Insurance and Climate Change column

How Monsanto’s Climate Unit Is Changing Risk Profile of Farmers

By | August 25, 2016

It caught my eye when Monsanto Co. subsidiary Climate Corp. announced last week it was creating the “Industry’s First In-Field Sensor Network” and “the first Centralized Platform” digital agricultural technology development.

The company said that its new sensor network will create a digital ag ecosystem to support agronomic decisions farmers make each season to protect and increase yield.

What may have been most intriguing about the announcement was its use of the term “precision agriculture,” and that Climate Corp. is trying to help farmers though better climate forecasting.

The terms “precision” and “climate,” as most climate modelers have told me, are far from going hand-in-hand – though that hasn’t stopped some scientists from trying.

As we change the risk profiling decision making for growers, I think that's going to be of interest to insurance organizations.

I decided to reach out to a Climate Corp. expert to learn more about this technology, these terms and how climate change may play into all of this.

The following is a question and answer session with Sam Eathington, Climate Corp.’s chief scientist, who leads the company’s R&D efforts in data science, measurements and field research. He talks about the program and the risk and insurance implications. It’s been edited for brevity.

Insurance Journal: Can you talk about precision agriculture?

Sam Eathington
Sam Eathington

Eathington: …[W]hen we think precision agriculture, we think about the equipment and ability to execute and capture information. If you want this planter to plant at this certain density, then you want that equipment to be able to do that. How you execute that equipment process is around precision agriculture.

The digital agriculture piece is you’re bringing all that data and knowledge together and you’re building the algorithms that say, ‘This is why you should plant the field this way. This is the plant density you should be using, or the specific hybrid you should put in that field to really optimize your productivity.’

Ultimately what we think is the sustainability which will help with the climate change challenge that we’re all facing. Those two worlds come together.

On the precision piece, there’s been a lot of work there. A lot of companies working on equipment, a lot of big manufacturers have systems. You can control your sprayers. You can control your planters. You can measure what’s being applied, what’s being planted, all sorts of things about how the machine is operating.

By connecting the cab, which is what we’ve done, we’ve made that easy to bring that in too to the grower’s account. The digital piece, where we’re really focused, we’re not really an equipment focused company.

We’re not really about building the sprayers or the planters or that piece, we’re about the digital piece, the data and the data science of how do you bring all that data together, analyze it, interpret it, and give a grower either a recommendation or advice on prescription depending where you’re at in the different product scope.

Ultimately, the big thing about this whole space, precision ag and digital ag, it’s all about taking this farm‑level data and really helping agriculture be more productive, and ultimately helping with some of the challenges we face with climate change and sustainability.

IJ: I’ve spoken to some climate scientists. One of the big things is uncertainty. Will we have more tornadoes this season? Will we have more drought, that sort of thing? How does what you are doing fit in with climate change?

Eathington: There’s a couple ways probably I would try to hit that. The first, in the Climate Corporation, we do an awful lot on weather analysis and weather modeling.

We want to give growers the best possible information about what’s happened in their field, and also try to give them knowledge about what is going to happen in their field. Of course, the going forward part is a lot harder at times.

That helps the grower make decisions about maybe what the crop is going to yield so therefore how should I manage it as far as the fertility. Or maybe what’s going to happen with the development of a disease, so ‘How should I think about managing that disease?’

Weather plays a key part of that. The bigger macro climate change plays even a key part of that, overall what the temperature that’s going on really impacts how disease, insects, and weeds develop, how they move around, how they really start to change their footprint.

In agriculture we’re faced with all those trying to manage our ability to have a sustainable food production. If we get a shift in temperature, now all of a sudden an insect can move a little further north and start to damage a crop. Then farmers in the ag industry have to figure out how to manage that and deal with it.

What I will say is the beauty of agriculture is every year you get to put a new crop in the field. Since we do have most of our crops that we care about here for food production, annual crop, we can continue to adjust those crops, right?

If they need a different disease profile, or different insect profile, or if we need to manage them differently, how we plant them or fertilize them. We’re trying to manage climate. You get to make that decision every year and you get to change that field. You do have a little bit of an ability to refresh what’s out there in the field that helps mitigate some of the climate change.

The best practices we’re putting in place, how farmers have shifted to doing a lot more conservation tillage really helps mitigate some of those risks. How we’re doing a lot more research on how do you manage water use in a field and really try to optimize it.

What we’re doing on the fertility side, how do you really optimize how much nitrogen you actually put on that crop, and when you put it on, what type you put on, almost feeding that crop exactly what it needs. These are all starting to have impact.

They’re going to have big impact in the future and how the greenhouse gas emissions are on agriculture, which ultimately helps with the climate change challenge.

IJ: Do you think that farmers need to be paying attention to climate change?

Eathington: Oh, yeah. You talk to a lot of them, they see. If you go talk to farmers who have been out there 30, 40 years, they can tell you how things are different. I grew up on a farm. The one that always sticks out to me – it’s a combination of many things, but climate shift is one of them – is corn.

We used to talk about corn. You wanted it to be knee‑high by the fourth of July. That was the saying when I was a kid. Today, that crop is pollinating. It’s already into producing an ear of corn almost by the fourth of July. The crop is far more advanced than it used to be.

Part of that is how we farm, the system we use, and our ability to plant earlier, then genetics. Also part of it is we’ve seen a little shift in the growing season. You can get into the field a little earlier than you used to. Part of that to me is some of the climate change we’re experiencing.

IJ: What do you think insurance professionals would be interested in knowing about all of this?

Eathington: As we continue to develop our climate platform and bring together this data, this digital ag space, and help growers optimize our decisions, we believe that it’s going to start changing the risk profile that’s out there for agriculture.

That lends itself to opportunities to think differently about our insurance programs or how farmers ought to be looking at specific fields, which could obviously be of interest to your readers at the end of the day.

As more and more data and digital ag and knowledge on the farm, we’re able to really leverage that to help make these decisions. One of the things we did there last week when we announced the sensor network in our platform is, we talked about how both of those are being designed to be opened for other partners to come in.

Somebody may create a really unique novel sensor or have an interest in all this data in a different way. They’ll now have potentially the ability to plug into the platform and leverage that, or use that, or test that sensor, provide that data, whatever it may be.

I think those two things are really going to help open up this space. As we ultimately start to change the risk profiling decision making for growers, I think that’s going to be of interest to the insurance organization.

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