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St. Louis could be the global leader in solving agriculture’s climate challenges

A tractor sits in a field on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023, off Highway 67 in Illinois.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
A tractor sits in a field last month off Highway 67 in southern Illinois.

Climate change has industries across the board seeking ways to cut the overall emissions that they produce, inducing food production, which accounts for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The global agricultural sector has added challenges of adapting to new climate conditions, needing to produce more food, while also reducing emissions at the same time.

St. Louis has an opportunity to lead the world in responding to these multi-layered challenges given the region’s established expertise in plant sciences and agriculture and growing geospatial presence.

“This is a combination that doesn’t happen anywhere (else) in the world,” said Pablo Sobron, founder of Impossible Sensing, a St. Louis startup that takes sensor technology developed from space exploration and applies it to climate related challenges on Earth.

It’s one of the core reasons why the agtech part of Sobron’s company will be based at the 39 North AgTech Innovation District, he explained.

“We couldn’t be oblivious,” Sobron said. “St. Louis is really at the epicenter of solving problems in both domains, in space and geointelligence and agriculture.”

Other locals point out the federal government’s commitment to the region in the form of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s new $1.7 billion western headquarters set to open in 2025.

“The federal government does not make such big commitments often. It’s not just a building, but thousands of employees,” said Vasit Sagan, deputy director of the Taylor Geospatial Institute in St. Louis. “Then think about billions of dollars of federal cash flow to St. Louis for decades to come to maintain that facility.”

But how exactly does this all relate to agriculture?

“Agriculture is a business that takes place in space and time,” said Elliott Kellner, director of commercial innovation at the Danforth Plant Science Center. “We are planting crops and raising animals across the landscape. It’s not the same in every spot.”

‘A wild west boom’

The growth and intersection of these two sectors locally is no surprise, he said, adding the two have been related for decades. But considerable advances in hardware and software in recent years have created the conditions for “a wild west boom,” Kellner added.

Satellites and drones can capture much higher resolution images of the landscape and there’s now enough computational power in the form of artificial intelligence and machine learning to draw insight from reams of images relatively quickly.

“It’s one thing to have a very fancy picture and to say, ‘Look at this farm field, isn’t that great,’” Kellner said. “But you have to be able to interrogate that image in a way that can help a producer better understand the physical nuances of their operation.”

And this has been a bit of a bottleneck in the past, Sobron said. Farmers have had access to satellite imagery of their operations, for example, but not necessarily on a consistent basis to generate enough data to make targeted decisions on their farms, he added.

“We’re trying to finally unlock precision agriculture,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it for decades and it’s been sold as the future of ag, robots and stuff, but it’s not happening.”

To get there, Sobron argues food producers need to know what’s happening around individual plants—the nutrient level, soil health, water conditions and other factors. That kind of knowledge comes from a combination of data from sensors on satellites, aircraft and directly on the ground, he said.

“If you combine all of these three layers then you get the complete picture spatially and scientifically of what’s happening,” Sobron said.

And this can help farmers better manage their operations, Sagan said.

“We can predict yields months ahead and then provide an outlook of terminal yield,” he said. “Or even what's happening in the field so farmers can take measures to prevent yield loss.”

Researchers can also use this specific information on ground conditions and plant performance to test many crops and see which performs better in specific climate conditions, Sagan said.

“We can scale those models globally to monitor crops doing better or not with satellite imagery,” he said. “We can identify better crops and also potential issues like crop disease or the impacts of water stress.”

It can also help reduce how climate intensive agriculture is by helping farmers reduce when and where they irrigate and apply fertilizer, Sagan added.

“One of the problems in agricultural production is we apply excess nitrogen fertilizers more than a crop can actually absorb,” he said. “It ends up in streams, waters, polluting soils and also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.”

This is one reason Sobron expects farmers will quickly adopt new sensing technology that his company and others will release in the next few years.

“Agriculture needs to stop being a carbon positive industry, meaning that it has to capture more carbon from the atmosphere than it is putting back,” he said. “And it can do it.”

It’s not just those in the St. Louis region working on these issues either. This year, NASA Acres, a consortium of nine research institutions and two private organizations focused on improving food systems, launched.

Many of the program’s researchers are focused on studying soil data and using geospatial data to communicate to farmers what is changing in their soil and output, said NASA Acres Program Coordinator Basia Skudrzyk.

“A lot of times farmers are wanting to know when they need to plant seeds,” she said. “And because the climate has changed so much, having that critical data will allow them to make better predictions so that their outputs are better later on in the year.”

Challenges remain

The insights this technology can provide aren’t quite ready for large scale commercial use quite yet, said Reda Amer, director of the geospatial collaborative at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“The challenge is in the processing and storage of this data and how we transfer this information to farmers,” he said.

That will likely take the form of an application that can run on a farmer’s smartphone or tablet, Amer explained.

“You don’t need to be a scientist or geospatial expert,” he said. “You’re not going to get involved in the data processing and analysis but you are a user of it.”

But this in and of itself generates questions about data privacy and the role farmers play in all of this, Skudrzyk said.

“We have earth observation data but they have the soil samples,” she said. “It’s a huge robust system to understand and the farmer being at the front of the line is trying to understand how they can protect themselves.”

Sagan agrees.

“Are my data, as a farmer, being used for things that I’m not aware of?” he said. “Someone’s collecting data from my field, is that being shared with farmers who are competing with me?”

More locally, Sobron wants to see more encouragement and investment from the region into companies focused on these issues and the opportunities afforded from things like T-REX, Cortex and the Danforth Plant Science Center.

“We need to give the young startup founders coming out of school a home where they can thrive in the same way that people thrive in Silicon Valley,” Sobron said. “WashU should be the Stanford of pumping out ag companies and it’s not. SLU same thing, UMSL too.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.