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Seed Makers Barrel Into Technology Business

Feb. 25, 2014 10:38 p.m. ET


David Nelson, a farmer near Fort Dodge, Iowa, uses tractor-mounted computers to help make decisions about his plantings of corn and soybeans. Ryan Donnell for The Wall Street Journal

Big agricultural companies say the next revolution on the farm will come from feeding data gathered by tractors and other machinery into computers that tell farmers how to increase their output of crops like corn and soybeans.

Monsanto Co. MON +0.72% , DuPont Co. DD +0.62% and other companies are racing to roll out "prescriptive planting" technology to farmers across the U.S. who know from years of experience that tiny adjustments in planting depth or the distance between crop rows can make a big difference in revenue at harvest time.

Some farmers are leery about the new technology. They worry their data might be sold to commodities traders, wind up in the hands of rival farmers or give more leverage to giant seed companies that are among the most enthusiastic sellers of data-driven planting advice. The companies vow not to misuse the information.

"There's a lot of value to that information," says Brooks Hurst, 46 years old, who works 6,000 acres with his father and brothers near Tarkio, Mo. "I'm afraid, as farmers, we are not going to be the ones reaping the benefit."

Many tractors and combines already are guided by Global Positioning System satellites that plant ever-straighter rows while farmers, freed from steering, monitor progress on iPads and other tablet computers now common in tractor cabs.

The same machinery collects data on crops and soil. But many farmers have haphazardly managed the information, scattered in piles of paperwork in their offices or stored on thumb drives clattering in pickup-truck ashtrays. The data often were turned over by hand for piecemeal analysis.

Sellers of prescriptive-planting technology want to accelerate, streamline and combine all those data with their highly detailed records on historic weather patterns, topography and crop performance.

Algorithms and human experts crunch all the data and can zap advice directly to farmers and their machines. Supporters say the push could be as important as the development of mechanized tractors in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of genetically modified seeds in the 1990s.

The world's biggest seed company, Monsanto, estimates that data-driven planting advice to farmers could increase world-wide crop production by about $20 billion a year, or about one-third the value of last year's U.S. corn crop.

The technology could help improve the average corn harvest to more than 200 bushels an acre from the current 160 bushels, companies say. Such a gain would generate an extra $182 an acre in revenue for farmers, based on recent prices. Iowa corn farmers got about $759 an acre last year.

So far, farmers who use prescriptive planting have seen yields climb by a more modest five to 10 bushels an acre, the companies say.

The gains are likely to accelerate as companies gather information from more farmers. Monsanto has been testing a technology-powered planting service called FieldScripts with farmers since 2010 and is starting to pitch it this year in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana, four of the biggest corn-producing states. Farmers pay the company $10 an acre.





 No one knows how much is being spent to develop and market high-tech planting services, but 20% of Monsanto's projected growth in per-share earnings by 2018 could come from FieldScripts and other technology-fueled improvements, estimates Michael Cox, co-director of investment research at securities firm Piper Jaffray Cos.

"I see it as another potential transformation of the company," says Robert Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, based in St. Louis. He helped develop Monsanto's first genetically modified seeds in the early 1980s.

In November, Monsanto paid $930 million to acquire Climate Corp., a weather-data-mining company in San Francisco launched by former Google Inc. GOOG -0.91%executives. Agricultural cooperative Land O'Lakes Inc. bought satellite-imaging specialist Geosys in December for an undisclosed amount.

DuPont announced earlier this month a collaboration with a weather-and-market analysis firm, DTN/The Progressive Farmer, to provide real-time climate and market information to DuPont's data-services users.

Late last year, Deere DE +0.42% & Co. agreed to beam data from the Moline, Ill., company's green tractors, combines and other machinery to computer servers where DuPont and Dow Chemical Co. DOW -0.44% can formulate specialized seed-planting recommendations.

"When a farmer buys a combine or buys a tractor, they've got all these ways to collect information," says DuPont marketing manager Joe Foresman. The Wilmington, Del., company's Pioneer unit has been sifting through farm-level data for about a decade, but now "this space is starting to mature."

DuPont and Monsanto are excited about their data-driven services, partly because they can be rolled out to farmers much faster than new seeds, which often must endure a decade of development and regulatory review.

Many farmers who have tried prescriptive planting are enthusiastic about the results. David Nelson, a farmer near Fort Dodge, Iowa, who began testing FieldScripts about three years ago, says it recognized nutrients in soil on a patch of land previously used as a cattle feedlot.

