Israeli agtech (agricultural technology) innovators are coming up with new ways to improve and reinvent farming as the battle for crop production continues. While tech in agriculture is not new, the agricultural field is embracing new ways to improve how it functions.
“Climate [change] is becoming more unpredictable,” Matan Rahav, director of business development at Israeli agriculture analytics company CropX, told The Times of Israel in a videoconference call this month. “At the end of the day, farmers have to produce more food with fewer resources and less water and at the same time, we expect farmers to become more environmentally sustainable. So, the only way to overcome this is by harnessing and utilizing data and innovative technologies.”
A recently published NASA-led studyThe research has shown how climate change could have an impact on the production of crops as early at the next 10 year. This has ensured that the farming sector is still in the forefront environmental discourse. The research results reverberated around the globe as the study forecasted that maize yields could drop by 24 percent in some parts of the world “due to rising temperatures, changing growing seasons, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and more erratic rainfall.”
The main conclusion of the study, published by Nature Food, was that advanced climate modeling combined with crop projection models showed that climate impacts could affect crops much earlier than previously thought.
“We did not expect to see such a fundamental shift, as compared to crop yield projections from the previous generation of climate and crop models conducted in 2014,” lead author Jonas Jägermeyr, a crop modeler and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City, told NASA’s Earth Science News Team. “A 20% decrease from current [maize] production levels could have severe implications worldwide.”
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These findings were not surprising to scientists and entrepreneurs in the agtech field.
“We know that global agriculture is already disrupted by climate change. The report focused on two small things, yield of corn and wheat,” said Rahav, who pointed out that in addition to crop yields, floods, droughts, new weeds and pathogens, and water resources are all in flux due to ever-changing environments.
“The report doesn’t scare me because we have the ability to mitigate some of these effects,” Dr. Calanit Bar Am, chief strategy officer at AI-powered food system intelligence platform Trellis, said in an interview with The Times of Israel. “We have the ability to adapt… actually, [this report]Could be a good opportunity. So, we have to be a little bit more creative.”
Moreover, she expressed confidence that technology will lead to “new opportunities” in farming.
“Science, data, and technology will play a major role in adapting to climate change effects on crop yield and quality of maize and wheat and will introduce new opportunities to the entire food value chain,” Bar Am said.
You can be a little more creative
Israeli companies have developed solutions for the agriculture value chain’s multiple stakeholders, from crop growers to food companies to retailers. This country has been known for its groundbreaking technologies in the food and agricultural tech sectors.
Some local companies are market leaders in precision irrigation, crop tracking, insect-pollinated or wind-pollinated crops, aquaculture wastewater treatment, postharvest treatment and crop enhancement. Kaiima is a casting and breeding company that improves the productivity of large-scale agricultural systems. Phytech, an IoT startup that provides support services to farmers, is a decision-support platform that helps them make better decisions. Tevel Aerobotics Technologies offers a robotics platform for managing orchard harvests. Netafim is the global leader in sustainable precision agriculture.
“There are many amazing agtech companies offering incredible solutions for different aspects of the farm,” said Rahav. CropX was named earlier this year as one of the World Economic Forum’s “Technology Pioneers” for its farm management platform that creates self-installable soil sensors that store and analyze real-time soil data.
Trellis, meanwhile, uses an AI-powered technology to reduce agricultural waste and improve food production efficiency. This system assists farmers in harvesting the right amount of crops and making better use of their limited resources.
“On the farm level, growers will need to adopt new heat-resistant breeds and change their growing practices. Our society should reduce food waste to zero, which is currently 40%. Food companies already understand that better sourcing, production and inventory optimization will give them a competitive edge and allow them a continuous supply of high-quality products,” Bar Am explained. “Data, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools are key to capitalize on these opportunities.”
“There are many unknowns; every year is different; agriculture is never on time,” said Ilay Englard, CEO and co-founder of Trellis. “It’s very hard to learn from the historical signals or what happened in the past. Agriculture is a biological system… and it is chaotic. It’s really about integrating hundreds of data layers together, understanding exactly how to quantify them, and then make sure it’s actionable for the grower or the buyer, or the seller, or the inventory manager.”
Ori Ben Ner is the CEO of precision agriculture company SupPlant. He reiterates the need to develop innovative technologies in the face changing weather patterns.
“We need to think of sensors because of climate change,” Ben Ner told The Times of Israel. “Most irrigation models were developed in the 1980s-1990s and are no longer relevant to the weather patterns we have today. The seasons have changed; it no longer rains when it used to; there are worldwide droughts.”
SupPlant uses data from its sensors for improved farming. Its sensors are placed on five locations on the plant — deep soil, shallow soil, stem, leaf, and fruit. The data culled from the sensors “is uploaded to the cloud every 10 minutes and combined with climatic forecasts in order to give the farmer unique and precise irrigation recommendations and insights,” Ben Ner told The Times of Israel.
“This is very helpful in day-to-day farming, but especially crucial before an outstanding weather event is expected, while granting the farmer specific irrigation recommendations to ‘weather the storm’ and not over-, or under-, irrigate.”
SupPlant’s technology was recently named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Best Inventions for 2021 (alongside three other Israeli inventions.)
At the UN’s COP26 climate conference earlier this month, countries and organizations committed to increased “investment in agricultural research and innovation to create more climate-resilient, low-emission technologies and practices.”
Scientists and entrepreneurs in Israel’s agtech sector see the NASA report and COP26’s statement as a call-to-action to serve up even more innovative tech solutions to produce and supply enough food for the growing global population with limited natural resources.
“Crop growers, food companies and retailers already have data they can use but is either siloed or underutilized,” Bar Am said. “AI and ML tools can be used for better planning, better understanding what-if scenarios, and optimizing the entire food value chain.”
“The agricultural sector in Israel has always been relatively technologically advanced, most of the farmers in Israel are very well-educated, top research centers, the Ministry of Agriculture… Israel is a hub for agricultural technologies,” said Rahav. “We are well-positioned in this regard [to take on worst-case climate crisis forecasts]. Israel is a great playground for agtech startups.”