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Agriculture of the future: the technologies of light

The scientific use of light is one of the most promising avenues for the agriculture of the future. Increasingly precise numerical data on sunshine allow a finely tuned management of all vegetation parameters. The exploitation of wavelengths offers innovative crop protection solutions. And agrovoltaics allows the development of new business models, which find value in both sun and shade.

February 2018
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lire en français
Executive Summary

Let’s start at the beginning, with the synthesis of organic matter, on which agriculture is directly reliant, and which is mainly based on photosynthesis. Plants synthesize organic matter by using light energy, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen.

In other words, the generation of organic matter uses a source of energy that is free (solar energy), but has great influence as a production factor.

Put simply, light is a key determinant of agricultural productivity.

This premise may sound a little obvious, but have we explored all the possibilities it opens? Some original innovations suggest that the methodical exploitation of light is one of the most promising avenues for the agriculture of the future.

Digitizing light: solar data

In agriculture, there are two sides to sunshine. On the positive side, it contributes to the growth of plants by allowing photosynthesis and by providing them with a healthy environment, comparable to the rather dry biotopes from which a good part of the plants grown in Europe and in North America originate.

On the negative side, excessive sunshine exposes plants to thermal and water stress that impairs their growth, can endanger their survival, and increases water consumption.

This is clearly demonstrated by the traditional image of the farmer in summer, caught between the fear of drought and the threat of storms. Progress in irrigation, crop protection, the development of more resistant varieties of plants, and mechanization, which can accelerate certain sequences, have certainly mitigated this sensitivity to climate, but they have not eliminated it altogether. And farmers know this better than anyone, as they face fears about the effects of climate change (historic drought in California, more frequent and longer heat waves in Europe, unusual rainfall).

There is also another image: that of the farmer as a savvy calculator looking to increase margins at all costs. They are a horticulturist, seeking for example to optimize the watering of plants in a greenhouse, support their growth, consume less water, or increase the number of crop cycles over a given period and therefore the productivity per square foot.

Risk management on the one hand, optimization of production factors on the other: in both cases, increasingly accurate and reliable data is always welcome. This is the challenge of connected agriculture as it is being developed today.

It is based on two pillars: intelligent monitoring of agricultural areas with the capture of data in situ (via connected boxes like Peek), and access to high-quality statistical series.

Monitoring is developing very quickly and competition is raging between multiple solutions, mostly offering a package of data capture + consulting; specialized firms have a vested interest in quickly growing their user base, because its size will determine the quality of analyses and benchmarks, and therefore of advice they provide. This “consulting” segment of the value chain is the most profitable, and being a direct factor of productivity, it is the one that will be decisive when it comes to acquiring or retaining customers. This strategy is also consistent with that of large industrial agricultural firms (seed, chemicals), which show a marked tendency to colonize the value chain of agricultural production. They have long been paying for the insurance they provide to farmers, with products offering a guarantee against hazards. Today, they are increasingly choosing the niche of expertise and decision support. One event among many others: the buyout of Monsanto by Bayer, in 2015, caused a great stir, and the ongoing consolidation movement within the “Big Six” has been emphasized. However, few commentators have noted one of the major, albeit discreet, issues of this acquisition: the young company Climate Corp, owned by Monsanto, specializes in the collection and analysis of this data in the United States.

Connected agriculture is a reality and sunshine is one of the main parameters measured, if only because it is a good predictor of hydrometry.

The monitoring and consultancy packages offered by specialized operators who guard their databases jealously are countered by platforms providing statistical series (from satellite data and weather stations) or updated services, either via free access, in a shared manner, or via freemium models. Agribusiness is a major user of this type of data, mainly to optimize water distribution. Consulting engineers are also big users of these new services, and certain applications such as WIUZ have been designed for them. The issue is not limited to precisely managing the scarcity of resources or managing consumption, but can also provide evidence (e.g. to an insurance company) that the lack of sunshine has adversely affected exploitation. In this case, the added value lies precisely in data visibility. This is what is offered by the Soda (Solar Radiation Data) service, associated with an open publication project for statistical series of sunshine data at high resolution (of the order of ten km).

Connected agriculture is a reality and sunshine is one of the main parameters measured, if only because it is a good predictor of hydrometry. One of the challenges of ongoing developments is the direction that this digital revolution will take, between asymmetric “data versus consultancy” flows that will put farmers in a position of dependency; and more open platforms, built either by public authorities or cooperatively, by giving access to the data. In the United States, the first option is one step ahead. In Europe and the rest of the world, the outcome is still uncertain.

Concentrating light: a UV vaccine

“The best disinfectant is the sun,” gardeners say. But the sun is not always shining: fungi and molds are well-known enemies of farmers, who fight them with crop protection products called fungicides.

