Plants that call for help, John Deere, and the possibility of plant-specific treatments in the field

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There are many ways crops can show they’re stressed, but unfortunately, the signs are often only noticeable to a human eye when a significant number of plants are in crisis.

The potential for individual plants to signal stress before they begin to suffer is the reason why there’s some excitement around a company called InnerPlant, which raised US$16 million in Series A funding earlier this year, led by none other than John Deere.

InnerPlant has developed a genetic process that makes plants emit a unique signal as soon as they are stressed. In other words, they “glow” when viewed through the right camera or sensor, says Christian Hansen, small grains agronomist with John Deere, in the interview below.

“These markers can be inserted to indicate different plant stresses. It could be a nutrient deficiency, it could be water stress, it could be insect feeding. There are even simple things, like, ‘I’m a canola plant,’ or ‘I’m a wheat plant’ that we could potentially look at in the future,” explains Hansen.

Christian Hansen, John Deere small grains agronomist, at Canola Week 2022 in Saskatoon, Sask.

Following the Series A funding round, InnerPlant intends to launch satellites that can sense these “glowing” plants in 2023, potentially providing an overview of stressors in a field. In the longer term, Deere sees opportunities to collect and respond to the individual plant signals with its See and Spray system on equipment in the field.

“The strategy going forward would be for Deere to develop camera technology that’s capable of seeing that wavelength. So if you think about the future, and what traits we could potentially introduce into those genetics, there’s a whole host of possibilities,” says Hansen.

While Deere already offers its green-on-brown optical spraying system (See and Spray Select) and is rolling out a higher-tech green-on-green system (See and Spray Ultimate) designed to differentiate between weeds and crop, InnerPlant’s technology would represent a new level of plant-specific precision in the future.

“InnerPlant has plans to launch satellites that will kind of give us a broad overview and identify fields that could potentially be seeing those stressors, and then we can use that information to then pull in with something like a See and Spray machine to do the work and get the higher resolution image of that of that field,” he explains.

The company is currently focused on introducing and testing the marker technology in soybeans for a soft launch in 2024. For small grains, Hansen says he expects it is still “many years away,” and that broad-scale adoption will likely only happen with or after automated machinery becoming more common.

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