We embarked on researching the food and agriculture industry in North America and Europe with the notion that there are many concrete and complex problems to solve – for starters, the world will need 70% more food by 2050, as the population is poised to reach nearly 10 billion. To aggravate matters, increased productivity would have to be achieved in a sustainable fashion to fight climate change and biodiversity issues – an almost gargantuan task, given the fact that the food industry accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, and creating more land for agriculture presupposes more deforestation. From the discussions we have had so far with industry leaders and policy makers, one thing becomes clear – everyone is fighting to make agriculture environmentally and financially sustainable. The full report containing our detailed analysis of the food and agriculture sector, compiled from interviews with over 100 executives and policy makers, will be published in Newsweek in June 2023.
Agriculture has changed considerably, its actors have become more diverse and the skills that are necessary more multidisciplinary. To have the right stuff for it today, one must possess a very good sense of direction, be conscious of their technical capabilities and never oblivious of the unbridled force that the weather is – and gales may come from political headquarters too. Still, the business of food remains grounded and pragmatic, so, when we do speak of a ‘new era of agriculture’, we report on concrete and gradual innovations. The industry is transforming, but this change is levelheaded - cognizant of dangers without panic, optimistic without ideology, determined, yet prepared for the occasional step back.
Official UN data warns that the world will need 70% more food, as measured by calories, to feed itself by 2050. An anxiogenic prospect, intensified by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine on global food supply chains. Beth Bechdol, the DDG of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, tells us: “Today, 222 million people across 53 countries are classified under IPC Categories 3 through 5 [Category 3 – crisis; Category 4 – food-related emergencies; Category 5 – famine] — the highest figure we have seen since we started reporting.” Simultaneously, the effects of climate change are likely to accrue in the next decades, leading to droughts, heavy precipitation, and the loss of agricultural land. Some of these effects are already palpable. For instance, the Midwest, an agri powerhouse that contributes about $152 billion per year to the United States’ agricultural output, is already being negatively impacted by increases in nighttime temperatures. And agriculture itself is responsible for much of the harm humanity inflicts on the planet – e.g. 78% of global eutrophication (the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich elements) is caused by it. Smart solutions, in other words, are once again called for. In what follows, we outline three promising trends that emerged from our work so far.
Innovations are most welcome at times of crisis. The war in Ukraine, with the concurrent gas supply disturbances and bans on trade with Russia, the producer of 20% of the world’s fertilizers, has led to a dramatic surge in traditional plant nutrient prices. Yet, fertilizers remain indispensable, since almost half of the world’s population today is fed with their aid. As a result farmers are turning to the more affordable (and sustainable) alternative presented by bio-fertilizers. Ray Chyc, CEO of Azotic North America, outlines the benefits of utilizing nitrogen-fixating bacteria as a solution: “With Envita [Azotic Technologies’ product], nitrogen is retrieved directly from the air, which can translate to yield increases of between 0%-20%, or on average 8 bushels of corn/acre. Moreover, we know that our solution does not just capture nitrogen from the air, but also brings in CO2 to the plant in order for the plant to make that extra yield.”
Due to the price hikes, as well as sustainability considerations, similar solutions are now very much in the mode. Bill Brady, the CEO of Kula Bio, another bio-fertilizer company, adds: “Seeing how this demand has increased, we intensified our efforts to supply the world with more sustainable and reliable sources of nitrogen. […] Many bio-based products are usually genetically modified and they operate on the edge of science, but when they get into the real world, they have a hard time surviving. Our bacteria is very robust, and as a result, it is fit to thrive in a wide range of soil and climate conditions.’
Bio-fertilizers do not usually exist to compete with established synthetic solutions: most work as complements, offering improvements to efficiency and sustainability. As the President of BiOWiSH, Rod Vautier, observes “Over the past decade, bio control agents have probably become the fastest expanding area in plant health. We now expect to see biological solutions for growth promotion, follow a similar trajectory. Broadly known as bio-stimulants, these technologies can help improve agricultural productivity and sustainability. BiOWiSH is at the forefront of biostimulants having developed a technology that can be seamlessly integrated into current agricultural practices. Because the technology is coated onto the fertilizer the farmer is already using, it requires no additional on-farm processes to gain the benefits of the microorganisms.”
