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Aidan Connolly: Tech that transforms farming, from seed to fork

March 29, 2018

It is estimated that the genetic potential of an animal or plant is about 30 percent above what we actually achieve. Can technology bridge the gap and completely transform agriculture?

Below is an edited transcript of Tom Martin’s interview with Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer and vice president of corporate accounts at Alltech. Click below to hear the full audio:


Tom:                            You've written that technological innovations have the ability to transform every link in the food chain, “from seed to fork.” Give us your shortlist of emerging, potentially transformative agricultural technologies.


Aidan:                          I think anybody who lives on the planet is very aware of the transformation that is taking place in all aspects of every business. Agriculture is no different. I tried to summarize this once, because I think we’re flailing around trying to figure out what we can do with gene editing, with digital technologies, autonomous vehicles, and which ones are going to truly transform agriculture. I saw a paper written by PricewaterhouseCoopers in which they talked about eight digital technologies that will transform the world, and I applied that to agriculture.


                                      Effectively, the technologies split into two different types: hardware and software. From a hardware perspective, we are thinking about things like sensors, robots and 3D printing — things that collect data that we can analyze — the internet of things.


                                    From a software perspective, we're thinking of artificial intelligence: virtual reality, enhanced or augmented reality, the ability to analyze data and machine vision. In essence, we're talking about the collection of information and putting that information in a form that people can see, act on and make management decisions.


Tom:                            These technologies are quite revolutionary. How has the pace of the development of these technologies — digital, in particular — changed farming from what it used to be?


Aidan:                          I have to say it hasn't changed farming too much, so far. I would say robotics is probably the technology that has been most embraced so far. When you go to a dairy farm, you will see robots being commonly used. Robots are not yet used in swine farming or in poultry, though that’s going to be coming quite soon.


                                    I think that we've already seen the use of blockchain, which is an electronic ledger that allows you to trace food as it goes through the system. That has been embraced to some degree, in food, for example, with turkeys, grains and soybeans. I would say, frankly, agriculture is a little late to the game. Nonetheless, the opportunities, in terms of how this can transform the business, are probably greater in agriculture than they are in other industries.


Tom:                            What aspects of farming could undergo the greatest transformation from these technologies that you're talking about?


Aidan:                          If we think about what we do today on the farm, be it in the field or with animals, we see a huge gap between the genetic capacity of the animal and what we actually achieve. This is most easily seen if somebody decides to set up a research center. In that research center, they will see yields in corn or in soybeans — or, in terms of animal performance, in milk, meat or eggs — that perform 10 percent better than on the farm or in the field. So, that tells you there’s a lot of potential.


                                       We normally estimate that the genetic potential of an animal or of a plant is about 30 percent above what we actually get. Of course, a lot of this relates to weather, management, the use of pesticides, fertilizers — what we do in general to get the most out of those plants or animals. So, there is a very large gap that data could plug, particularly if we knew what was happening in real time.


                                    I think that, from that perspective, agriculture has lots of areas that could improve. Milk would be a classic example of that, but I think I could take any aspect of agriculture and expect it to be improved through the use of technologies.


Tom:                            If you were asked to compose a short list of the most important tech advances in agriculture of late, what would that look like?


Aidan:                          I think robotics is the one that has been embraced the fastest and where we’ve seen the greatest improvements in the shortest space of time.


                                    Sensors would be number two — in particular for dairy cows, but other species are starting to use sensors to detect, in real time, how much an animal is eating or drinking, how much weight gain is occurring and if it’s sick.


                                    We are seeing the use of drones to collect that same information with plants growing in the field. And, of course, we're seeing it in terms of what's being done with higher-value crops, where the sensors are directly in the soil or on the plant.

                                    The ones that excite me — blockchain has tremendous potential to be used in the near future. I think augmented reality — where you could walk into a field or into a barn wearing goggles that would provide you with information that would allow you to manage those animals or those crops — is very important. And although I don't think virtual reality is going to be something we see being used in agriculture in the near future, we already see it being used in the food industry. McDonald's is already using it to allow consumers to see where food is being produced on farms and to, in effect, “visit” those farms virtually to see what's happening.


Tom:                            To what extent are artificial intelligence and robotics playing roles in farming?


Aidan:                          Robotics is something that I believe has immediate relevance. We are finding it more and more difficult to get people to work on farms. That's especially relevant in the Western world — Western Europe and the United States, obviously, with lots of discussion about labor. But, surprisingly, robotics is increasingly an issue in places like Brazilian processing plants. People don’t necessarily want to work on pig farms anywhere in the world. I think even in China we will see the increasing use of robotics on the farm. Artificial intelligence can transform every aspect of the business of farming. So, even things like veterinarian interventions, nutritional advice or nutritional changes, anything where human intelligence is involved and where decisions are being made, I can see that artificial intelligence can allow us to replace some loss of that role by allowing real-time decisions to be made based on real-time information.


Tom:                            Disruptive innovation creates new markets and reshapes existing markets. What new markets are on the horizon, and how are existing markets being reshaped by these developments?


Aidan:                          A lot of the time, it seems with these digital technologies, what we’re doing is collecting information that allows us to do the current job better. I think that plays a very large part in what we're seeing at the moment: greater traceability, greater information to the consumer and greater information for management decisions.