The conclusion was based on fertilizer maps and soil samples gathered by Mr. Nelson, 39. Monsanto's system said the land could support denser rows of corn, and FieldScripts helped Mr. Nelson increase his corn harvest last year by 8 to 12 bushels an acre above the 10-year average of 190 bushels.

The increase brought Mr. Nelson an additional $34 to $51 an acre. "We're pushing every acre to its maximum potential," Mr. Nelson adds.

Other farmers are reluctant. The American Farm Bureau Federation, a trade group for farmers, has warned members that seed companies touting higher crop yields from prescriptive planting have a vested interest in persuading farmers to plant more. The trade group also says the services might steer farmers to buy certain seeds, sprays and equipment for their land.

Jerry Demmer, a 61-year-old corn and soybean farmer near Albert Lea, Minn., is thinking about trying a data-analysis service but has "tossed and turned" over who will control the information. "It's our data," Mr. Demmer says, but "I'm not sure how we're going to protect that."

One reason that suspicions run deep among some farmers: a surge in seed prices as the biggest companies piled up more market share during the past 15 years, largely through takeovers. Monsanto and DuPont sell about 70% of all corn seed in the U.S. Last year, farmers paid about $118 an acre for corn seed, up 166% from the inflation-adjusted cost of $45 an acre in 2005, according to estimates from Purdue University.

Companies say the higher prices reflect the benefits of using their genetically modified seeds, including bigger crops and resistance to insects and weed-killing sprays that have helped reduce the usage of harsh pesticides.

Mr. Fraley, the technology chief at Monsanto, says it also decides annual seed prices based on seed supplies and commodities prices. Data gathered by FieldScripts aren't likely to be "a particularly big" factor in pricing decisions, he says. "We'll price our seed the way we've always priced our seed."

Mr. Foresman of DuPont says the company doesn't use data it collects from farmers to help set seed prices.

Battles with seed makers over who controls the seeds produced by genetically modified crops make some farmers even more wary about sharing information with the companies.

In 2012, DuPont hired Agro Protection USA Inc., an intellectual-property-protection firm staffed largely by retired law-enforcement officers, to watch for signs of farmers who are saving second-generation seeds. Saving the seeds violates licensing agreements farmers sign when they buy seeds.

Monsanto has filed lawsuits against nearly 150 U.S. farmers since 1997 for replanting seeds that contain the company's proprietary characteristics. Last year, the company won a U.S. Supreme Court victory in a case against an Indiana farmer who was 75 years old at the time.

The most-worried farmers fear that somehow rivals could use the data to their own advantage. For example, if nearby farmers saw crop-yield information, it might spur unwanted competition to rent farmland, pushing land costs higher.

Other farmers fret that Wall Street traders could use the data to make bets on futures contracts. If such bets push futures-contract prices lower early in the growing season, it might squeeze the profits farmers otherwise could lock in for their crops by selling futures.

So far, there are no publicly known examples where a farmer's prescriptive-planting information was misused. Monsanto and DuPont officials say the companies have no plans to sell data gathered from farmers. Deere says it gets consent from customers before sharing any of their data.

Kip Tom, 58, has been testing Monsanto's system on his 20,000-acre farm near Leesburg, Ind., for about three years and says he "would not plant 1 acre without it." He will start paying for the service this year. But he keeps a close eye on how data flow from and to his farm machinery.

Last year, Mr. Tom unplugged a cable inside one of his combines, which he worried was capturing details of his planting algorithm as he harvested corn. Mr. Tom says the combine's manufacturer "didn't have any involvement in developing that intellectual property or that information, so we didn't believe they should have access to that."

Some farmers have discussed aggregating data on their own so they could decide what information to sell and at what price. Other farmers are joining forces with smaller technology companies that are trying to keep agricultural giants from dominating the prescriptive-planting business.

The owner of one small company, Steve Cubbage of Prime Meridian LLC, says his Nevada, Mo., company's independence from the seed, machinery and chemical industry "adds credibility," giving farmers an alternative with "their overall best interests in mind."

About 100 farmers use Prime Meridian's precision-seeding service, and Mr. Cubbage expects the number to "increase dramatically over the next few years." The company is developing a system to store farm-by-farm information on a cloud-computing service that could give access to seed dealers, financial advisers and other outsiders approved by farmers.

The Farm Bureau has held internal talks about whether the trade group should set up its own computer servers as a data storehouse, says Mace Thornton, a spokesman for the trade group. No decision has been reached.

Big companies "can help me in the short term," says Brian Dunn, 43, who grows wheat, corn and sorghum on 2,500 acres near St. John, Kan. "But are they going to be my friend in the long term?" He uses Prime Meridian's service.

