2017’s Agriculture Revolution is gaining pace, getting faster

September 27, 2017 |

1917 was the time of 10 Days that Shook the World and the Russian Revolution. Today, things are moving even faster than back then — and the field of operations has shifted from that dreadful revolution in the streets to revolution in the fields and labs. Agriculture, that is — our original industry, is being turned upside down. Data, genetics, intelligence, transmission, storage, processing, sustainability, and mobility are the drivers.

Not since the heady days of the Summer of Algae almost 10 years ago has there been so much investor interest in sustainable agriculture. But now, the pace and immediacy of new technology makes those days of 2009 feel like a summer idyll from the 18th century, from a world chronicled by Jane Austen.

What’s different this time is that the technology is generally about novel yields with existing crops, and novel utility with existing crops rather than the creation of a new class of feedstocks like algae or carinata.  It’s about making more of them, or getting more out of them.

Today, we’ll look at technology and the pace of innovation. Tomorrow, we’ll look at capital flows and investment. Let’s look at just the past week to illustrate the pace of innovation in agriculture — for industrial biotechnology, that’s the upstream. Then, we’ll look at one cautionary note.

The Top 10

Genetics. #1. Dupont’s Axtra PRO enzyme, a digestibility game-changer?

In Delaware, one of the industry’s established giants, DuPont Industrial Biosciences, emerged from the fog of its merger with Dow and tipped the launch of DuPont Axtra PRO, a single protease enzyme. It’s part of a heady year for ag-related innovation at DuPont, which has launched 57 new corn varietals and 29 new genetic platforms. Overall, the company has realized $7.9B in revenue from new products launched since 2013.

It’s a very intriguing technological thrust.

Here’s the problem: Between 15-20 percent of dietary protein typically escapes digestion by the animal’s endogenous proteases and passes through as waste – causing serious challenges for poultry producers.

Here’s the solution. Axtra PRO improves the digestibility of amino acids present in animal diets. Research has shown that on average Axtra PRO provides improvements proportional to the undigested fraction, making 22 percent of the non-digested amino acids digestible. Axtra PRO will improve protein digestibility in animal diets and save animal producers up to US$7.8/treated ton, without compromising performance or animal health.

If deployed successfully (after all, a launch is not the same as broad industry acceptance), there are some game-changing potentialities here. For example, the knock on distiller’s grains and some other industrial processing residues — for some animals has been digestibility. So, consider that the race is on at labs across the country to address that. That may be a factor in accelerating novel crop acceptance. It may alter the underlying demand for existing crops — or change the geographies that are suitable for protein development.

Genetics. #2. Benson Hill launches CRISPR 3.0, an alternative genome editing tool

In Missouri, Benson Hill Biosystems, an agricultural technology company that uses cloud biology to unlock the genetic potential of plants, launched CRISPR 3.0, a novel family of Cms1 nucleases as part of its suite of genomics tools to accelerate crop performance improvements.

Matthew Crisp, CEO and co-founder of Benson Hill Biosystems said, “CRISPR 3.0 expands the portfolio of genome editing capabilities we are building for our partners to leverage the natural genetic diversity of plants and develop more nutrient-dense crops, improve crop productivity and use natural resources more efficiently.”

Benson Hill’s CRISPR 3.0 portfolio of nucleases demonstrate a shorter length than many other widely-used nucleases, enabling easier delivery.  With uncertainty around the intellectual property landscape and broad claims surrounding the widely used CRISPR/Cas9, CRISPR 3.0 and Benson Hill’s partnership business model offer an alternative genome editing solution for organizations interested in accessing this powerful technology to accelerate their business goals.

Genetics. #3. First ever plant-based alternative to raw tuna in select Whole Foods Market sushi venues

In Texas, Whole Foods Market will now offer Ahimi, the first ever plant-based alternative to raw tuna, in select sushi venues in Los Angeles and New York. Created by Ocean Hugger Foods, Ahimi is made from tomatoes and savory, umami-rich ingredients to replicate the taste and texture of ahi tuna.

“A tasty, vegan option for raw tuna is at the intersection of a few major trends, including the growing popularity of sushi, as well as the surge in plant-based diets and dishes,” said Andy Sasser, global category manager at Whole Foods Market. “We love when we can bring shoppers something delicious that’s never been done before, and Ahimi does just that.”

