it creates the conditions for us to help. It’s difficult for Syngenta alone to push the project forward if there isn’t a demand.
So, I believe the demand is important. We also work with The Nature Conservancy where we use their conservation expertise and scientific knowledge to promote sustainable agricultural practices in South America. For example, we have some projects to restore forests and restore biodiversity. As we have discussed, collaboration across industries is key to making our planet a better place. This includes regulators, NGOs, and society in general.
Laurel Ruma: So, although 2035 is sort of that distant goal, thinking about the next three to five years, what technologies and capabilities are you most excited about?
Thomas Jung: The next three years, to me, I’m excited about finally using what we have to the best of its capabilities. We have all the tools we need. Although there are mega-trends such as quantum compute, I believe that they are still years away in terms of real input. Talking 2035, I believe that the next three years will be end-to end digital. That is, it includes everything that happens around the globe. Understanding the planet’s ecosystem and bringing together all that data to find better solutions for soil regeneration and sustainable agriculture, connecting across all disciplines. This is what I believe will be the most significant breakthrough in the next three-years. This requires us to connect across industries and first through the cloud.
So, how do we bring this all together and work together smartly to solve these problems? We have all the technology that we need. I don’t think that we need to invent anything new. It’s the way we use it. Capability-wise, we are primarily looking for culture changes. There is a lot of advocacy for open-source, for democratized and fair data, and we must bring that to the industry. This is not a volunteer thing or an NGO, but it is how I believe the industry should work. We want to share, lead by example, nurture the community and win all.
Laurel Ruma: Excellent. Thomas, thank you so much for joining us at Business Lab.
Thomas Jung: Thank you very much for the conversation.
Laurel Ruma: That was Thomas Jung, the Head of IT Research and Development at Syngenta, whom I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River. This is the end of Business Lab. Laurel Ruma is your host. I am the Global Director for Insights, MIT Technology Review’s custom publishing division. We were established in 1899 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us at events around the globe, in print, and on the internet. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.
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