Welcome to another Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.
There will be another one next Wednesday and the Wednesday after that!
Agriculture is crucial in our campaign against the climate crisis. Without agriculture, of course, we'd all starve, but agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Over-use of fertilisers is creating nitrate pollution, and agriculture uses vast amounts of water, which is becoming increasingly scarce.
Today I'm talking to Ori Ben Ner, CEO of SupPlant. Ori, welcome to the sustainable futures report.
Ori: Thank you for having me, Anthony. It’s a pleasure.
Anthony: As I've just mentioned, water is crucial to agriculture. Now I understand that SupPlant uses electronics, artificial intelligence and big data to get the most from every last drop. Tell me how you do that.
Ori: First of all, some statistics. 71% of all freshwater on earth is actually used to irrigate crops and it's an important fact, because saving water has to come first of all from irrigation. This is where we started from. The way we do that is specifically by finding a way through plant sensors: we put sensors on the trunk and on the fruit then we measure in micron levels every 10 minutes, the growth patterns the behave patterns utilising specific AI technology in order to understand and to foresee how the plant will react in correlation to every drop of water. Meaning there isn't, the models that are being used, are usually looking at the soil, we want the soil wet, or we want to dry.. but in most cases, there isn't the correlation between the amount that you irrigate and the amount of water the plant will actually use. This is the most basic notion. Initially, we have developed a system that takes the plant data and irrigates autonomously through it. And in this process, like there is in many, many startups, we found a goldmine. We found a way to shorten the cycle of creating an irrigation model from an industry average of 10 years to six weeks. This is the bedrock of our technology.
If we dive into this a bit more, most of the models that were so complex to develop were developed in the 80s and 90s. We all know that the climatic behaviour and the weather patterns are becoming so different from what they used to be and are totally irrelevant to the current situation. It is a totally different story because the seasons actually changed. I’ll finish with a small quote I like from one of our customers, “growing crops used to be like baking a cake in the oven. It was a recipe every season I did the same thing and got the same result. Now it's like cooking a cake on a wildfire.” This is where we are today. So models that are being constantly developed and improved allow us to bring the technology of climate adaptive irrigation that is fit, to today's reality. This is the gist of it.
Anthony: Okay, well thank you very much. So if I understand it, what you're actually doing is using electronics and software to monitor the physical growth of the plant, rather than just looking at the humidity of the soil in which it is growing. Now this obviously means that you're well, I believe that the plants that you're working with are avocados, and with citrus, so they are relatively higher value fruit. It's a very specific type of analysis. And if I'm correct, also, you're using trickle irrigation. In other words, you're feeding the water directly to each individual plant, is that correct?
Ori: Not exactly, we have over 30 crops that are commercial. Some of them are broadacre, like cotton, and corn and sugarcane and sugar beets. And it's not only high density, high value crops. Though the majority of growers that can afford a sensor based technology usually grow high value crops. Regarding irrigation: no, we sample every 10 hectares or every 20 hectares a specific pattern of behavior of a plant and provide an irrigation regime that is constantly adapting and relevant to a much wider area. So we're not giving a specific irrigation command to every tree, mainly because it's not possible. I will say it's a matter of cost: if a customer wants higher density, obviously, he will have higher accuracy. I think that our new line of product is bridging the gap between the farmers that need it most, hence, most of the farmers on earth which are smallholders, who are as sensitive to climate change as anyone else, but can't afford, to say the least, this type of technology. And this is the next challenge of climate adaptive agriculture, which is basically the challenge of growing food in the 21st century.
Anthony: Right now, I see from your websites, that it's not only the actual conditions around the plant that you're working on, you also build in weather forecasts.
Ori: you have to have the ability to forecast because most of the implications of an extreme heat event, for example, are dealt with four or five days before. In order to pass an extreme heat event like we saw two years ago in Australia (before everybody was talking about COVID), in December 2019, there were three days with over 45 degrees in Australia. This was what created the wildfires that were on the news. And then we saw that our system gave recommendations, to irrigate specific timings three-four days before and if you give the plant enough ability to prepare to uptake enough water, then you are able to pass this event with minimum to zero damage. So you have to forecast this, you can’t deal with extreme heat events or weather patterns and events in real time.
Anthony: You're operating in Australia as well as in Israel, are you spreading your company across other countries of the world?