Mr. Hurst, the Missouri farmer concerned that seed companies will keep most of the benefits of prescriptive planting for themselves, is testing DuPont's technology on some of his land to see what happens.

In a move to ease farmers' worries, Monsanto said last month that it supports industrywide standards for managing information collected from fields. The company aims to build a free online data storehouse where farmers could upload information ranging from crop yields to planting dates. Monsanto says it wouldn't access the data without permission from farmers.

Mr. Fraley says Monsanto's farmer surveys show that the company is "enjoying the highest level of trust among our customers that we've ever seen." Some farmers "will be early adopters," he says, while "some of the folks aren't going to open up right yet."

Write to Jacob Bunge at

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SEVINATE PINTO | Público | 19/04/2014 - 16:30


A pergunta que cada vez mais se faz, na Europa e em todo o mundo, e a que ninguém ainda sabe dar resposta, é como iremos alimentar convenientemente mais dois mil milhões de seres humanos esperados para meados deste século.

Nessa altura, estima-se que o mundo venha a ter mais de nove mil milhões de habitantes. Para os alimentar, os modelos da Organização das Nações Unidas para Alimentação e Agricultura (FAO) apontam para a necessidade de se aumentar a produção mundial de alimentos em cerca de 70%. Não seremos só mais, muitos mais. Nessa altura, os padrões médios de consumo também tenderão a aumentar.

E como poderemos fazê-lo, com recursos naturais cada vez mais reduzidos e fragilizados e num contexto de alterações climáticas, de que já só se discute a sua intensidade e não a sua existência? É uma pergunta, mas também é uma preocupação, um motivo de discussão, de investigação e de estudo, que, com o passar do tempo, se vai progressivamente transformando em ansiedade.

Até agora, o que já se sabe é que, sem um ampla participação da ciência, sem um forte empenhamento colectivo na procura de soluções e sem uma profunda alteração do comportamento humano, haverá seguramente convulsões sociais repetidas, disputas, miséria e sofrimento. Sofrimento que se repartirá de forma desigual porque desigualmente também estão distribuídos os recursos naturais, a capacidade produtiva, o conhecimento e a riqueza.

Uma pequena ideia do que pode ser uma crise alimentar universal, foi-nos dada em 2008/2009. Nessa altura, uma mera oscilação negativa da oferta alimentar volatilizou os preços dos produtos agrícolas de base em todo o mundo e causou enorme agitação social e politica, sobretudo no Norte de África e no Médio Oriente.

Serão suficientes os avanços tecnológicos hoje disponíveis para produzir, mais e melhor, os alimentos de que necessitaremos? Todos os técnicos, cientistas e estudiosos, nos dizem que não. Embora todos concordem que o desenvolvimento tecnológico terá de estar presente como uma das componentes de uma eventual solução.

Como intensificar as produções sem causar a erosão dos recursos, sem atingir ainda mais o ambiente, de cuja preservação também depende a nossa vida? Esta é outra pergunta para a qual as respostas esboçadas estão ainda longe de ser convincentes. Tem ainda de ser inventada uma agricultura mais extensiva e mais produtiva, ou mais intensiva e mais compatível com a defesa do ambiente.

Já existe o conceito de “intensificação sustentável”, mas os exemplos ainda são excessivamente limitados para que se possa acreditar na sua participação decisiva na resolução do problema. No que já estamos todos de acordo é que o conceito de eficácia produtiva se tem vindo a alterar e que o modelo químico-mecânico, que, durante décadas, nos fez acreditar que correspondia ao progresso, tem vindo a mostrar os seus limites.

E o que poderemos nós fazer enquanto consumidores? Esta é talvez a pergunta para a qual haverá respostas mais promissoras e que, mais e melhor, poderão contribuir para nos afastar dos piores cenários. Não será fácil, mas, sem dúvida, será possível, modificar o comportamento dos consumidores e alterar alguns dos nossos padrões de consumo alimentar.

Na mesma altura em que cerca mil milhões de seres humanos, um pouco por todo o mundo, passam fome e sofrem de subnutrição, há cerca de mil e trezentos milhões de obesos e calcula-se que 30% da produção alimentar seja desperdiçada, não chegando a ser consumida.

É preciso, e é possível, corrigir este absurdo, que é também uma vergonha para a humanidade. Se todos fizermos melhores escolhas alimentares, se comermos melhor, se formos mais solidários e responsabilizados pelos níveis incomportáveis do desperdício, teremos melhor saúde, viveremos melhor, e contribuiremos, como devemos, para os equilíbrios globais, essenciais à nossa vida colectiva.

