How technology saves tomato crops and brings ease of mind
This article was originally published on Food & Beyond
Every person who has tried their hands at growing food has come to face the harsh reality that, just like humans, plants get sick. In professional farming, it’s not any better. Farmers invest billions of dollars each year to protect their crops against diseases. However, this is getting increasingly difficult due to environmental guidelines and the occurrence of climate change, coupled with resistance to pesticides.
Despite the high cost of crop protection, the alternative is often complete crop loss due to pests and diseases. This causes unimaginable economic damage. An example is the Fusarium wilt of bananas, which is threatening the entire banana production worldwide. In extreme cases, food security in the region can be threatened to the point of famines, as with the current tomato virus outbreak in India.
A modern solution to an ancient problem
Planticus provides the answer to one of humanity’s oldest problems: crop protection. A recent study by the European Parliament on “The future of Crop Protection” shows the severity of the problem. Not only do farmers want to get rid of using too many pesticides, but they also need an affordable way to do pest & disease control.
An alarming increase in the number of transboundary pests and disease outbreaks on food crops threatens food security. Together with our partners, we set up sustainable projects to provide our technology to local small food crop farmers. Therefore, we created a mobile application called Planticus that is currently being used in more than 120 countries globally.
By building the mobile app that uploads pictures to our Planticus cloud, we validated our idea to detect pests and diseases using AI and machine learning. This led us to develop solutions for professional farmers. These solutions are based on the same technology but can be used on a larger scale. Greenhouses and fields can’t be managed by using just smartphones.
To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, we zoom in on tomato farmers. In Benelux, Italy, Spain, and the US we talk about 288.993 ha that is in dire need of crop protection solutions. Thanks to recent innovations in machine learning, data mining, and big data, we are able to process the immense flow of information that these farmers will upload to the Planticus cloud. However, there’s still a big challenge ahead of us.
Bring on the challenge
Challenge means opportunity. The challenge of gathering data is what sets Planticus apart from other companies. We believe in a bottom-up approach, in which farmers and private gardeners get the opportunity to contribute to the machine learning process. We do not pretend to offer a perfect solution. This is impossible.
Instead, we offer individuals – pioneers – the opportunity to create their own disease detection algorithms, free of charge. In return for data gathered by our customers, we train algorithms to detect diseases chosen by them with their own data. This step is essential to create trust in the solution, but it’s also essential in expanding our solutions to new breeds & crops. The pioneers who help us gather data to train new algorithms are associated with our extensive business ecosystem partners and enjoy lifetime free use of our technology.
In addition to collaborations with farmers and private gardeners, we have partnerships with NGOs that focus on food security, research and development, and sustainable agriculture in developing regions. Because we believe these farmers are the ones most in need of easily accessible crop protection advice, we offer them free use of the Planticus solutions.
Planticus originated in the mind of Guy Van Looveren in the spring of 2019. In his garden, Guy noticed that his boxwoods were dying. Because he lacked a green thumb, he immediately looked for a technological solution that could help him identify the cause for his dying boxwoods. Guy saw a new entrepreneurial opportunity when not finding a proper solution for his problem. Luckily, he has a wide network and could ask his bio-engineer friends for advice for getting started.
After some brainstorming, they realized there is a vast demand for less-experienced gardeners to monitor the health of their crops and also for more professional use. This sparked an inferno of ideas that finally led to the launch of the first version of the disease detection AI Planticus in the app stores in December 2020. In just eight short months, Guy had managed to bring together a team of developers and engineers that shared his passion and were willing to jump into this startup adventure.
The difference between having an idea and actually doing it
The short paragraph above does not do justice to the hard work and ingenuity it took from having this idea to launching the app’s first version. To make something like this real, you need people. Not just any people, but good, reliable, highly motivated people with a passion for entrepreneurship and a desire to change the world.
After that, you need money. There is no denying that building a company takes a serious amount of funding. When people hear that some tech startup has received several millions of euros worth of funding, they seldom realize that such things take time and dedication.
Using the skills, knowledge, and networking opportunities from the EIT program, we have set our sights on obtaining enough funding to make the Planticus solution fully operational at a national level by 2022 and an international level in the years after. We are extremely ambitious, and the road ahead will be full of challenges.
Our goal is to be the first global crop protection solution for commercial farmers, private gardeners, and, most importantly, smallholder farmers in developing regions who drastically need aid to improve food security in the region. Our mission is to secure the world’s food production by offering state-of-the-art crop protection and providing each person with the means to produce food sustainably.