Ori: Our main markets are Australia, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa. We're also working in Spain. These days, we've signed a strategic agreement that in three years we will monitor and irrigate 100% of the dates in the UAE.
Irrigating dates in the UAE is a $600 million question a year. We have shown three years straight the ability to have the exact sized field with 43% water decrease on average. This brought us to one of the first commercial implementations of the Abraham accords. We are spreading. The most exciting news lately is that our product for smallholders, which is completely sensorless and is providing them with a model. We have just on-boarded half a million small corn growers in Kenya. Most of them are actually women, cultivating less than a hectare. For the first time we're able to bring this technology to these parts of the world and these types of growers as well.
Anthony: When you implement your systems in these relatively remote areas, it must need energy to operate it so, how do you cope? Is it solar powered or what happens?
Ori: Solar powered and filling up batteries. It's a complex issue of putting hardware and fields, no doubt about it, energy is one of them, maintenance is another. But then you have to have specific hardware that is very low on energy, there's no other way for doing so.
Anthony: This will include pumps, of course, I suppose. And that that will be a major use of energy.
Ori: We're sitting on top of the irrigation infrastructure, not replacing it. We're providing the (existing) irrigation infrastructure, whatever it is, with the best way and models to utilize it. But you arrived on pumps, or the ability to bring a drop of water to a specific plant is very, very energy dense. In most parts of the world today, the cost of energy is way higher than the cost of the drop of water itself. Which is another issue for another day, perhaps, specifically the right way to price water. In most cases, electricity will be a bigger cost to the grower than water.
Anthony: Given that you are making the best use of the water by using the optimum amount, are you confident that you will have sufficient supplies to be able to continue with supporting agriculture?
Ori: Sufficient supply of water is a dramatic issue. But I think the point is not something you can’t control like the supply side of the water. Mega-droughts area reality today, you can’t walk around it. The ability to grow the maximum with a certain amount of water is the question that farmers are starting to ask them. Not to grow the maximum that we know, but how to utilize the amount of water we do have in order to make the best out of it. This question will always stay relevant.
I've had the privilege of working with farmers in South Africa in the Western Cape, and the year after they stopped counting of Day Zero and water was about to run out of the taps. I saw over there basically what every government would do when 70% of water is going in the Western Cape to irrigate the wine, grapes and citruses mostly: the main thing that they did next year was to cut water quotas in half. And then this year, it was the best results we've ever achieved because we know exactly how to utilize the best out of half of the amount. Most of the farmers lost yield, but we lost much less.
Anthony: As we draw this to a close, you're obviously aware there's a major climate conference coming up next month. And a lot of people are very despondent, and there's lots of warnings and so on. How do you see the future? What's your prediction?
Ori: McKinsey research actually shows that the 2030s will be the first decade that technology will not be sufficient enough in agriculture to beat the damage of climate change. In a reality where the world until 2050 needs to produce 70% more in order to sustain humanity, the amount of fuel is actually going to decline because technology and progress aren’t enough today in order to bridge this gap. The point here is connectivity. This is the trillion dollar question we are trying to answer these days: how do you provide these models or technologies in places where you can't really connect sensors or technologies because the only way will be that way. To make technology even more efficient in order to bridge this gap. Statistics projections look not promising to say the least these days, and sadly, it is something that is only going to go to the extreme. More and more capital, and more and more talent should be tapped and is tapped today to places that are trying to deal with this: growing food in this climatic reality. So it's a tremendous challenge that SupPlant and others and many other companies of super talented people are trying to take upon themselves. Humanity has proven before that it is able to always try and figure out more and more ways to be more productive. I'm optimistic, though there is a huge warning sign ahead of us. And you're seeing it on a daily basis, when climatic phenomena that used to happen once every 100 years are wiping out every year thousands and thousands of hectares. 30% of Mexico's citrus growing area we've lost to the cold that we saw in Texas six months ago. This is one example which is billions of dollars going to waste. This is what we are trying to deal with. And I hope that the pessimistic projections will be proven wrong. This is all I can hope for.
Anthony: I’m sure we all agree with you on that. Thank you very much for talking to the sustainable futures report today.
Ori: Thank you so much, Anthony. It was a pleasure.
Ori Ben Ner of Supplant. supplant.me
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I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report’s weekly interview. Next Wednesday you’ll hear about the World Cement Association, but before that, on Friday, I hope to bring you your regular episode.
Until next time