Daily Management Review

Big Data comes to the rescue of the Environment


Irrespective of the fact of whether you like Mosanto or not, the huge benefits of data driven agriculture appears to be the smartest way for farmers.

Way back in 1989, a film makers from Los Angeles made a nature documentary that has turned many a head. Lionel Friedberg, was the first film maker to highlight the problems of global warming in 1989. David Friedberg, Lionel’s son, followed his father’s footsteps and took a step further by opening his own company, which he named The Climate Corporation. Its nature of business is in the field of big data.

When David Friedberg decided to sell his company to the big bad empire that is Monsanto, the loudest criticism came, as you may have guessed, from his own father. Lionel remembers his father saying with surprise and disgust, “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a better place!”

For Lionel being chastised by his own father “was really hard”. But Lionel believed in facts, so he summed up enough courage and with loads of evidence persuaded his father that the $930 million sale was not only good for the planet, but was good for business as well. After the 2013 sale of his company, Lionel drafted an e-mail to the employees of The Climate Corp which is a good read for all those who criticize Monsanto’s business practices.

Although his e-mail has convinced Friedberg and his colleagues for the necessity of the sale, that in fact it will help improve yields, make the adaptation to climate change easier, it will improve the environment and at the same time it will help save money as well. The sale of The Climate Corp has turned around a few of Monsanto’s critics, however the jury is still out on whether it could turn a significant numbers of Mosanto’s critics.

Data Driven approach
Climate Corp is in the business of precision data driven agriculture. It seeks to maximize the benefits of seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, water and land. As per Friedberg, this is the road agriculture is headed. It is its next big idea. “This one is going to be driven by the digitization of agriculture. We’re able to more accurately monitor, through digital technology, what’s going on in the field. Then we’re able to accurately execute and optimize decisions, applications and investments,” says Friedberg.
“Technology is how we solve all the great problems that we have to tackle, since the dawn of civilization.”

Friedberg’s approach and faith in technologically driven agriculture is not surprising given the fact that he is a former Google employee with a degree in astrophysics from Berkeley. Many an environmentalist are also enthused by precision farming since it has the potential to reduce the usage of fertilizer. Further, nitrogen fertilizer which is un-soaked by crops emits strong greenhouse gas, and as per the Environmental Defense Fund, excess usage of fertilizer causes the growth of toxic algae to bloom which typically contaminate drinking water and create dead zones in the oceans.

Precision agriculture is booming. Retailers are brands which have sustainability targets around the usage of fertilizer as well as carbon emissions, are pushing farmers to better manage their inputs.

With precision data driven agriculture, Friedberg explains, “We [can] start to integrate the environmental data, the agronomic data and the operating data – what the farmer did and when. It’s really about discovering, what does all the data tell us about the future? The more data we get, the better we understand those relationships.”

Given the projected trajectory of precision agriculture, it would be safe to conclude that in the years to come, farmers will rely more on data and less on their gut feeling.