Rob Saik – How We Feed the Future: Technology for smarter agriculture

man with ipad in crop field

July 14, 2020

Rob Saik, CEO of AGvisorPRO, believes that the next thirty years could be the most important in the history of agriculture, and he claims that in order to support the global population in 2050, agriculture will have to become infinitely sustainable. Listen in as he explains his vision of farming technology and how innovation is the key to sustainable agriculture.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Rob Saik hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio.

Tom:                      Rob Saik is a professional agrologist and a certified agricultural consultant. He is CEO of AGvisorPRO, an agricultural connectivity platform, and CEO of Saik Management Group, which provides advisory services to farmers in the agricultural sector.

                               Rob is the author of two books, “The Agriculture Manifesto” and his latest, “Food 5.0: How We Feed the Future.” And Rob joins us from Olds, Alberta, north of Calgary.

                               Greetings, Rob.

Rob:                        Good to be on your show, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom:                      And Rob, so, as we all know — we’re here on the phone as proof of it — we’re in the midst of a pandemic at the moment, and its effects are rolling over (into) just about every aspect of life. But you argue that we may have lost historical perspective where outbreaks of infectious diseases are concerned. Can you elaborate on that?

Rob:                        Well, the opening line of my book, “Food 5.0,” is, “This morning, when you woke up, did you worry about a pandemic?” And that book was released in August of last year, so it’s highly prophetic. But when you put our world into context, Tom, and you just look back a hundred years, the Spanish flu took out over 50 million people off the planet Earth a hundred years ago.

                               Simultaneously, World War I had just ended, and somewhere north of 15 million people had lost their lives in the World War I. And also, at this time a hundred years ago, the Persian famine had taken out 2 million and climbing people, and this was just ahead of the Stalin-imposed famines in Ukraine that took out somewhere between 12 and 16 million people.

                               So, when you put what we’re dealing with today into context of where we were a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, even though we’re faced with a great deal of challenge today, we live in a much, much better place than we did even fifty or a hundred years ago. And I think that we should pause and reflect on how good we actually have it.

Tom:                      Okay. Let’s turn to farming. In your book, you proposed that the next thirty years could be the most important in the history of agriculture, which is quite a statement. Why do you believe this?

Rob:                        Well, I was born in 1960, and you know, we experienced, in my lifetime, a dramatic increase in the population of the planet, and we fed everybody. (The ideas of) people like Norman Borlaug and science and agriculture was adopted around the planet, and you know, we don’t have that much more land base in agriculture than we did twenty or thirty years ago, and yet, we’re feeding everybody.

                               But if you stare into the future, as the population grows from 7.6 to 9 or 9.5 billion on the planet by 2050, these are some of the facts: We have to grow 10,000 years worth of food in the next thirty years. We have to increase food production everywhere on the planet by 60–70%. That’s everywhere on the planet, and that puts extreme pressure on exporting nations like the United States and Canada and Australia and so on and so forth. And we have to do so in the face of a public that is extremely disconnected from agriculture, and a public that’s being fed misinformation on a daily basis, leading to panic, leading to policies by politicians that are stripping tools out of agriculture’s hands.

So, the reason that I am so concerned about the next thirty years — and the reason I believe it’s going to be so challenging — is because we’re not connected to agriculture as a society like we used to (be), and so, a lot of people are out advocating the stripping away of tools from agriculture. And if we did that, then I’m fearful for our ability to feed the planet.

On the other hand, with the glass half full, if we’re allowed to adopt the technologies that we’re seeing implemented all around us, then I’m quite optimistic that we can have a world of abundance to 2050 and beyond.

Tom:                      Okay. I want to get back to that disconnect that you mentioned between the public’s understanding of what goes into farming in just a few minutes. But you just made an eye-opening observation: that to support a population close to 10 billion by 2050, agriculture is going to have to become infinitely sustainable. What do you mean by that?

Rob:                        Well, in the book, I talk about, you know, food as a religion — and it has turned into a religion. Veganism, vegetarianism, whether it’s paleo or meat-atarians, or organic and non-GMO — and you can get into an argument with everybody about the truth, the light and the way. But if you put up your hands and say, “Can we all agree (that), so long as there are human beings on the planet, agriculture must be infinitely sustainable?” Well, that stops people from talking, and they start nodding their head, and then they agree.

                               Well, what would make agriculture infinitely sustainable? What are the factors? And then they really scratch their head, because they have to do something they haven’t done for quite a while: they have to think, and eventually, things like soil health come up, because the epidermis of the earth is soil that feeds us all.