                                    I wouldn't discard the ability of technology to open markets that haven't been there before. The most obvious one will be the ability to produce food at a lower cost on existing farms, which obviously would allow that food to be given to more of the 7 billion mouths that we have to feed. There is opportunity to create food in new ways. For example, hydroponics requires the use of sensors. The ability of cameras to make decisions in real time about how to irrigate could be very important. Also, because consumer transparency is very important, consumers can see the food being grown, what interventions are taking place and maybe a little bit more information on what's actually happening on either the farm in the countryside or the farm in the city.


Tom:                            With the emergence and the arrival of all these new technologies, each demanding a lot of investment of time and money to acquire and to implement, do you have some advice for producers about how to manage all that?


Aidan:                          I think in the general history of agriculture, there’s been a conflict between the sales and marketing function and the purchaser that is the farmer. I'm sure that 8,000 years ago, when the first sales person arrived on the farm trying to convince a farmer to use his seeds, which he had harvested and held, the farmer was probably wondering what the price was going to be, what were the conditions, what do they need to barter in return. The reality is, with this new level of technology, we're typically talking about startups, and startups, by their nature, are small companies. Many of the startups don't have a history or background in agriculture. So, they don't often fully understand the benefits of the technology that they're promoting. Sometimes they promote too many benefits instead of focusing on the ones that are really relevant to farmers. I'd say to farmers and to companies — anybody engaging with startups in the agricultural space — try to be as friendly as you can and try to be understanding of the person on the other side of the desk or the other side of the tractor who's trying to explain to you why this technology might help you.


                                    Try to see if you can help that person actually be successful. Transformers of digital technologies are essential to the future of producing food efficiently, effectively and safely, and therefore to the future of the planet. Startups will be a part of bringing those technologies to us. If they are successful, we will be successful. So, our goal has to be to make it possible for them to succeed.


Tom:                            You mentioned blockchain technology, and I'm wondering about what seems to be a conflict: how a supply chain ledger system can be at once transparent and secure.


Aidan:                          Many listeners may not be familiar with the term “blockchain.” If they aren’t, I would suggest they read up on it. There are a lot of great videos on the internet. The way I've explained it to myself is that it’s similar to bitcoin. It's something that’s virtual — in this case, a virtual invoice — that passes from person to person, and yet that person cannot see who held that invoice at various stages of the process.


                                    Maybe there is a farmer producing eggs, and those eggs are cracked and we produce a liquid egg from it, and that liquid egg might be further fractionated and used in a variety of food products, with many people involved in the process. Sometimes, not everybody wants everyone in the chain to know where they purchased their raw material, and maybe even where their supplier bought their raw material. So, in that system, a virtual invoice is really exciting because it allows you to gain that traceability without giving up the secrecy. Like bitcoin, it can move from person to person and still retain its value; that's what blockchain allows us to do. That’s the excitement in agriculture and in the food chain in general – a technology that allows us to do this.


                                      Walmart has made a big noise about the fact that they've embraced this originally in China. They're now starting to use it here in the United States. We see discussions amongst many of the other major food companies about the same thing, about what they can do.


                                      I see blockchain as being capable of transforming every aspect of where food moves from one supplier to another.


Tom:                            Do you see blockchain technology combating fraud in food labeling?


Aidan:                          It certainly has the potential to do so. It is not possible for somebody to manipulate. So, yes, it checks that box. It allows us to gain transparency without losing secrecy. Secrecy, right or wrong, has been a big part of the way food has been produced in the past. People have not wanted everybody to know what they have done in their manufacturing process. I think it will be mandated, if not by governments, then I could see it being mandated by food companies. The constant concern is, “If I have a food recall, where did that problem come from, and how easily and quickly can I trace it back?”


Tom:                            Among the technologies that we've talked about, and maybe some that we have not touched on, do you see any that have the potential of mitigating world population growth?


Aidan:                          Well, if by mitigating world population growth you mean providing enough food for all the people who are going to be on the planet…


Tom:                            That’s what I mean.


Aidan:                          I definitely think that, if we look at that 30 percent gap, you could transform that into a 30 percent increase in food production. However, we know that there are areas where we could make even greater gains. Food waste is an obvious one. We say that we lose 30 percent of our food between the plate and our mouth in the West. They say that 30 percent of the food is wasted between the farm and the plate in the developing world. Clearly, there are tremendous gains that could be made to reduce the loss of food in the food chain as it exists at the moment, and I've already mentioned genetic potential. The ability to apply resources — in particular, scarce resources like water and land — more efficiently will also become a very large part of what we see in the future with digital technologies.


Tom:                            You’re watching these technologies emerge. What would you say is the most amazing thing that you've seen lately?


Aidan:                          Maybe I'm a little bit like a kid in a candy shop — I'm amazed by everything that's coming. I have seen many technologies that I truly believe are transformational. One that really excites me is that they've created an egg that you can put under lights and, from that light, you can tell whether the egg is male or female. In the layer industry, we hatch 18 billion eggs because we need 9 million females to grow up to be laying hens and to produce the eggs. That means that 9 million eggs are laid and hatched to become males that do not get used as laying hens. In the past, those were euthanized. However, that's increasingly unacceptable to consumers. In the case of the broiler industry, we know males grow differently than females. If we could shine a light to know which eggs are males and which were females, we could hatch them in different trays. We could put them into different houses. We could feed them differently, grow them for different periods of time, etcetera. So, that’s transformational in terms of what we could see from a world perspective.


Tom:                            Aidan Connolly is chief innovation officer and vice president of corporate accounts at Alltech. Thank you very much, Aidan.


Aidan:                          Thank you, Tom.