Software Is Eating the World—And Will Help to Feed It

John O’Farrell

The Challenge of Sustainable Development

I just came back from a short stay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Like its fellow BRICs China and India, Brazil has experienced a massive economic boom over the past decade.  While the boom has lifted tens of millions of people out of economic misery (40 million have entered the middle class in Brazil alone), the increasing challenge for the world is to sustain such growth without intolerable pressure on the earth’s increasingly scarce resources. While I was in Rio, the city hosted over a hundred heads of state for “Rio+20”, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. While the conference has passed, the immense challenge of sustainable global development remains—and sustainable agriculture is a particularly critical imperative.  As the UN’s Rio+20 website puts it:

…Right now, our soils, freshwateroceans, forests and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded. Climate change is putting even more pressure on the resources we depend on, increasing risks associated with disasters such as droughts and floods.  Many rural women and men can no longer make ends meet on their land, forcing them to migrate to cities in search of opportunities.”

The Green Revolution – Part I

Forty years ago, the world was faced with the similarly daunting challenge of feeding the exploding populations of India, China and other developing nations.  A 1968 bestseller predicted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980” and “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs.”  In fact, technology saved the day, in the form of extraordinary, new high-yield grains and seeds, powerful new fertilizers and modern agricultural management techniques.  Far from succumbing to famine, India and its peers became first self-sufficient and then net exporters of food, as a technology-powered “Green Revolution” enabled a massive increase in agricultural productivity.

The Revolution’s Serious Costs

Although the Green Revolution was a tremendous success, it was not without serious costs that are being felt with ever-increasing intensity today.  One of these costs is the excessive and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers around the world, with severe consequences for arability and for air and groundwater.  (For example, nitrogen causes algae blooms that deprive water of oxygen and kill marine life.)  China provides a case study: While farm yields in China have increased 40 percent since 1980, chemical fertilizer use has increased by 225 percent.  Chinese farmers now use over three times as much nitrogen fertilizer per hectare as U.S. farmers, but produce 30 percent lower yields.  Regulatory restrictions are proliferating worldwide.

Meanwhile, the challenge of feeding the world is back on the front burner.  The same UN report says:

A profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish today’s 925 million hungry and the additional 2 billion people expected by 2050.

The Green Revolution – Part II

The key to meeting this challenge will be to achieve further dramatic increases in crop yields, but in a sustainable way.  American farmers are leading the way, in a new technology-powered Green Revolution, investing in ultra-modern tractors equipped with smart devices that automatically control seed and fertilizer dispersal.  According to a recent fascinating Wall Street Journal article, “These modern tractor cabs have come to resemble airplane cockpits more than the seats of old-fashioned tractors.  Farmers can plant or fertilize a whole field without touching the steering wheels, and yield data from sensors in combines—the vehicles that harvest crops—help refine the plans for the next season’s planting.”

Introducing Solum

Solum, Andreessen Horowitz’s latest investment, is poised to play a fundamental part in this exciting shift to data-driven precision agriculture.  Founded by three brilliant young men with PhDs in Applied Physics from Stanford and ties to the American Midwest, Solum has invented a radically more accurate technology for testing farm soil, enabling farmers to measure actual nutrient content and apply fertilizer on a targeted and highly granular basis.  Solum’s platform enables farmers to correlate nutrient measurements and fertilizer application to actual yields, in a constantly improving feedback loop.  Over time, the result for farmers should be a “virtuous circle” of increasing crop yields driven by ever-smarter and environmentally sustainable use of fertilizer, water and other precious resources.  In essence, Solum’s technology will provide the data to drive farmers’ new intelligent machines, and the software to manage their application on a large scale.

While the potential societal and environmental benefits are enormous, a powerful profit motive will also drive global adoption of precision agriculture technologies such as Solum’s.  According to an expert in the WSJ article, “Improving how the seeds are planted and the soil fertilized can increase corn yields by several tens of bushels per acre.  At current prices of near $6 a bushel, every 10-bushel-per-acre increase in the yield on a farm of 2,000 acres would translate to $120,000 in additional revenue.”  The potential is truly global.  In its quest for more sustainable agriculture, China’s Ministry of Agriculture plans to test fully 60% of its arable soil over the next five years.  Brazil, which is rapidly becoming the world’s breadbasket, is investing heavily in advanced agricultural technologies and increasingly determined to make its remarkable advances sustainable.

“Software Eats Dirt”

In his 2011 Op Ed piece “How Software is Eating the World”, my partner Marc Andreessen vividly described a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies, often based in Silicon Valley, are transforming almost every sector of the global economy.  As economic sectors go, agriculture is enormous—in fact, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world, providing livelihoods for 40 percent of the global population.  In our internal discussions, our affectionate codename for Solum was “Software Eats Dirt”.  We believe this is a company with the potential to revolutionize agricultural production literally from the soil up. I’m excited to be joining Solum’s board and we’re honored to support such an ambitious and important mission.

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