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Food securityHelping farmers cope with climate change is big business

Published 2 December 2013

Monsanto estimates there is a $20 billion market for employing massive data analysis to provide weather forecasting and crop-growing advice tailored to individual plots of land. With a $300 billion agriculture industry in the United States exposed to climate change, predicting the effects of warming temperature is critical to the industry. Monsanto has recently acquired – for $1 billion — the Climate Corporation, a Silicon Valley company which uses data analysis and algorithms to redefine how farmers grow and harvest crops. The company provides farmers with insights which predict weather pattern and the changing effects on crops.

The Climate Corporation (Climate Corp.), a Silicon Valley company recently purchased by Monsanto for $1 billion, is using data analysis and algorithms to redefine how farmers grow and harvest crops. The company provides farmers with insights which predict weather pattern and the changing effects on crops.

“We’re moving into a period of very unstable weather, and that’s what producers need to be prepared for,” said Jerry Hatfield, lab director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment.

Climate change, in addition to genetically modified crops, is one of the main factors affecting agribusiness. For example, in California, since 1895, the annual average temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This has decreased the “winter chill,” which many fruit trees need to bear flowers and fruit, according to a report by the California Environmental Protection Agency. The Kansas City Star reports that upstate New York has become a better place to grow soybeans, something that researchers attribute to global warming trends.

Many traditional farmers are skeptical of climate change, but scientists and agribusiness are developing ways to reduce risk in anticipation of poor weather, and maximize harvest opportunities by using available data analysis.

Climate Corp. was founded six years ago by two former Google employees, David Friedberg and Siraj Khaliq. The firm examines weather data to develop insights and recommendations which are then offered to farmers to minimize their risk when exposed to unpredictable climate and market forces. According to theStar, the company produces forecasts from weather readings at ten million locations which are matched with forty years of national crop-yield statistics. With access to massive amounts of data, Climate Corp. can offer farmers a range of details about their operation, including projected yields and the amount of soil moisture, and also grade the quality of crops in comparison to other farms.

“They have a talent in the data science area around weather that is really unique,” said Christy Toedebusch, spokeswoman for St. Louis-based parent company Monsanto, which sells seed and herbicides.

Monsanto estimates there is a $20 billion market for employing massive data analysis to provide weather forecasting and crop-growing advice tailored to individual plots of land. With a $300 billion agriculture industry in the United States exposed to climate change, predicting the effects of warming temperature is critical to the industry. The USDA estimates that wheat production across the Great Plains will decrease 6 percent by 2050, and corn yields will drop 4 percent, because of warming temperatures. Kansas State University (KSU) researchers report that for every one degree Celsius increase in temperature, the state’s wheat yield would drop 21 percent, or 10.6 bushels per acre. The USDA also expects temperatures in much of the country’s interior to increase about three degrees Celsius in the next forty years.

Texas A&M University agricultural economist Bruce McCarl reports that the center of wheat production in the country has migrated 173 miles northwest within the last fifty years. Corn production has also moved 100 miles in the same direction. McCarl said the shift of wheat and crop production might be due to farmers breeding better plants as well as climate change.

“When you are looking at 50 and 60 years of history, the climate has been changing. That’s relatively undeniable,” McCarl said. “At the same time, we’ve spent millions to billions of dollars on wheat breeding.” McCarl is referring to the development of genetically modified seeds like soybeans and corn, engineered to withstand drought, deter bugs, and resist herbicides. KSU agricultural economics professor Andrew Barkley predicts that major crops will be grown in unlikely states. “Genetic improvement has allowed wheat yields to increase significantly over time, but there are challenges ahead,” Barkley said in a statement.

Jerry Hatfield of the USDA told theStar that farmers need to be flexible to reduce risk in the face of warming temperatures. “Climate has changed, climate is changing, and climate is going to change in the future.” Businesses like Climate Corp. are betting that farmers and more agribusinesses will adopt farm data analysis as a tool to grow crops more efficiently.