Sobre o futuro da alimentação no mundo, Charles Godfray, professor de alimentação em Oxford , dizia há algum tempo, numa conferência na Fundação Gulbenkian, organizada em parceria com o jornal PÚBLICO: “Se falharmos na alimentação falharemos em tudo o resto. Não ajudaremos os países mais pobres, esqueceremos a biodiversidade, nada poderemos fazer quanto às alterações climáticas e comprometeremos a nossa evolução ao longo das próximas décadas”. Estou de acordo com esta afirmação. Só acrescentarei o óbvio: para não falharmos na alimentação não poderemos falhar na agricultura.

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April 10, 2014  |  by: Matt Miller  |  1

Changes in grazing practices can help ranchers adapt to climate change. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Changes in grazing practices can help ranchers adapt to climate change. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Across the tropics, farmers are undertaking practices that will help their operations adapt to climate change. They’re breeding plants and livestock to better withstand extreme conditions, conserving genetic diversity of their crops, and adjusting the timing of planting and irrigation.

These adaptation practices will not only help farmers deal with climate change, but also can help increase incomes and provide benefits to the environment.

At the same time, funders recognize the potential for tropical agricultural lands to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They fund projects that reduce deforestation, keep carbon in the ground and reduce agricultural emissions.

Conservationists recognize that both these adaptation and mitigation practices are essential for tropical agriculture.

However, climate mitigation and adaptation are often pursued as separate activities on tropical agriculture lands, reducing their effectiveness in meeting broader conservation goals.

A recent paper in the journal Conservation Letters — by authors representing a broad range of conservation and sustainable agriculture organizations — demonstrates that many tropical agricultural systems can “provide both mitigation and adaptation benefits if they are designed and managed appropriately and if larger landscape context is considered.”

The paper’s authors call this climate-smart agriculture.

However, there are a number of barriers including existing institutional structure, policy processes and funding mechanisms.

“There has been a huge focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation at local, national and international levels,” says Elizabeth Gray, executive director of the Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter and one of the paper’s coauthors. “But mitigation and adaptation are discussed in parallel policy debates that are rarely linked, led by distinct ministries and institutions, and involve different constituencies and funding sources. We are rarely talking effectively to on another.”

Basically, what the authors sought were practices that reduced the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions at the same time they enhanced the adaptive capacity of agricultural systems to climate change. This would increase agricultural yields and lead to increased food security.

Are such strategies available?

Yes, according to the authors. In fact, many well-accepted sustainable agricultural practices meet these criteria. These include using composts and minimum tillage, among others.

“Many sustainable agriculture practices offer multiple benefits, including erosion reduction and increased soil carbon,” says Gray, who previously worked for the Conservancy’s Africa program. “They have benefits for both mitigation and adaptation.”

Mitigation is more than planting trees, Gray emphasizes, and could be part of a broader strategy to better integrate land management practices. For instance, working with farmers to plant trees in strategic areas has carbon benefits while also providing shade for livestock and crops such as coffee.

Pilot projects will be essential to show the many benefits of integrating adaptation and mitigation.

“We need pilot sites to demonstrate what this looks like on the ground,” Gray says. “We need to show that by integrating adaptation and mitigation, you can achieve so much more for your effort, time and money. You realize multiple benefits from one project.”

Still, the barriers are significant. Farmers will need assistance and technical information to incorporate climate-smart agricultural practices into their operations.

Funders will need to adjust how monies are distributed to encourage linking mitigation and adaptation outcomes in specific projects. And governments and agencies will need to work better together on an integrated approach, hardly an easy task when each entity has different and occasionally competing goals.

“This integration won’t happen without transformational change,” says Gray. “But The Nature Conservancy is so well poised to play a role in this work. We work in large landscapes. We also have people working on the ground with local farmers. And we have the science to direct where this integration can be most effective.”

The paperHarvey, C. A., Chacón, M., Donatti, C. I., Garen, E., Hannah, L., Andrade, A., Bede, L., Brown, D., Calle, A., Chará, J., Clement, C., Gray, E., Hoang, M. H., Minang, P., Rodríguez, A. M., Seeberg-Elverfeldt, C., Semroc, B., Shames, S., Smukler, S., Somarriba, E., Torquebiau, E., van Etten, J. and Wollenberg, E. (2014), Climate-Smart Landscapes: Opportunities and Challenges for Integrating Adaptation and Mitigation in Tropical Agriculture. Conservation Letters, 7: 77–90. doi: 10.1111/conl.12066

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