St Louis. The Gateway to the West. A city steeped in US history where the meandering Mississippi and Missouri rivers mark the path deep into the heart of America. And it’s here two centuries on from the Lewis and Clark Expedition that the launch-pad for another bold new chapter in the evolution of this great nation is taking shape, this time with implications that will reach the four corners of the globe.
Does that sound a tad grandiose? Overblown perhaps? What initiative could possibly deserve such an introduction? I’m talking about the future of agriculture as presented in a multitude of forms at the InfoAg conference in this fair city three weeks ago, an industry that underpins us all and one which has some well documented daunting challenges ahead, namely feeding 10bn by 2050. In St Louis one of the overarching themes was the need for precise nutrient management, or to put it glibly, doing more with less.
To improve yield while managing expensive inputs is no easy task, but there appears to be consensus on how to achieve it: data management. Or more specifically the obtaining and analysis of data to better inform the nutrient dosing decision process. Nitrogen dosing is the typically the biggest outlay for a producer of broad acre crops and so knowing how much to apply, when and where has a huge bearing on both the overall yield from a given field and the associated cost of production. At InfoAg there was no shortage of presentations outlining different methods of remote sensing to obtain data related to nitrogen uptake, frequently based around some form of hyperspectral imaging, whether from a drone or the back of a tractor.
This is all well-intentioned, but all too often there is something of a disconnect between the diagnosis and prescription. Although it’s possible to infer from the appearance of a given crop the relative health and therefore need for nitrogen, the application of the nitrogen happens hours if not days after the measurements are taken. Ideally some form of real time nitrogen (or nitrate to be exact) detection and dosing is required, something that traditional ‘wet chemistry’ based detection modalities are poorly positioned to deliver, given the long turnaround time from obtaining sample to obtaining nitrate level results.
However, there is growing reason to believe that optical measuring techniques such as TIRS (Transient Infrared Spectroscopy) and UV Raman Spectroscopy may offer a potential solution. The analysis of a presented sample is close to instantaneous and the size of the detector can be scaled using principles from the diagnostics sector to be small enough for implementation on a planter or AA injector. The key challenges lie in soil sample preparation and ruggedizing the detectors for the harsh operating environment.
Such challenges are likely to need a new approach to development than the path traditionally charted by the big agriculture firms. A three way collaboration of input supplier, equipment provider and technology developer will be required if this opportunity is to be realised. The prize is significant: farmers use 110 million tons of nitrogen based fertilizer globally each year and over dosing is both expensive and potentially damaging to the local environment, but the drivers are strong: if cracked, a more cost efficient method of dosing nitrates won’t only benefit the growers of the Mid-West, but potentially farmers in poorer geographies, raising productivity in the areas that need it most, bringing that target of feeding 10bn within reach. It’s a heck of a challenge and one that will require patience, tenacity and a high degree of skill, but where better to embark on a voyage of discovery than the starting point for one of the great expeditions in human history? I’m sure Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would agree.