Ahimi will be available at select in-store sushi venues in Los Angeles and New York beginning the first of November. Shoppers can try it in two sushi dishes – the Ahimi Nigiri and Roll Combo, and the Ahimi California Roll.

Transmission, processing, storage. #4. Smart Spraying from Bayer and Bosch makes crop protection more efficient

In Germany, Bayer and Bosch signed a three-year research collaboration agreement to develop Smart Spraying technology to make the application of crop protection products more efficient. The new technology will apply herbicide only to the parts of the field where they are really needed.

Weeds are difficult to identify, especially in the early stages of growth.  Using camera sensors, the new technology continually take pictures of the surface to determine what is growing in the field and then adopts a targeted application technique to spray crop protection agents specifically on weeds.

Bosch’s research work is focusing on highly effective sensor technology, smart analytics and selective spray systems. In its partnership with Bosch, Bayer is contributing the lessons it has learned in the field of Geographical Information Systems, including the development of algorithms that serve as the basis for agronomical decision-making, integrated pest management as well as formulation and application technology.

Genetics. #5. Bolthouse Farms Plant Protein Milk debuts with more calcium than dairy

In California, Bolthouse Farms, the largest producer of baby carrots in North America, debuted Bolthouse Farms Plant Protein Milk, a refrigerated non-dairy alternative milk that contains 10 grams of pea protein and 50 percent more calcium than dairy milk. Bolthouse Farms Plant Protein Milk is vegan, non-GMO and does not contain common allergens like dairy, nuts and soy, or intolerances like lactose and gluten.

“Current alternative milk options don’t address the needs of more than 40 percent of people seeking great tasting, nutrient rich, allergy-free options,” said Suzanne Ginestro, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, C-Fresh.  “Our Plant Protein Milk was created to satisfy the growing number of consumers seeking plant-based proteins, as well as traditional dairy milk drinkers looking for better food choices that are also rich in calcium.”

According to recent data from Information Resources, Inc., the non-dairy milk segment is expected to grow to $4 billion by 2020.

Intelligence. #6. AB InBev partners with Agrible to improve barley production and sustainability worldwide

In Illinois, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest brewer and user of malt barley in the world, announced a global partnership with Agrible, Inc. to improve barley production while minimizing environmental impact. This partnership enhances AB InBev’s SmartBarley program, present in 13 countries across 5 continents, by adding Agrible’s Morning Farm Report to help growers detect disease threats earlier, improve logistics planning, monitor crops on all fields and improve quality.

Agrible and AB InBev began their work together in 2016 forecasting barley yield and quality factors through better crop modeling and predictive analytics for American farmers. The relationship has developed beyond the United States into a major international expansion for Agrible and begins with South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina.

Agrible and AB InBev will also work together to develop sustainability insights and metrics in areas such as water use, land efficiency and the carbon footprint from growing and sourcing ingredients.

Genetics. #7. “Smart” cotton yields glow-in-the-dark, magnetic fibers

In Israel, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have created cotton with glow-in-the-dark  and magnetic properties that could create a blueprint for the development of other functional materials.

Lead researcher Filipe Natalio, Ph.D., tells Inverse that they grew cotton to incorporate fluorescent molecules into its fibers by using glucose derivatives as a “molecular glue” between the outerlayer of cotton fibers and fluorescent material. They used a similar approach to attach magnetic molecules to cellulose fibers. Neither approach required genetic engineering.

And, unlike other “smart materials,” the cotton does not gain its unique properties from novel coatings that become less functional with time and wear and tear.

“Fluorescence and magnetic properties were our proof-of-principle—the applications are now open,” Natalio says. “Current approaches for smart textiles use coatings. In our approach, the functional molecule will be weaved together with other building blocks, like glucose, into functional threads.” Using this approach, “smart plants” could be grown simply by adding functional molecules to the plant’s water supply, he adds.

Robotics. #8 Ultra-compact robot autonomously measures crop traits all day on a single charge

In Illinois, TerraSentia, a new-to-the-market agricultural robot that autonomously measures crop traits, was unveiled by EarthSense, Inc. Developed at the University of Illinois, the robot can autonomously count plants and measure stem width to help estimate biomass for corn, sorghum and soybeans.

