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December 26, 2021 11:51 am
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Israeli Startup Teaches Farmers How to ‘Speak Plant’ to Mitigate Impact of Climate Change

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Growing avocados with the aid of SupPlant technology. Photo: SupPlant

While many farmers and gardeners believe that talking to plants and crops helps them grow faster, an Israeli start-up is on a mission to translate what plants are telling farmers.

If plants could talk, what would they say? Would they ask for water, and how much? What are their needs when they are too hot or too cold? How can they be prepared for drastic climate changes? To answer all of these questions, SupPlant has created artificial intelligence-powered sensors, which are placed on plants and in the soil to monitor data and provide farmers with irrigation recommendations. The technology has been dubbed by TIME magazine as one of this year’s best inventions.

“Our vision is to digitally inform every irrigation command on earth,” Uri Ben Ner, CEO of SupPlant, told The Algemeiner. “Other than the fact that we [teach] farmers how to speak better plant, we let plants irrigate themselves. I know it sounds like a metaphor. It’s not. We literally let plants irrigate themselves.”

“What’s unique is our ability to understand best practices for farmers through talking to plants regarding climate changes and climate adaptive irrigation,” Ben Ner said. “The end result is what matters to farmers either small or big. We are able to increase the yield and save water consumption dramatically.”

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A fourth-generation farmer who was inspired by his grandfather, who was still farming at age 91 in northern Israel, Ben Ner recounted that the idea for SupPlant’s technology was born of the need to help farmers deal with climate change and the fast-changing weather conditions of today’s world.

“One extreme heat event once every 10 years is something farmers were used to coping with in the past, but three times a season is what we are seeing all around the world, [and it] is a catastrophe,” Ben Ner said. “Most irrigation models were developed in the 1980s and 1990s, and are no longer relevant to the weather conditions we have today. Now we are dealing with changing seasons. It no longer rains when it used to, and in many parts of the world there are droughts.”

SupPlant’s technology is the brainchild of a Russian professor who worked for two and a half years with three PhD agronomists to translate plant behavior into mathematics. The result was an algorithm that translates any type of plant behavior into specific agronomic and growth patterns, which farmers like Ben Ner’s grandfather can understand.

SupPlant collects data from sensors placed on five locations on the plant — deep soil, shallow soil, stem, leaf, and fruit. The data monitors plant stress and growth patterns, and is uploaded online every 10 minutes. The algorithm analyzes this data and provides farmers with irrigation recommendations and insights, taking into account real-time and forecasted weather conditions, as well as the soil’s water content.

“Our system guides stressed plants like if they were sitting on the couch of a shrink. Farmers receive recommendations on how they should irrigate in the upcoming week. They also get what we call the Extreme Weather Wizard, which is a pop-up screen that guides you step by step [on] what to do a week before an extreme heat event — for example, to mitigate damages,” Ben Ner said. “As a result, the system increases yields by 20 percent to 30 percent, while saving as much as 40 percent in water use.”

With a growing global population, freshwater resources per person have been declining in recent years, requiring the need to produce more with less. Irrigated agriculture is central to this challenge, as it accounts for more than 70 percent of global water use. Methods for the productive use of limited water resources have therefore become essential for preserving global food security.

Water shortages currently affect around 3.2 billion rural people, with one-sixth of the world’s population living in severely water-constrained agricultural areas, according to a report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In addition, more than 170 million hectares, or over 60 percent of irrigated croplands, are subject to high water stress due to climate change, which in turn is expected to lead to reduced crop yields and endanger food security.

SupPlant’s technology is already used by farmers in 14 countries, with 14,000 of its sensors deployed in more than 33 different crops around the world, which the startup says has created the world’s largest plant sensing database.

While the challenges of climate change and water scarcity affect almost any farmer, most agritech companies only target two percent of the industry — the world’s largest growers. Tapping into the potential of the remaining 98 percent of smallholder farmers who grow crops on less than two hectares of land, SupPlant in September introduced a sensor-less irrigation system. Most of the small-scale farmers are located in developing countries in Africa, India, Asia, and South America.

“We have collected billions and billions of data points and as a result of that database we were able to go sensor-less and offer a product which makes predictions at a cost of $1 a month per farmer,” Ben Ner explained. “We currently have half a million smallholder corn growers in Kenya, using the system and getting the service through mobile phones, but also through SMS alerts.”

By the end of 2022, SupPlant expects over 2 million smallholder farmers across Africa and India to use its system.

“India accounts for 110 million smallholders and this is where we are putting most of our investments. We have another platform partner in South Africa, where we expect 200,000 farmers will be integrated,” Ben Ner said. “We literally directly contribute to the livelihood of these small, tiny farmers in developing countries. If a farmer is able to increase 5 percent in yield, it can amount to 30 percent in profitability, which is the difference between having enough money for school next year.”

As the grandson of a farmer, it is very exciting to be able to “contribute to climate and food stability, but also to the bottom line of some … farmer,” he added.

SupPlant’s main market for the sensor-based system is Mexico, where its technology helps farmers improve mango crop yield by 20 percent. The startup also assists avocado growers in South Africa, while its proactive alert system helped a citrus farmer in Australia overcome a four-day heat wave with temperatures of around 113°F with almost no damage to the fruits.

Most recently, SupPlant clinched an agreement with a partner in the United Arab Emirates who is using the startup’s technology to reduce water usage for palm trees and to deploy precise irrigation for date trees.

“The UAE will fast become our fifth largest market,” Ben Ner said. “Next year, we are going to enter Morocco and there is also talk about Saudi Arabia.”

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