Photo by Nate Johnston on Unsplash.

Mineral: Embracing Nature to Sustainably Feed the World

How Mineral is Building a Resilient, Sustainable and Robust Food System

umans began cultivation about 10,000 years ago. [1] Colonies to grow food formed and humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture which forever changed the course of human kind. As the dawn of agriculture rose, we were no longer forced to rely on the nomadic life style of chasing our food to the ends of the Earth in order to nourish ourselves but instead on the stable and steady flow of food grown from our own hands.

Our food supply chains today look rather different from 10,000 years ago. Modernized with new technologies to make farming cheaper, more efficient and productive, our agriculture systems are designed to feed billions around the world and for the most part, they’ve been effective at fulfilling global demand for sustenance. Until now.

Projections have shown that in order to feed the world’s growing population, our food supply chains will need to be scaled to produce more food in the next fifty years than in the past 10,000 years (around when cultivation started) while also confronting the twin challenges of climate change and decreasing crop productivity. [2]

This will most likely not be possible without a framework of new technological innovations to disrupt the status quo; this is a fact understood best by Mineral; a company under development nestled in Google X’s Moonshot Factory with an ambitious goal: transforming what we grow and how we do it.

But, what is a moonshot? Coined from the Apollo 11 mission, moonshots refer to a highly ambitious goal that would require monumental amounts of vision, creativity, and innovation in the undertaking but if successful, could be a great push forward for humanity. Waymo, a company that has become almost synonymous with autonomous vehicles is a project at the forefront of transforming how we move and was also developed under Google X. Other initiatives like Tidal which targets sustainable fishing are also currently in the midst of development at the Moonshot Factory. You can read more about Moonshots at Google X’s Moonshot Factory here.

Mineral plans on revamping our agricultural systems with a slew of technologies from disciplines like artificial intelligence, robotics, simulations, sensors, etc and leveraging these mechanisms to provide farmers with a window into the growth of the plants we eat.

The early days of Mineral began with understanding the problem. Through direct conversations with farmers and traversing the current landscape of agriculture around the world (Argentina, New Zealand, etc) the team at Mineral built up a portfolio of the issues that plague fields and determined the root sources namely:

  • More data was needed in order to drive more targeted growing decisions.
  • The tools of the present did not provide them with the full picture of the conditions of their fields.

“Over the last few years my team and I have been developing the tools of what we call computational agriculture, in which farmers, breeders, agronomists, and scientists will lean on new types of hardware, software, and sensors to collect and analyze information about the complexity of the plant world.” — Elliot Grant, project lead at Mineral.

As Grant explained, they’re building tools that can help constituents involved within the world of agriculture better understand the food we grow. They’ve rolled out new prototypes in order to collect this data. The first being a four-wheeled vehicle which they refer to as a plant buggy. The plant buggy is specifically designed to rove across the fields of crops which has already been tested with strawberry fields in sunny California all the way to soy fields in Illinois. As it roams through the crops, the plant buggy collects images of the plants and relies on machine learning to classify individual berries and fruits being grown. [3]

With a conglomeration of the images gathered through Mineral’s nifty plant buggy, satellite imagery data and weather data as well as details about the Soil, key insights such as drawing out recurring themes within the field, interactions between the plants and their environment, as well as how external factors impact productivity are able to be extracted and help better serve farmers improve productivity and efficiency.

Here’s a complete feature breakdown of Mineral’s plant buggy:

Solar powered: as a step towards creating a future where our world isn’t ravaged by climate change, Mineral’s plant buggy aims to be as carbon-friendly as possible.

Designed for all fields: not all plant fields are made equal, but Mineral’s plant buggy is built to be useful across a diverse range of environment environments. With that in mind, the plant buggy is dynamic and can be adjusted to different shapes and sizes in order to collect novel insights into various fields.

Plant mapping and identification: the geological location of the plants the plant buggy is trundling through is also important to collect. Leveraging GPS software, the Mineral team is able to also gather the coordinates of the plants.

Sensing and computer perception: the plant buggy is also outfitted with cameras and other sensor tools in order to discern if there are detriments to the plant’s environment and collect precise data on the characteristics of the plants.

Mineral introduces a paradigm shift in our agricultural systems by placing a microscope on the food we grow in order to drive more informed decisions and emphasis on individual crops. With the tools they’re developing, farmers can transform their approach to growing crops with the support of technology elevating their understanding of their fields and ultimately: the food that will feed the billions around the world.

Writer of technology-centric articles.