Crowdfarming, or how to boost agricultural innovation

By Joseph Byrum

Earlier this year, Land O’Lakes surveyed young people about their views on the viability of a career in agriculture. The results contained a tough truth about the need for our industry to embrace and highlight innovation driven by analytics.

The survey found the younger generation lacks an interest in lending talent to the industry responsible for feeding the nation and the world. A mere 3 percent of college grads said that they would consider a career in agriculture [1]. The rest prefer to start a profession in technology or healthcare, which they see as more advanced with better paying opportunities.

It is clear that agriculture has a serious image problem among mathematically inclined youth. Yet food production should absolutely be on the minds of students who want to see a job offer letter in their hands come graduation time, as opportunity is abundant. More than 22,000 ag jobs [1] go unfilled each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – and they are good jobs. Students might associate agriculture with backbreaking labor and low-tech approaches, but nearly a third of the available jobs require skills in science, engineering and math [3].

Only 3 percent of college grads say they would consider a career in agriculture. Source: Syngenta

We cannot afford to allow another generation of new talent and new ideas to pass us by.

Many of the biggest players in agriculture appear to be fine with things as they stand. After all, having a positive cash flow can lure executives into believing that they have everything they need. They are getting by just fine, and prospering, without regular infusions of fresh ideas and perspectives. Or so they think.

Complacency is often an invitation to disruptive innovators to enter and capture the market. Innovators know the key to upending the status quo is investing in the high-level talent needed to bring about the revolution in production and efficiency, as we have seen throughout history. The light bulb put candlemakers out of work, but the invention did not just spring out of nowhere. The team of brilliant minds working in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park, N.J., R&D lab, the first of its kind, came up with the system that made electric lights practical. Edison understood the importance of developing talent, and the world has not been the same ever since.

I believe data analytics can bring a similar revolution to agriculture through team-based innovation. Our experience at Syngenta has demonstrated the benefit of optimizing the breeding of soybean and other crops with advanced mathematics. Optimization essentially doubled the efficiency of our breeding program, resulting in significantly higher crop yields while minimizing the need for scarce inputs like land, nutrients and water. The benefits are tremendous, but building analytical capabilities within agriculture is extremely difficult.

Plant biology is as wonderful as it is complex. A soybean has 46,000 genes that determine its potential, creating an effectively infinite number of genetic combinations. Modeling this complexity in a single crop was a challenge that took almost a decade of hard work.

The next step that will, I believe, produce disruptive innovation in agriculture will come from applying data analytics to every crop, and every process involved in the production of food from the breeding of seeds to the construction of farm equipment and delivery of food products to store shelves. This is a monumental undertaking, but it is also one that needs to happen if agriculture is going to have the productivity needed to keep up with a global population set to rise by 2 billion people in the next few decades.

To have enough food to ensure everyone is well fed, we must have a revolution in productivity. That, in turn, will require an infusion of science, engineering and mathematical talent in agriculture, which brings us back to the original problem. How do we attract young graduates in the science, engineering and mathematical fields to agriculture?

I believe crowdfarming is one way to help cultivate interest in agriculture. By that, I mean the application of open innovation principles to lure individuals who may have never given a second’s thought to working in agriculture to participate in our biggest scientific problems. Many online platforms allow companies to post discrete challenges that offer a monetary reward to anyone who comes up with a valid solution, and when they are properly managed, the results speak for themselves.

A great example of this is the Syngenta Crop Challenge in Analytics, a program administered by INFORMS that brings the power of the best minds in analytics to bear against the global problem of food security. Participants receive a data set describing how soybean varieties perform under different seasonal and soil conditions along with a second data set that describes the soil and weather conditions across the geographic regions where soybean is grown. For 2017, the winning entrant must develop a defensible methodology for selecting the mix of varieties that will achieve maximum yield in the next season.

The response to last year’s challenge was tremendous, and the entries that were submitted proved to be top-notch. More importantly, many analytics professionals who have never before worked in agriculture have been hooked by the rewarding nature of work in this area. Many participants have expressed interest in continuing to contribute to the effort.

By opening entries to anyone who has an interest in analytics, crowdfarming invites creativity and new ways of looking at old problems. When done right, it will also help draw badly needed talent to agriculture, ensuring the world’s farmers will have the tools they need to continue feeding everyone.

Joseph Byrum, Ph.D., MBA, PMP, is senior R&D and strategic marketing executive in Life Sciences – Global Product Development, Innovation and Delivery at Syngenta.