These have costs, both for health (of farmers, residents and consumers) and for the environment. However, so far, there are very few alternatives. The intensive farming that developed in the 20th century has rather aggravated the problem: as soon as a pathogen becomes established, it finds favorable conditions, because the culture it targets is very concentrated.

From this idea that light could, under certain conditions, have a phytosanitary effect, came a groundbreaking innovation: vaccinating plants with UV. This is the challenge taken on by one startup, UV Boosting. In an interview with Paris Innovation Review, UV Boosting’s founder Yves Matton explained his method: “The principle is simple: we rely on a natural phenomenon, the plant’s defense mechanism, and use UV to activate this phenomenon. UV is a good way to apply stress, low enough not to have a negative effect, but strong enough to be perceived by the plant and trigger a response. This method can be compared to vaccination. It is a stimulation of the plant’s natural defenses, which will allow it  to be more resistant to a pathogen.”

The application of UV does not replace fungicides, but it does allow the doses to be reduced significantly.

Theoretically, all plants and all pathogens are concerned, but UV Boosting focuses on fungi, which do major damage to various types of crops, especially grapes. The application of UV does not replace fungicides, but it does allow the doses to be reduced significantly, and it has preventive effects. Plants treated with UV are in active standby mode; they are less sensitive to attacks. UV is applied using projectors mounted on tractors. The challenge is to ensure that producers obtain similar yields, while guaranteeing better quality thanks to the reduced use of phytosanitary products. A representative pilot campaign is expected to be finalized by the end of 2018.

The use of ultraviolet light for phytosanitary purposes opens onto a new field which is little explored in the academic world and almost virgin in the world of agricultural applications: playing on wavelengths to activate certain organic functions. A potential area of interest would be crops grown in the dark (chicories, button mushrooms), in full renewal and with growth conditions that would offer an ideal playground for dosing the wavelengths.

Valuing and dosing light: agrivoltaics

Agricultural lands are also spaces available for other uses of light, including energy. In fact, the term “solar farm” is very appropriate. Even if farmers find it more profitable today to rent their land to PV operators than to cultivate it, this does not mean that there needs to be competition between the hectares used for solar energy and those used for agricultural purposes.

Large solar panels are perfectly compatible with keeping animals (sheep, hens, bees, etc.) and market gardening. Solar panels also protect animals from the weather, providing shelter from rain, wind... and the sun. Some plants, for example lettuce, grow very well under panels.

This “Solar Sharing” approach is currently being deployed on Japan’s Ukujima Island. The leasing of the land for this photovoltaic usage allows land value to be doubled and provides farmers with extra income.

There is a tendency to forget that multi-level crop growth, which combines different levels of production (wheat or fodder fields + apples, vines + apricots), was still the norm in European countries less than a century ago. Mechanization put an end to this: it’s not easy to get a tractor around a field or a vineyard dotted with fruit trees.

The latest generations of PV shades (i.e. the structures that support solar panels) are used to revive this ancient, 3D use of agricultural land, in the 21st century context. The Sun’Agri program, which will soon be ten years old, gives a good idea of ​​the potential of these new models, which, as we shall see, offer many possibilities.

Imagine shades over 14 feet high, so that tractors can pass underneath them. Imagine mobile shades that can be raised or lowered depending on different parameters: to produce more or less electricity, but also and especially... more or less shade.

Here, we find the idea of ​​a negative value of light, i.e. a positive value of shade, that can be integrated into a business model. This value is measured mainly in water saved: approximately 30% in summer according to tests carried out in the south of France, a region under great water and heat stress, which, like the whole Mediterranean rim, will be particularly exposed to the effects of climate change. Avoiding stress on plants may, during the scorching summers expected in the short term, be one way to ensure their survival.

A negative value of light, i.e. a positive value of shade, can be integrated into a business model.

It is not only a question of withstanding the most harmful effects of global warming, but also of optimistically entering into a digital culture of precise management of plant growth parameters, by varying the speed of ripening (in order to adapt to demand), by spreading production (better management of labor and machinery) and by optimizing quality (upgrading). Is this a utopian program? Is it too good to be true? The first test results are impressive, and the partners of Sun’R , the company at the heart of the Sun’Agri program, include leading research institutions such as the CEA, INRA, IRSTEA, French regions, and also an industrial partner specializing in the digital optimization of solar panels, Optimum Tracker. Investments and technological developments for the energy market benefit other sectors. The tests are conclusive: the first demonstrators will be installed this year.

This brief panorama combines barely emerging technologies with others that have already won the heart of the production system. They share a common focus on issues such as climate and the environment, which are becoming central today, and where agriculture is at the forefront. They open the way for progress in farm management, productivity gains and opportunities to improve quality. They encourage optimism: these are not fallback solutions, but ambitious innovations that aim, each in their own way, to change the world. The one we have beneath our feet.