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Agricultural innovation series, part 3: Opportunities for the future

As we advance into the future, so do the opportunities to enhance ag-food production and improve our environmental footprint.

Whitney Haigwood

January 17, 2024

7 Min Read
People sitting on stage, with man at podium participating in a panel discussion at a conference.
During the Agri-Food Innovation Summit, panelists (left to right) Marty Matlock, Brandon McFadden, Walter Burgess, and Sylvia Wulf shared their visions for the next generation of ag innovation.Whitney Haigwood

Part 3 of a series about the challenges and potential solutions to bringing cutting-edge technology to the agriculture market. This series is based on panel discussions from the first ever Agri-Food Innovation Summit recently hosted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.  

Think back 25 to 30 years ago to when the first yield monitors, GPS receivers, and autosteer capabilities emerged on the agricultural market. Today, those features are commonplace with vast improvements since they were first commercialized.  

Precision farming continues to grow exponentially. Now things like sensors, automation, and drones are taking the stage. Furthermore, biotechnology breakthroughs and gene editing are helping boost productivity, reduce pest and disease pressure, and fight yield-robbing weeds. 

As we advance into the future, so do the opportunities to enhance production. This is essential not only to improve our environmental footprint, but to also source the increasing global demand for food, fuel, and fiber.  

Possibilities abound, and participants at the Agri-Food Innovation Summit shared their visions and forecasts for the next generation of ag innovation. 

Big data and artificial intelligence 

When it comes to ag technology, Marty Matlock, professor of bio-ag engineering at the University of Arkansas, sees an even bigger role for automation, robotics, sensors, controls, and big data in the future. 

Related:Agricultural innovation series, part 1: Collaboration begets commercialization

“Right now, we are collecting more data than we have ever collected. Terabytes per second – what do we do with it? It is good for retrospective analysis in looking at what happened. It is not so good for prospective analysis,” Matlock said. 

“The problem with prospective decision making is it needs to happen in real-time on the tractor, at the breakfast table of the farm, or in the C-suite of the corporate office. It can’t take six months to figure out what to do next,” he continued. 

This calls for integrated ag technology and connectivity that directly links a farmer’s decisions to the analytics. It also augments the development of artificial technology. 

Brandon McFadden, Tyson Endowed Chair in food policy economics at the University of Arkansas said, “If I think about the wildest thing that might happen to make a hug impact, it would be AGI – artificial general intelligence. 

“We already have more data than we can handle. Imagine artificial intelligence making on-farm decisions, that can use data from every piece of precision on the farm going back as far as possible, integrating weather reports, farmer’s almanacs, markets, everything. It is exciting. Understanding that technology is also a bit scary, but it is being worked on quite a bit,” McFadden added. 

Related:Agricultural innovation series, part 2: Creating access to capital

Lasers and photonics 

For Walter Burgess, the future of ag technology lies in photonics. Burgess is the co-CEO of Power Technology, Inc., an Arkansas based company specializing in laser technology. He described photonics as the marriage of light and electrons – harnessing light to make it productive. Beyond lasers this includes LEDs, fiberoptics, and cameras. 

Burgess believes technology of this nature has the potential to increase localized food production. He said, “Specifically, I think we are going to see more food grown inside of a container or inside of a repurposed building. Whether that is vertically or horizontally grown, it will require artificial sunlight. 

“That artificial sunlight is either going to be piped in from outside with fiberoptics or mirrors, or it is going to be generated by LEDs, lasers or some other source of light.” 

Burgess also foresees opportunities for photonics to reduce hazardous chemicals in the growth process. 

“Companies like Carbon Robotics and John Deere are working on using lasers as an alternative to herbicides,” Burgess reported, “With artificial intelligence they can identify what is a weed, what is a crop, and they can eliminate that weed using high powered lasers. 

Related:What will it take to feed the world by 2050?

“I think there is a lot of technology in the photonic realm that is going to influence the world of agriculture in the future,” Burgess predicted. 

Biotechnology and food security

Sylvia Wulf, CEO of Aquabounty Technologies, shared her vision of biotechnology playing a significant role in agri-food innovation. 

“When we talk about the growing population, biotechnology will be one of the most critical tools in solving productivity,” she said. “Food security is national security, and we need that kind of innovation to continue to be productive.” 

Wulf discussed the genetically engineered salmon produced by her company along with research and development happening in the biotechnology space. 

“Think about what is happening with the climate. We are changing zones, and we are seeing different pests,” Wulf said. “I have colleagues in the bio section who are working on biopesticides and bioherbicides. I serve on a board looking at genetic engineering and gene editing to solve crop disease. Using biological approaches to solve some of these problems is really going to be part of the future.” 

Mickey LaTour, dean of the college of agriculture at Arkansas State University, pointed toward specific opportunities to solve big problems in Arkansas. 

“When I think about Arkansas, agriculture is our number one industry. At the same time, we are ranked number one in food insecurity, so there is tremendous opportunity for us to change that,” LaTour said. 

He shared about a collaborative project completed by Arkansas State University in partnership with Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry. Locally sourced venison is processed into snack sticks at the newly renovated A-State meat laboratory. From there, the protein snacks are distributed to schools across the state, going home in backpacks of children who face food insecurity. 

LaTour said it takes projects like this to move the needle, noting the potential opportunities for meat alternatives in the future. 

“I think today we are starting to see the pressure point of the marketplace when you look at the cost of meat protein relative to overall purchasing power. You see some of the largest corporations out there spending a significant amount of money trying to create plant-based protein alternatives.  

“I see that continuing to grow and it will create opportunities. People are going to be looking for alternatives, not just because a person wants to be vegetarian, but because of the marketplace right now,” LaTour said. 

Incentivized collaborations 

Opportunities for the next generation of ag innovation will likewise present opportunities for public-private collaboration.  

Jean-Francois Meullenet, director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station at the Division of Agriculture emphasized, “Interactions with the private sector are key. We need to value industry cooperation as much as we value federal grants. 

“As institutions, we also need to incentivize collaborations and work with private industry to partner with us. My personal opinion is, bringing a dollar to our research is bringing a dollar to our research. It is as valuable from the federal to the private industry,” Meullenet said. 

Additionally, this forward-thinking perspective requires a potential shift in mindset and policy. From LaTour’s vantage point, potential lies in rethinking research sabbaticals for university faculty and coupling those efforts with venture capitalists in the future.  

“When you look at the level of challenges we face, we are going to need the brightest minds and expertise to figure out solutions. So, how do you buy out their time for a year or two?” LaTour asked. 

“I think a researcher knowing they have that opportunity for a pause in their appointment, where they could be gone for a year to five years and their salary is covered and they could come back – I think they would be willing to try it and it could really take off,” LaTour added. 

University research will no doubt play a role in agrifood innovation of the future. From Meullenet’s perspective, that vision requires intensification of current efforts. 

“For most academics, the patent is the most important part, but that does nothing for commercialization. So, how do we change that equation? I envision a greater integration of collaborative efforts across the state, taking the unique opportunity to partner with institutions to develop the right ecosystem here in Arkansas,” Meullenet said. 

If you are interested in exploring more about public and private sector collaboration, look back at previous parts of this series on making research a reality and creating access to capital. You can also reach out to Trey Malone, assistant professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the University of Arkansas, by email at [email protected].

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