                               Water. Yeah, water use efficiency is important. Eventually, (the) greenhouse gas balance comes out. So, being able to mitigate, remove, reduce greenhouse gasses from agriculture. And then they forget one, and the one they forget the most, it is the most important, and that’s farm viability. Because without viable farms, without farms that are making a profit, without farmers that are advancing themselves year after year business-wise, you have zero sustainability.

                               So, the first step in sustainability, infinite sustainability, is farm viability and then we look at soil, water and greenhouse gas balance.

Tom:                      History has shown us that these pandemics tend to come in waves of three, typically, with the second wave (being) the most serious (and) the third decreasingly so, as herd immunity finally begins to catch on. How do we feed a soaring world population with an unchecked virus on the loose?

Rob:                        Well, I think this is going to put tremendous pressure on our food — not necessarily food production, but food distribution channels. People react to seeing dairy farmers dump milk. Well, the reality is that there’s no food bank out there that can take a 6,000-gallon tanker full of raw milk; (a) it’s illegal, and (b) it’s unsafe. So we have to find a way to be able to manage, and we’ve done that. We’ve developed food supply systems that could take large amounts of agricultural produce, turning them into safe, abundant and inexpensive food for the populace.

So, I think one of the things that we’re really going to be challenged with as we consider what might happen with a second round of infection will be how we deal with the supply sector, the logistics, the processing sector. I think this will be a challenge for us. I think that it will open up opportunities for people to become more closely connected to agriculture; maybe people will plant gardens, maybe people will start to connect with local producers. I don’t believe that’s the answer to feeding New York City or Los Angeles, but at the same time, I do think that there’s an opportunity (with) COVID to have a greater conversation about the importance of agriculture and, perhaps, with a greater population, to connect (with it) more closely.

But I do scratch my head a little bit as to the challenge we’re going to face. If the second wave gets worse, how are we going to deal with, you know, meat packing plants and milk processing facilities, distribution and transportation, and grocery stores? All of those things are questions in my mind.

Tom:                      It’s a little bit difficult for us to wrap our minds around now, but eventually, COVID-19 will be in the rearview mirror. We all have faith in that, I think. So I’m wondering: What do you see out there? What do you foresee for agriculture in a post-COVID world?

Rob:                        Well, the first thing is that, you know, you alluded to it in your question, and that is that we anticipate there will be a cure for COVID. Now, that cure for COVID will likely come in the form of a vaccine. I don’t think anybody’s arguing that, that it’s likely to come in a vaccine. So, how will the vaccine have been built? How will it have been invented? Well, that vaccine will have been invented through genetic engineering. GMOs? Oh my God! We’re talking about genetic engineering, manipulation of genome — something that’s “not natural”. Well, if you realized that the likely cure for COVID will be a vaccine, then genetic engineering will be at the heart of that whole process. That genetic engineering science is exactly the same science being implemented in agriculture.

                               So, in a post-COVID world, I’m hoping that the population will begin to wake up and realize that the science involved in human genomics, in medicine, in vaccine invention, is the same science being employed by agriculture. And in the face of climate change, in the face of greater salinity, in the face of rapidly increased food production, in the face of trying to decrease the environmental footprint by farming to feed the planet, then genetic engineering is one of the technologies that we absolutely must embrace.

                               The other thing that I see is a way, a new way, for agriculture to communicate. And so, we’ve started a firm called AGvisorPRO, which is a platform, a connectivity platform. It can be downloaded in iOS and Android and desktop, and that platform, effectively, can put experts on the farm without having to be on the farm. So, we found a way to basically shrink time and space and provide seekers who need answers to questions (with) instantaneous connectivity to experts in the agricultural industry who can provide some solutions to their problems.

                               I think we’re going to see quite a few innovations — everything from increased sensor technology, call it the Internet of Things, on the farm, all the way through the connectivity devices that will be kind of a legacy through this COVID experience.

Tom:                      Would you agree that the farmer of the 21st century must be a scientist, must be a technologist, to compete and to stay in business? And I wonder if — you mentioned the disconnect between what the general public understands about farming today and what the reality of farming really is. Why should we be concerned about such a disconnect?

Rob:                        Well, we should be concerned about the disconnect because we live in a democracy, and theoretically, everybody has a vote. And if you put the issues of GMO, yes or no, to a vote of the public right now, the public, through ignorance, would vote “down with GMOs.” If you put pesticides, yes or no, to a vote, the public, through ignorance, would vote “down with pesticides.” Same thing with fertilizers. So, the danger is that, when you have a public that’s so disconnected from the realities of agriculture today, you have policies that are generated out of panic and ignorance rather than out of knowledge and wisdom and an understanding of science.

