Did you know that 60 percent of the world’s food production originates from just five countries: the United States, China, Brazil, India and Argentina?

Climate change, however, has effectively increased the frequency of drought periods in some of these regions, harming crop harvest in the process.

Although changes in temperature affect each crop differently, rice, corn and soy–three of the four most globally consumed grains–are known to experience the most severe impacts.

Add these factors to rising population growth, and it’s easy to understand why smaller countries will have to grow their own produce sustainably, reducing reliance on exports from the world’s major breadbaskets.

Agricultural technologies are essential to doing that, and Israel has 440 active companies in this sector.

One startup, Fermata.Tech, has developed a successful solution for greenhouses involving artificial intelligence (AI) to facilitate plant growth by identifying diseases and detecting the presence of pest activity at an early enough stage to remedy the problem.

“We install special cameras in greenhouses that observe and take pictures of every single plant,” says Fermata CEO Valeria Kogen.

“Then the AI analyses the images and identifies what’s really going on, like whether the plants are healthy or unhealthy, which diseases or pests might be present, or the rate at which the plants are growing–whatever the farmer needs.”

So far, Fermata’s methods have enabled greenhouses to cut disease-related harvest loss by 30-40% and reduce active human monitoring by 50%, according to the company’s trials.

$7 billion worth of crops lost to disease

“Workers tend to only notice when a plant is infected once the disease has already spread, which is where a lot of production is lost, making it one of the main sources of food waste on the planet,” says Kogen.

“Up to 40% of greenhouse and open field crops are lost due to disease, and this generates an annual financial loss of 7 billion dollars.”

Because the workers who visually monitor plants growing inside greenhouses are not trained agronomists, they need to contact an agronomist to determine how best to proceed with the affected plants if they see something questionable.

“On average, agronomists come and inspect plants once a week, but this takes up a lot of time, especially when these greenhouses host upwards of 10,000 plants,” says Kogen.

“Obviously, human vision is limited. It’s like a jungle! So, it’s just not realistic to monitor every leaf of every plant every day like that. Artificial intelligence replaces this process and makes it automatic.”

Image analysis

To develop their AI system, Fermata paired with a team of agronomists to create an extensive database of high-quality plant images, each accompanied by images of what they look like when afflicted by certain diseases or pests.

When the image sensor technology detects a crop, it is automatically matched against this programmed data and analyzed for its health status.

“Our core expertise is in software development, and we developed this AI solution to make it possible to analyze images and then define what’s going on with the plants in these images,” says Kogen, who was a finalist in the 2021 Israeli Women of AgriFood Nation competition.

The six finalists in the 2021 Women of AgriFood Nation competition, from left: Ifat Hamer (Biotipac), Yosefa Ben-Cohen (Yo-Egg), Adi Polak (IncrediBowl), Anna Malkov (BugEra), Maya Ashkenazi-Otmazgin (Maolac) and Valeria Cogan (Fermata). Photo by Itay Skaliter

“Every session with a particular client starts with a conversation about what is important for them because our alerts very much depend on what type of crop, region or resources the farmer has,” Kogen explains.

While some farmers want to be aware of any and every issue, others prefer not to be alerted about select issues they lack the resources to address.

“It’s very important for us not to bombard clients [with data] if they don’t have the capabilities to fix it. So, we try to be very flexible to fit their needs. However, because we make it more feasible to monitor plant growth and detect disease ahead of time, it helps the farmers reduce the use of agrochemical inputs,” states Kogen.

Can Fermata compete?

While Fermata certainly has its fair share of competitors, Kogen says its product is customizable, efficient and simple to use.

“First of all, we’ve designed our AI in such a way that it’s very easy to switch from one type of crop to another and one type of task to another. Plus, we have very great quality data that makes the product really competitive. We’re not only focused on tomatoes or cannabis, or flowers; our AI can handle all of them and much more, which makes it really scalable,” she asserts.

The second advantage is an easy installation process the clients can do themselves. And because Fermata has experience working with conventional greenhouses and other types of indoor farms, including vertical farms, the instructions that come with the product can be modified according to the client’s particular growing space.

“Even if we have a client tomorrow in South Africa or Brazil, it’s not an issue for us. We just send our equipment with instructions, and within a couple hours, the system can be up and running,” says Kogen.

“The indoor trend is really growing,” Kogen states. “In many countries, especially in Asia, there is a lack of space for traditional agriculture, so it’s very important to use any available industrial space for efficient food production. Our technologies make indoor farms competitive,” she concludes.

Talia Belowich and Max Kaplan-Zantopp write for ZAVIT – Science and the Environment News Agency