Case Study: Diagnosing Crop Disease with Machine Learning

Case Study

The volatile combination of a rapidly growing population with an increasingly variable climate poses a serious threat to the agriculture industry. These complex challenges require innovative solutions that enable efficient production of food in environmentally responsible, yet practical and economical, way.

The Client

A global agricultural biotech company that distributes products designed to help farmers contribute to the world’s food production and biofuel industries in a safe, sustainable way


Among the greatest challenges farmers face are those conditions that are outside of their control, such as weather, soil quality, weeds, and crop disease. These factors inhibit growth of both biofuel crops and healthy produce for consumption.

Losses due to crop disease, whether caused by fungi, bacteria, or viruses, can be disastrous to the grower and the economy, and they can threaten the global population’s access to nutrition.

Crop disease can devastate natural ecosystems, leading to environmental problems, such as habitat loss for certain species. Additionally, in extreme cases, diseased crops can produce toxins that result in serious health problems for consumers.

The Challenge

Our client’s mission is to provide farmers with environmentally-friendly products and services to combat crop disease and other threats.

While farmers spend billions of dollars on crop-disease management, they often do so without adequate real-time diagnostic tools. This can leave them using one-size-fits-all solutions that not only fail to address their specific needs, but often result in undesirable side effects, such as pollution and reduction of beneficial pollinator species, such as bees, butterflies, and others.

Our client knew that accurate diagnosis was the best way to target the exact solutions necessary to maintain crop health. However, without deep subject matter expertise, crop disease is difficult to diagnose. Accurately describing a crop’s symptoms to a plant pathologist over the phone is nearly impossible.

Without a physical examination of each specimen, our client was unable to recommend customized treatment options to customers. Obviously, there was no way for plant pathologists to travel to every farm in need of assistance; the only solution was to bring the data to the pathologists.

An agricultural biotechnology company needed a way to accurately diagnose crop disease and to provide customized, environmentally friendly solutions to its community of farmers.

The Solution

We assisted with the architecture and development of a mobile application and cloud services to enable farmers to photograph diseased crops and receive accurate diagnostics in near real time.

The diagnostic process occurs through the use of advanced image analytics powered by machine learning.

Machine Learning: Disease classification capabilities were implemented using the advanced deep learning capabilities of Google's ML Engine. We used Google's high-performance platform and more than 50,000 images to train the neural network. With Google's Tensorflow Processing Units (TPUs), the training time of the neural network is greatly reduced, allowing for rapid and cost-efficient model updates as additional images are collected and curated.

Mobile Application: The mobile application allows a farmer to take photographs of the diseased leaves of their crops. These images are passed to the GCP-hosted ML services, and a diagnosis is returned to the farmer immediately. As a hosted, serverless platform, ML Engine provides scalability without the need to manage a set of servers.

Data Engineering: A reusable platform enables data and model management, along with DevOps support for multi-cloud infrastructure. This infrastructure assists data scientists in performing data cleansing, learning, and service deployment of solutions, utilizing AI analytics techniques at scale. The solution leverages GCP Cloud Storage for managing plant images and generated models, along with GCP Data Flow for the machine learning pipeline and image processing.

Business Outcomes

Today, our client is able to more accurately satisfy farmers’ needs and provide them targeted tools that more effectively protect their crops, allowing for a more sustainable crop protection strategy.

And in a continuation of its commitment to reducing harmful environmental impact, our client’s efforts in preventing and treating crop disease, along with other threats to farm-produced products, support an integrated pest management (IPM) system, a more effective, environmentally sensitive approach that focuses on pest prevention and uses pesticides only as needed.