17 November, 2018

Monsanto case reaffirms that robotics will shape the future of agrochemicals

11 October, 2018

By Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, research director, IDTechEx.


A US court recently held Monsanto’s glyphosate responsible for causing cancer in a ground keeper, awarding $289 million of damages. This is a critical verdict in that it demonstrates that glyphosate - as one of the most popular non-selective herbicides worldwide- is on shaky ground. Indeed, for some time now, this agrochemical has managed only to just about retain its legal permits in the face of mounting concern over its toxicity. This verdict, even if subject to appeal, will have surely sounded the alarm bells in the board rooms of agrochemical companies worldwide.

Long-term future

You might wonder what the link between this verdict and agricultural robotics is? The answer is everything. In a previous article authored two years ago, I had argued that agricultural robots are the long-term future of the agrochemical business. This verdict only serves to reinforce this argument, demonstrating that agrochemical businesses need to urgently start reinventing themselves as being in the business of controlling weeds, and not just agrochemical supplies. Inevitably, robots, AI, and smart agricultural tools will come to form a major part of a weed control (not chemical) focused business.

Drones

To learn more see the IDTechEx Research report Agricultural Robots and Drones 2018-2038: Technologies, Markets and Players. This report analyses how robotic market and technology developments will change the business of agriculture, enabling ultra-precision and/or autonomous farming and helping address key global challenges. It also develops a detailed roadmap of how robotic technology will become the future of agrochemicals business and how it will modify the way we design agricultural machinery.

Precision agriculture has been around for decades. From its early days, this approach has sought to utilise imaging techniques to enable precision identification and thus precision action taking. However, at the time, the cost of data acquisition (via sensors and cameras) and processing was prohibitively high, both in time and money terms, to warrant any commercial implementation.

Positive change

That has now all changed thanks to developments in other industries such as consumer electronics. Indeed, for several years now, companies have demonstrated robotics equipped with deep learning based advance vison technologies that can rapidly distinguish between crops and weeds and to rapidly take site specific action to eliminate the weed. One such example was Blue River Technologies which was acquired by John Deere in 2017 for $305 million. Interestingly, Blue River Technologies counted amongst its investors some of the world’s largest agrochemical makers including Monsanto.

This approach is radically different from the glyphosate-based approach in which the non-selective herbicide kills everything apart from the genetically engineered seeds. This action is site- or even potentially plant- specific, requiring the use of customised weed control action which could be a precision sprayed selective speciality chemical. This technology also lays the foundation for doing more than just weed control, e.g., it can evolve to site specific fertilizer and nutrient deposition technique.




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