Health / Pharma

Big data on the prairie?

German biotech giant, Bayer, has recently made the largest all-cash buyout in history ($66 billion) to acquire another biotech giant, Monsanto. One of the linchpins of the deal was a technology that Monsanto had been using to create their network of “smart farms.” Monsanto had previously purchased this same technology for less than one billion dollars from a big data company called Climate Corporation.

Climate Corp is a San Francisco tech firm that was founded by two Google employees, who wanted to, “lead the world to revolutionary solutions to historic problems.” So, they hired hundreds of scientists to comb through the fifty terabytes of big data they were gathering from 2.5 million different sources every day. These scientists have been using that information to make algorithms that can analyze individual farms in order to optimize their crop yields.

Digital Farming

Using big data in the farming industry is known as, “digital farming,” and as of now, it has been claimed that 70 percent of farms have implemented some form of digital tools to improve their yields.

The app that Climate Corp created to aid farmers is called “Field View,” and it gathers information from weather reports and in-field sensors, which record real-time data on temperature, weather, soil moisture, nitrogen levels, and much more. When this data is analyzed, the app can tell the farmer the best day to work the fields, how much water to use, what nutrients to add to the soil, what are the best seeds to plant, how much yield they should expect, what weather conditions to watch out for, and much more.

Climate Corp's field view app

“We’re using data science to de-convolute what’s going on there,” Mike Stern, Climate Corporation CEO says. “Information on the farm is now being collected the same way we collect information on our cell phones or our iPads.”

The company claims that their cloud-based technology can take the average corn harvest from 168 bushels an acre, and help that farmer turn it into a 530 bushels an acre harvest. That means savings for the farmer and a better planet for everyone else.

This is especially important now, as farmers are beginning to deal with the effects of climate change.

Global Warming

The biggest problems facing farmers today come from natural disasters and freak weather conditions that have the potential to completely destroy a farm.

A report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “global warming could reduce agricultural production by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century.” That means by the year 2100, we could have a 20 percent drop in crop yields, while at the same time, the population would have grown to anywhere between 9 and 10 billion worldwide.

Climate Corp has detailed their global warming goals in their mission statement: “The Climate Corporation’s mission is to help all the world’s people and businesses manage and adapt to climate change. We aim to help farmers protect and increase their profits with uniquely powerful software and risk management products.”

They are using big data to solve the problem on many fronts, including driving down the cost of farming, finding the best crops to plant in global warming affected areas, and increasing crop yields to help feed the world.

Changing landscapes

Global warming not only causes storms, it also changes the ecosystem, and where certain plants are able to grow. A warmer planet makes it easier to grow crops in the Dakotas, but it is shown to wreak havoc on tropical countries.

For example, a 2012 UN study found that between the years 1970 and 2000, the rainy season in Tanzania has been pushed forward by a full month, and there was a decrease in rainfall by 30 percent. Knowing this data, Climate Corp would make suggestions to the farmers in the affected area to plant crops that are more resistant to droughts and heat.

Crop yields due to climate change

Map from the World Research Institute shows how crop yields are moving north due to climate change

This northern migration of crops can also mean that different plants and animals are migrating to new areas in order to escape rising temperatures. This means that insects will invade areas where they have never been seen before.

Climate Corp offers their customers the ability to take pictures of mysterious bugs, and send them through the app to get advice from the company on the best way to deal with it.


Right now, farmers are caught in between a rock and a hard place, as there are only a handful of buyers on the market, who are always trying to lower the price for crops they buy, and only a handful of suppliers, who are also looking to raise the price of fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Along with global warming, this trend is predicted to cause food prices to double by 2030.

Climate Corp, which has remained mostly independent despite the buyout, aims to solve these costs by using their big data to optimize the use of farm equipment, water, fertilizer, etc. “We can’t afford to be wasteful,” says Rebecca Shaw, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s really important that we get better at understanding what the crop needs and when, and apply only that.”

Saving on fertilizer will not only but down on a farmer’s overhead, it will also cut down on the amount of fertilizer that is dumped into the ocean, where it creates dead zones.

Climate Corp also gathers data from marketplaces around the world. This can be helpful to farmers in developing countries, who are often so isolated that they do not know what they should charge for their produce. So, Climate Corp also uses big data from market prices around the world and informs farmers what is a fair price for their crops.

Feed the world 

In the end, Climate Corp, a small company dealing in big data, might have provided a technology that will feed the world during the devastating effects of global warming.

Video – Monsanto’s plan to stop world hunger.

If Bayer just bought the big data technology that will help feed the world, it makes the $66 billion checks seem like a bargain.

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