This article appeared on the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, January 2021: "Solutions Spotlight: AgTech for Sustainability"
We are pleased to share Part Two of a pair of pieces from our solutions collaborator, IN2, on tangible steps the private sector can take in addressing climate change (see: Part One). Claire Kinlawfacilitates the capture and development of intellectual property emerging from Danforth Plant Science Center labs, as part of its new Innovation team. Wells Fargo’s Ramsay Huntley is an expert in sustainable finance, clean technology, and innovation philanthropy.
Agriculture currently accounts for nearly 13 percent of global carbon emissions, representing a significant opportunity for technology advancements. Beyond increasing efficiencies within the sector, sustainable and regenerative agricultural solutions can also reduce emissions in the atmosphere. In other words, the process of identifying and implementing agriculture technology (agtech) not only benefits the industry directly, but also has the potential to reduce the impact of all other industries.
For these reasons, agtech is a unique investment opportunity and has shown great promise even with current economic uncertainties. A market analysis from April 2020 calculated that total global investment in the sector had reached $6.9 billion, doubling from $3.4 billion in 2017. This new investment is critical for agtech growth, but so are technical and scientific breakthroughs. The IN2 program expanded its focus to agtech in 2018 in order to bring more solutions to market, faster. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Danforth Center) was brought on as a program research partner, and now provides staff and resources to guide and support selected agtech startups. The Danforth Center is an independent nonprofit research institute founded to improve the human condition through plant science, and IN2 leaders from the Danforth Center have identified a number of trends that have recently influenced the industry.
Farmers are thinking about how to grow more productive crops more efficiently, with fewer costs and input. This mentality has expanded stakeholders’ interest in new crops, as well as new pest and disease evaluations that allow for more precise treatments. For example, CoverCress, Inc. is developing a new cash crop for the Midwest that will enable farmers to grow an additional crop during winter months in between corn and soybean seasons. Most recently, the company announced a new collaboration with the Salk Institute with the goal of improving plants’ ability to capture and store larger amounts of emissions from the atmosphere in their roots and keep it buried in the ground for long periods of time. In terms of evaluation, Pluton Biosciences recently launched a new microbial testing division that evaluates plant-microbe interactions in the soil, while assessing plant and animal pathogens, herbicides and soil amendments. These advanced detection capabilities are critical for understanding the needs of each farm and plot of land, and can increase value-per-acre by identifying and addressing soil imbalances or diseases before they become a larger problem.
With increasing consumer interest in sustainability and addressing the climate crisis, energy-efficiency commitments from major corporations have created new incentives for the agriculture industry to transition towards more sustainable practices. Coca Cola, Walmartand others have set timelines for addressing Scope 3 emissions across their entire supply chains. These corporate entities understand they must provide suppliers including farmers with the right tools and resources to meet these goals. Of course, farmers and startups are also bringing fresh ideas for how to address age-old challenges in return.
Startups, partners, funders and researchers involved in the program are making connections that help bring these different stakeholders together in support of new learnings and advancements.
Farmers have dealt with unpredictable weather patterns and pests for as long as agriculture has existed. As weather patterns become more extreme across the globe, reliable food production will only represent a greater challenge, and indoor agriculture technologies and facilities may help society respond to these changes while we address the climate crisis. Only recently has there been a more focused effort on scaling indoor ag solutions in order to capture the associated benefits and efficiencies. IN2 is looking forward to exploring solutions within this field in the near future, including water monitoring and sensors, advanced breeding technology, building automation and controls, farm management and more.
The private sector should keep an eye on these trends and the stakeholders involved, while recognizing the incredible diversity of solutions that exist within the agtech industry. As investments continue to grow alongside research and development breakthroughs, more innovations are sure to come to market in the near future.