Agriculture hasn’t fundamentally changed since World War II, when the era of huge scale and vast plenty began. But today’s awareness of greenhouse gases, water conservation and food safety and stability call for a rethink. Silicon Valley startup IronOx suggests moving crops indoors, tending them with robots and doing so under the watchful eyes of smart cameras to grow more and better with less worry that the food sustaining us is also slowly killing us.
A team of robots
A robot named Grover moves thousand-pound trays of plants to a photo bay for inspection, a robot called Ada can manipulate individual plants and a robot called Max dispenses just the right amount of water and nutrients to plants brought over based partly on what the cameras noticed.
“We get a really high resolution scan of all the plants,” says David Silver, the company’s director of robotics. “This lets us make sure they’re growing on track, predict how much we’re going to have at harvest and see if an intervention is needed.” Interventions can include water, nutrients, light, temperature and humidity — all part of a closed loop thanks to IronOx growing strictly indoors.
IronOx says the result of all this is “renewable food”: Not only do crops deliver consistent quality and yield but residual irrigation water is reused as are any unconsumed nutrients in it. More importantly the company claims that just the right amount of fertilizer is applied in the first place, tightly controlling a farm input that is a major source of methane, perhaps the most potent greenhouse gas. “Fertilizer requires a lot of energy to produce and emits a lot of greenhouse gasses,” says SIlver. “The total greenhouse gas emissions of world agriculture is comparable to world transportation. If we want to reduce greenhouse gasses, we have to look at the agriculture sector.”
Numerous IronOx growing centers would result in much shorter transportation distances to market as well as tighter coupling to regional demand to reduce crop waste. The vision isn’t hyperlocal in the current farm-to-table fashion, but regional, rather than moving produce via long distance rail, truck or air freight.
Robots are nothing without smarts
I was initially intrigued by IronOx’s use of electrified robots, but by the end of my visit I was more impressed by their use of smart cameras and sensors to allow those robots to grow food better than humans can. Legions of human farmers will scoff and take umbrage at this, but IronOx says its AI is programmed with knowledge of the best human farming techniques. “That’s how we train the system, with knowledge experts,” says Silver, “you decouple action from mobility” by having robots move plants. This is done rather than having knowledgeable farmers transit vast fields using human eyes that, while uniquely savvy, are given to a lack of precision and repeatability that robotic hands and eyes don’t.
Where do the farmhands go?
Human staff still harvest and pack IronOx produce, though I imagine that might also be automated at some point. This brings up the perennial question of whether every farm worker that robotics might displace can just move up the value chain to a more sophisticated job overseeing robots, a premise robotics companies always trot out but I find a bit hard to swallow. The workers who get displaced may not be the ones who benefit from new jobs that automation creates: “Workers who can complement the new automation, and perform tasks beyond the abilities of machines, often enjoy rising compensation,” according to Professor Harry Holzer of Georgetown University. “However, workers performing similar tasks, for whom the machines can substitute, are left worse off.”
This is not a challenge unique to IronOx, but each robotic facility I visit reminds me that we need a productive exit for the workers who will be substituted. That said, technological efficiency on farms is not news, already resulting in the most dramatic reduction of an employment sector in US history.
This isn’t a demonstration
IronOx intends to actually be in the agriculture business rather than proving its tech and then licensing or white-labeling it. Its leafy greens, herbs and some berries can be found in many stores in Northern California, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. I sampled a basket of IronOx strawberries that are headed to market soon and they reminded me of childhood — as only a great berry can do. So far, the company’s largest growing facility is in Texas though the Silicon Valley location I visited will soon be significantly enlarged.
I find it important that the IronOx vision of farming echoes what I hear from the plant-based meat sector: Regional growing, lower cost inputs and renewable energy to power production will be key to delivering ultimate victory over conventional meat. IronOx isn’t in the alt-meat business, but its techniques could be used to give plant-based proteins a tailwind.