Agriculture tech startups are taking on giants in the agriculture industry, such as Monsanto, to save and feed the world. In the process, they may end up becoming the new giants and making a fortune themselves.

Agriculture may lack the glamor of social networking but it is the most basic of all industries by virtue of its status as the oldest human occupations. It is also a solid business. According to the latest statistics, the industry generated an output of approximately $374 billion in 2011. For context, paid search advertising, the dominant revenue source for Google, is expected to generate $85 billion in revenues by 2019. However, the industry's survival and future sustenance may be threatened by changing weather patterns and global warming. (For more, see: A Primer for Investing in Agriculture.)

According to a 2013 report by the agriculture department, climate change could inhibit and, ultimately, destroy the resiliency of crops in the United States. This will happen through a combination of changes to the soil and land ecosystem (that will reduce land fertility), and increased costs to maintain earlier levels of productivity. Similarly, a 2008 IMF study predicted that agricultural output would decline almost everywhere unless beneficial effects are found for increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The situation is made worse by agricultural practices that have led to the industry's dependence on corporate firms, such as Monsanto and a culture of excess application, whether it relates to water or pesticides.   

This is where agribusiness startups come in. Technology has the capability to change an otherwise backward industry and make it competitive for an era in which the world's population grows to unimaginable levels. Even as technology has made inroads into industries as diverse as hospitality to consumer electronics, agriculture has escaped its disruptive effects. This becomes even more surprising when you consider the benefits to agriculture from using technology.

Known as precision agriculture, this type of farming minimizes waste and is environment-friendly. For example, drones can be used to monitor and assess large crop lands within minutes and pinpoint areas that need water or pesticides. Similarly, data about weather patterns or crops can help farmers time their plant cycles and, also, provide additional intelligence. 

In fact, chemicals and biotech giant Monsanto estimated that big data could help increase global crop production by $20 billion a year. The company itself is already in on the value of technology in agriculture and acquired Climate Corporation, a startup that provides crop insurance to farmers based on weather data, for close to a billion dollars. (For related reading, see: Why Is Monsanto Evil, But DuPont Isn't?)

But, the controversial agri-behemoth may be outstripped in its quest to move with the times by nimble startups. Here are three of them:  

Farmers Business Network 

Funded by an array of well-known venture capital firms such as Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caulfeld Byers, Farmers Business Network is a cross between social networking and data and analytics software. In addition to connecting farmers across geographic boundaries, it helps them select the best seeds and fertilizers for their operation using data from a variety of sources. 

Currently, farmers rely on university research or data from seed manufacturing companies themselves or, sometimes, their intuition and tests to make such decisions. Farmers Business Network uses data from its own farmer social network and intelligent machines, such as tractors which analyze crop yields and irrigated land even as they are being operated. Data from individual farms is aggregated and analyzed to form cohesive data patterns that show performance of different products and parameters related to a farm. Currently, the startup covers 7 million acres of farm land spread across 17 states. As of May this year, Farmers Business Network provided data relating to the performance of 500 seeds and 16 crops. 

Blue River Technology 

Blue River Technology uses robotics to promote an individualized approach to farming. The company's first product—Lettuce Bot—is a precision thinning robot that identifies weeds from actual lettuce crop and sprays them with herbicide. According to its founder, it can boost farm yields by 10%. What's more it is also ecologically friendly because it reduces the amount of herbicide sprayed indiscriminately on plants. The company's second product is a 3D-scanning tool that uses computer vision that scans crops and provides information about crop breeding trials to farmers.

Called Zea, the tool helps farmers evaluate their trials based on a number of characteristics, including size, frequency and timelines for growth. Jorge Heraud, one of the co-founders, puts an environment-friendly spin to the startups existence by pointing to the "quality of food, contamination, and the harm we're doing to the environment ... it is time that we not abandon the quest for higher output, but enhance it by adding better quality, better process and moving away from chemical intensity and trying to be more conscious about the environment," he said in an interview.

3D Robotics  

Berkeley-based 3D Robotics is a pioneer in drone technology and is primarily known for its consumer drones. But, the machines have multiple applications in other industries as well. Drones are primarily used to visually monitor large crop fields and spray them with herbicides. According to Chris Anderson, founder of 3D Robotics, the idea of using drones for agricultural crop surveys came from farmers themselves. “We didn't realize that crop surveys were important until they (the farmers) told us,” he said in a BBC interview.

Typically, 3D Robotics drones are fitted with camera payloads and fly at low altitudes to enable farmers to get a bird's eye view of their crop. Using a combination of visual imagery and near infra-red imagery, a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) image. The image measures plant infrared radiation to measure water and chlorophyll content. Healthy plants emit more infrared radiation as compared to plants with fungal infections. 

The Bottom Line 

Mechanized farming and advances in genetics enabled the world to grow its food output. The next wave in agriculture will be about using technology to maximize crop yields even as the number of wasteful resources being used for the activity are minimized.   

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