The robot’s developer, Girish Chowdhary, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at U of I, envisions a fleet of these ultra-compact robots roving fields doing simple tasks that will free up precious human capital to work on the big picture.

TerraSentia comes equipped with two visual cameras, a tablet app featuring first-person view and secure cloud software that is used to store data and teach the robot. The ultra-compact robot weighs less than 15 pounds, is just 11 inches wide to fit in most crop rows and will cost early adopters $4,999.  At 8.5 hours per charge, the robot’s battery lasts a full workday.

Genetics. #9. Pearl millet genome sequencing could help millions of people

In India, a global team of 65 scientists from 30 research institutions, called the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, decoded and sequenced the pearl millet genome in order to understand how this cereal survives higher temperatures and droughts better than other food crops. They found the pearl millet genome contains molecular markers related to drought and heat tolerance as well as other important traits (better nutrition profile, pest resistance). This will catalyze breeding efforts to improve this crucial staple food for millions of people in arid and semi-arid Africa and Asia in particular.

Pearl millet is a nutritious drylands cereal, rich in protein, fiber and essential micronutrients like iron, zinc and folate. The faster development of improved pearl millet varieties that can grow despite heat and drought, and still yield good harvests and income for smallholder farmers will help communities to adapt to climate change and be food and nutrition secure.

Intelligence. #10. Sustainable Solutions, Sumitomo-style.

In California, Valent U.S.A., a subsidiary of Sumitomo, launched its Sustainable Solutions Business Unit, a new division within the company that is completely dedicated to supporting the industry in the adoption and integration of sustainable production practices for crop protection, productivity and yield enhancement products and technologies. They will work with established customers and key stakeholders within the industry to provide education and technical support to accelerate the adoption of integrated crop management solutions that include both traditional and biorational systems.

This new business unit is among the latest commitments to sustainability made by Valent and its parent company Sumitomo Chemical, following a global endorsement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals made by both companies.

“Valent and Sumitomo are unique in our industry, because we have a long history of significant and balanced investments in marketing and research for both traditional and biorational crop solutions,” said Matt Plitt, Valent Executive Vice President and COO.  “A commitment to sustainability is at the core of our business, and the formation of a dedicated business unit underscores our intention to play a leadership role in supporting the evolution of sustainable production practices in the agriculture industry.”

The Exciting Note

This is just one week. That’s an awesome pace of global innovation — fast is getting faster.

The Cautionary Note

The New York Times inadvertently sounded the alarm in this story about the attempt to rescue global chocolate supplies from cacao fungus. They spotlighted the laudable efforts of the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program at C.A.T.I.E, which has launched a fungal rot-resistant hybrid across Latin America. That’s the good news. The cautionary note is in a comment by program leader Wilbert Phillips-Mora.

“Our goal is not just to produce cacao,” Dr. Phillips-Mora told the Times. “It’s also to give the basic living conditions to the farmers. Most cacao farmers are very poor, because the system is based on material that doesn’t have good yielding capacity.”

Why are farmers poor?

The blame generally goes to poor yields, and ultimately that leads to discussion of farmer practices, and generally to something about certain regions not keeping up with technology.

Which is very, very good for companies that sell technology, seeds with better yields, or sell advisory services on farmer practices. But it’s not the underlying reason.

Here’s the reason.

Back in 1917, 100 years ago, a standard box of Kellogg’s corn flakes (typically, these were around 8 oz at the time) cost 8 cents and corn was priced at $1.39 per bushel. So, the grower received, more or less, 15 percent of the value of the product.


In 2014, an 18 oz box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cost around $4.00 and corn was priced at $3.70 per bushel. So, the grower received, more or less, 2 percent of the value of the product.

Despite all the productivity gains in industrial processing. Despite the vastly improved distribution logistics. Despite 100 years of cost improvement in all the things that aren’t about growing.

That’s why farmers are poor. It’s about the divvying up of the value; growers are disorganized and buyers are organized. It’s the same reason the the people who find your high-priced diamonds live in utter poverty. Will it ever change?

How will growers afford all these technological miracles? With the rise of the developing world, there might be a revolution in the Value Chain to parallel the revolution in the lab and field  — and it certainly should be in anyone’s top 3 of factors that might completely disrupt your economic world.

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