                               Today’s farms — I just completed a yearlong stint as CEO with DOT autonomous robotic company. So, DOT Technology Corporation, out of Regina, Saskatchewan, is a 100% autonomous robotic platform to broad-acre agriculture. It’s utilizing all of this technology that you would find in a Tesla car. We’re using radar, LiDar, we’re using motion sensors, we’re using massive computing power to basically run machines across land without any operator, 100% guided by GIS or satellite guidance, doing things such as variable rate application of fertilizer as they move across the field 100% autonomously.

                               I mean, when you think about that, you think that that’s sci-fi world; it’s not. You can go online right now and see all sorts of developments with robotic technology. That will be another outcome of COVID, is where we can utilize robots to reduce human interaction regarding repetitive work. Robots are very well-suited for dull, dangerous and dirty work. A lot of agriculture (is) dull, dangerous and dirty work, so we’re going to see that rise.

                               And so, when you think about genetic engineering and you think about internet sensor technology, massive computing power, data systems, robotics, satellite integration — most people that are in the city think of farmers as bib overall-wearing, straw hat-wearing, you know, little red barns and round-fendered pickup trucks. Well, those two images don’t match. There’s a disconnect there between what’s going on in the farm today and what people have in their head as their great-grandfather’s or grandfather’s farm. It is not the same thing. That’s, like, History channel-made.

Tom:                      That’s a lot to wrap one’s head around, and it’s fascinating. And I just wonder: What are the cultural implications of that sort of technology, and especially the autonomous aspect of it? How does that change a farmer’s life in terms of what it frees them up to do?

Rob:                        Well, we have a problem in agriculture — and your listeners are, probably, if they’re from the rural landscape, they would understand this; city listeners won’t understand this — but we have an acute labor shortage in agriculture today. It’s estimated that, in the next few years, in Canada, we’ll have 125,000 job vacancies at the farm level that simply can’t be filled. And the problem is finding qualified operators. Every piece of equipment today on the farm is north of $500,000, and many of them are over $1 million. And so, you have to have trained operators.

                               And because farmers live in remote areas, there are a number of sociological things going on. Number one is (that) the average age of farmers is like 60 years old. Sooner or later, Mother Nature takes care of things, and these people have to sell their farming operations to attrition, so whosever is left is getting bigger. So farms, because of economy scale, will continue to get larger. That’s a fact. The equipment costs go up. That’s a fact.

                               Trying to get young people attracted back into agriculture, back onto the farm — the thought of spending sixteen hours a day in a glass cage in a self-guided tractor is cool for the first couple of days, but after about three weeks of that, you’re going insane. So, why can’t we utilize robots and sophisticated sensory technology to allow us to scale our knowledge and wisdom? Why can’t we use aerial imagery or satellite imagery to do field scouting for us? Do we have to really be walking corn and soybean fields, every acre, to find out what’s going on? Or a company like IntelinAir, for example, is doing a wonderful job of using algorithms and analytics to provide alerts to farmers about what’s going on in fields in Illinois right now.

So, this is — this is where we’re headed, and it creates tremendous opportunity for young people to enter agriculture as systems integrators. We need these various systems integrated together so that we can take advantage of the technology and move farmers forward. But, again, everything that I’m talking about is quite a disconnect from what the average person thinks is actually going on in today’s agriculture

Tom:                      We’ve touched on convergence throughout this conversation, and the one that really captures my attention is biodigital technology. How does this example of convergence become an important tool in farming?

Rob:                        Well, as I wrote the book “Food 5.0,” I said (that) I think there’s five iterations of agriculture. There’s the age of muscle, the age of machine, the age of chemistry, the age of biotechnology or genetic engineering, and the age of convergence.

                               And as I think about that, there’s two kinds of things that, really, we’ve been living through in the past two, three, four decades. And one of them is Moore’s Law, which most people are familiar with, which is the doubling of computing power and the decrease of computing cost by half every, you know, six to eighteen months. Moore’s Law.

                               That has been predicated upon something called binary code — 1s and 0s. Again, most people would have an understanding of binary code. What about genetic code? And what happens when we combine binary code with genetic code? What happens when the new language of programming really moves from binary code over to As, Ts, Cs and Gs, which are the four proteins that make up genetic complex? So, what happens when the new programming really becomes one of As, Ts, Cs and Gs? How do we intersect bio with digital? So, bio-digital technology is going to result in the generation of brand-new crops, brand new food types.

For example, a company out of Minnesota right now, called Calyxt, is using a TALEN technology that’s creating soybeans that have high oleic oil content in the soybeans, over 80% high oleic oil. Now, you may be wondering what that means. Well, everybody buys olive oil because they think it’s Mediterranean, it’s healthy, while olive oil is 69% high oleic oil, but soybeans through Calyxt are 80%. So, all of a sudden,  we have a brand-new food coming from a conventional crop that’s been derived through bio-digital technology. 

