PLANTING THE SEEDS OF INNOVATION

CROP SCIENCE MEETS DATA SCIENCE TO CREATE A GREEN, SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR GROWING VEGETABLES

“Innovation to improve plant health would have a much broader global impact. I believe food is really the first and most important medicine in human health.”

- Dr. Tony Liu

Dr. Tony Liu, Boragen Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder.

Picture walking into your local grocery store and discovering that there are no bananas. Or cucumbers. Or carrots. Or leafy greens.

While that’s hard to imagine, it’s a possibility that exists because of the nearly 200 fungal diseases that can destroy crops around the globe and have developed resistance to current fungicides.

Without a solution, treatments will continue to diminish in efficacy, resulting in poorer yields and reduced crop quality. But one company is combining crop science with data science to address the problem.

Boragen, founded in 2015 by five world-renowned chemists, is exploring how all kinds of crops can be protected using a naturally occurring but traditionally underutilized element, boron. Parterning with SAS, they saw that machine learning gave them the power to develop new antifungal compounds more efficiently and effectively.

And with the world population expected to top 10 billion by 2050, there is a dire need for solutions to help feed a growing population in an efficient and sustainable way.

“In AgTech, everything you do has the potential for global impact,” says Dr. Tony Liu, Boragen Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder. “Innovation to improve plant health would have a much broader global impact. I believe food is really the first and most important medicine in human health.”

IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN

To understand agriculture technology is to appreciate its complexity. Getting any new compound from the lab to the field is time-consuming and expensive, involving several phases of testing. If developing fungicides was easy, there’d be a lot more of them.

Boron is one of seven essential plant micronutrients – necessary for healthy plants and improved crop yields. It’s also naturally occurring, and borates are generally considered to have a low environmental impact. So it makes for a great sustainable option for developing agrochemical compounds that have potent broad-spectrum, fungus-fighting power that combat resistance while requiring fewer active ingredients than current products.

And Boragen recognized that data and analytics offered a tremendous opportunity to streamline the development of these new boron-based compounds.

“Better data analysis can help us uncover innovations that escape the human eye,” Liu says. “SAS® will be an essential tool for helping us discover more efficient and sustainable solutions to the most pressing agricultural challenges of our time.”

CORN, CUCUMBERS AND CURIOSITY

Dr. Luke Steere is Director of Crop Protection and Product Development at Boragen. Early in the SAS partnership, he was curious to know what testing variables could reliably indicate success on multiple crops in the field. His big question: What if they could remove entire steps from its testing process and still achieve the same result?

By applying analytics and machine learning technologies to Boragen data, researchers were able to identify a lab success threshold that could foretell eventual field performance. This “rule” enables Boragen to better predict which chemistries will be more effective and should be moved to the next testing phase – and which can be abandoned.

To illustrate this, Steere shares an example: “We could evaluate two separate cropping systems – a low-input crop like corn and a high-input crop like cucumber – with the same dosing structure for the same compounds. We could go back and look at the lab data, apply analytics and machine learning, and were able to find which parameters were most indicative of success in the field.”

This streamlined testing process “brings us closer to introducing new tools the world needs to confront some of the most urgent issues in agriculture,” Steere says.

The future of Boragen’s partnership with SAS will include research into sustainable “bi-functional” products, which effectively control crop diseases and subsequently degrade into beneficial byproducts that improve crop health.

While Steere acknowledges that new compounds alone won’t solve our agriculture sustainability challenges, his curiosity continues to fuel him – and help keep those supermarket shelves comfortably stocked.

“My passion is crop protection, and in particular, protecting crops against fungal pathogens – especially pathogens with a proclivity for resistance,” Steere says. “Given boron chemistry is a new chemical space, the possibility of unlocking the potential of these compounds is what keeps me motivated.”

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