Addressing Food Waste via Regionalization
Martin Brock, CTO of Cambridge Consultants, told us that the need for 70% more food by 2050 should not in itself be such a fright: “The big secret is that we can already produce enough food. The problem is that a large chunk is produced inefficiently, or is wasted or not delivered where it is needed.” To corroborate this, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, 30 to 40% of U.S. food supply is thrown away. Much of it has to do with costs of transporting surplus food, as well as logistics disturbances, such as those caused by the pandemic.
One of the biggest promises of modern agriculture is the move towards local farming. To reduce waste, the time it takes from harvest to delivery should be reduced. Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, told us that her ministry “is delivering the Local Food Infrastructure Fund (LFIF), a CAD $60-million, five-year program aimed at community-based, not-for-profit organizations. LFIF’s objective is to strengthen local food systems and to facilitate access to safe, nutritious, and culturally diverse food for at-risk populations.” Beyond governmental efforts, a number of companies are developing technologies that allow them to produce close to the consumer, irrespective of local climate conditions. FoodVentures, for instance, develops updated greenhouses that are semi-closed systems, a Dutch system now present in several countries around the world, including Ukraine. Meati, a company creating alternative meat from mycelium, has achieved a rather complete insulation of its production facilities that can be placed in all sorts of geographies. One of the promises of vertical farming is also to bring food production close to the consumer. Such localized approaches do not just improve affordability, but also reduce the carbon footprint of operations by minimizing transportation.
More generally, the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of geopolitical blocs have nudged decision-makers to seek more regionalized production as an alternative to the globalized world of the past 30 years. “Regionalization gives you protection not only against supply chain disturbances, but also currency and climate risks while enabling access to markets at sufficient scale,” explains the President of DSM North America, Hugh Welsh.
The Agri-Tech Edge
Perhaps the most curious development in agriculture is the influx of tech entrepreneurs. We spoke with a number of people with backgrounds in IT or engineering who have been drawn to the intersection between technology and agriculture. David Rosenberg, Co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms, mentions his motivations for going into vertical farming: “There is so much spoilage in the industry, and a part of it derives from the movement to consolidate and centralize manufacturing and production. So, I realized that vertical farming could democratize that and address some of the supply chain problems.” Brian Wenngatz, CEO of Sentera, adds that the potential for technological advancement is what fascinated him in the agri sector. His company offers data collection and analytics services to farmers with the help of drones and AI: “With the help of aerial imagery, they can define the exact spots where these substances need to be applied. Our solutions can become like a digital wrapper around the commodity, leading to a more effective dosage of the chemicals used on crops. This approach has the power to address the sustainability goals of the industry.”
Nokia Bell Labs, the research arm of Nokia, has established a technology partnership with AeroFarms on vertical farming autonomous monitoring solutions that utilize computer vision, analytics, AI, drones and wireless networking. Thierry Klein, President of Bell Labs Solutions Research, tells us of his vision of the future of agriculture: “the smart farm of the future means being able to know capture, analyze and understand everything that is taking place in the farm, making intelligent optimization decisions and then having these decisions implemented in a productive, sustainable and safe fashion.” For Artiom Anisimov, the CEO of EOS Data Analytics, a company that uses satellite imagery analytics to monitor fields, the future is already here: “Agriculture is an omnipresent field around the world and one that could greatly benefit from a planetary perspective that offers more in-depth information on all kinds of metrics. […] This can only be achieved through a network of satellites that can harness imagery on a large scale over entire continents.”
How far the agri-tech romance would go remains uncertain. Farmers cannot be too easily persuadable as the business of feeding the world is not exactly tailored to bold experimentation. Yet, if things do go smoothly, we, and the planet, may all benefit from this new alliance.
To read more about innovations in fertilizers, alternative protein, vertical farming and smart farming read “The New Era of Food and Agriculture” in Newsweek, June 2023.
Interviews are available in the meantime at https://www.investmentreports.co/interviews/
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