I can go on with all sorts of examples of new crops. But one of the things that I think your listeners will be fascinated by is the burgeoning or the emerging science of nutrigenomics. And nutrigenomics is where you take your human genome — and I’ve had my genome sequenced — and through the course of time, you start to identify food attributes that are important in my genome. So, you, Tom, would have your genome sequenced, and there’d be foods that would be more and others that would be less beneficial to your specific genome.

                               So, when the cost of genomic mapping starts dropping, where every human being has their genome sequenced, we can start to map out and match food to the human being, and that’s going to open up, I think, some really interesting opportunities for agriculture based on attribute-based tracking.

                               In other words, if we could grow a wheat crop high in selenium, and (if) you were predisposed to prostate cancer, then maybe the bread that you eat should be a high-selenium-derived bread. So, these are things that are going on inside of my head, and I think it paints a pretty exciting future of how we’re going to create this bio-digital technology convergence.

Tom:                      Yes, nutrigenomics is quite a focus of Alltech, as a matter of fact. It was a favorite focus of the late Dr. Pearse Lyons and is being carried on today.

                               Let’s get back to AGvisorPRO for just a second. I want to ask you about that app. And let’s say I’ve got it on my phone. What’s it going to do for me?

Rob:                        I built a company called Agri-Trend and Agri-Data that was acquired by Trimble. That was a twenty-year journey for me, and Agri-Trend was acquired by Trimble, and I began to think about, “If I was going to build the consulting firm all over again, how would I do it?” And the answer is: I wouldn’t. What I would do is build a connectivity platform.

                               And so, AGvisorPRO, (if you) think about it, is as a mash-up of eHarmony together with Uber and FaceTime and Twitter. If you mash all of those things together, I think you have the idea. AGvisorPRO         is the Uberization of knowledge and wisdom. We are creating a connectivity matrix between seekers, people who want answers and experts, people who can provide answers now. And so, this interconnectivity matrix involves farmers and independent advisors and industry and government and the public.

                               And so, you would download AGvisorPRO on iOS or Android or desktop, and you would fill out a profile of your agricultural expertise or your farming operation — and it’s free. So you download (it), and we have several ways that you can connect. The first is we have an industry offer called TechDirect. So, industry partners would list their company, their proprietary products or services and their graphs, and a farmer can type in a company like Taurus Ag and instantaneously be connected to the technical representatives of Taurus. So, no 1-800 number, and it’s all free for the user.

                               Additionally, a farmer might want to talk to a sprayer expert. We have a renowned sprayer expert in Canada. His name is Tom Wolf. He’s an independent advisor. He doesn’t need his brain picked; he needs his brain paid for. So, you would say, “I’ve got a question about spraying,” and you would find Tom, the algorithm would match you up to Tom. And you would say, “Okay, so it’s going to be $60 for the session.” You say yes, just like you do with Uber, and you’re instantaneously connected with Tom. You have your conversation; he answers your questions. The session is archived for your future reference. You’re allowed to rate the session, just like you do with Uber, and then you can connect that session to social media, if you like.

So, we built all of that. All of that has been built. And Tom, this was built starting in 2019. So, we’ve been working on this for over a year. And, lo and behold, COVID hits in March, and we knew the winds of change were blowing, so we had set our sails to capture that changing wind and how we’re going to communicate in agriculture.

But AGvisorPRO is set for this COVID and this post-COVID world. We’re effectively stretching brains and not bodies, and we’re helping people monetize knowledge and wisdom. And so, that’s, in a nutshell, what we’ve been able to do with AGvisorPRO.

Tom:                      Well, that is absolutely fascinating.

Rob:                        It’s cool, yeah.

Tom:                      Rob Saik, author of “Food 5.0: How We Feed the Future.” Rob, maybe we’ll get to meet next year in Lexington at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference.

Rob:                        Well, you know, I was thrilled to be involved in the ONE Virtual Experience by Alltech. Alltech has got a great reputation as a leader in the agriculture sector, and the virtual experience was a blast. And I’m still dealing with questions from the session that was online. However, I think I’m looking forward to getting to Kentucky and being part of the live event, where you rub shoulders with — literally rub shoulders with — some of the greater thinkers in agriculture.

                               So, thank you for having me on your podcast, Tom.

Tom:                      Well, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

                               I’m Tom Martin, and this has been AgFuture, presented by Alltech. And thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to AgFuture wherever you listen to podcasts.

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