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Can we feed the world without burning it down? The world’s agri-food greenhouse gas footprint has reached unprecedented levels. And with the global population set to surge to 10 billion by 2050, that footprint is on track to more than triple based on today’s agricultural practices. Further, agriculture (including animal husbandry) is responsible for 70 percent of human water withdrawals, 78 percent of water pollution, and 83 percent of land deforestation.
We simply can’t feed 10 billion people without destroying the planet if our agriculture industry does not dramatically change. It is time to shift the conversation from the problems to the solutions. While investment in agri-food innovation and more sustainable farming practices has climbed to nearly $5 billion in the last five years, it still lags substantially behind cleantech. A number of key agri-food technology innovations deserve more attention and significantly more funding. Let’s take a closer look at them.
1. Agricultural innovations to reduce greenhouse gases
An examination of recent agtech venture funding trends reveals four key clusters of tech innovation that can mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) risks and turn the tide:
Climate-neutral meat production to reduce carbon output. While some may argue that veganism is the only way to meet GHG emission reduction goals, the reality is, people aren’t going to stop eating meat. In fact, animal protein production will increase globally as developing countries and growing populations consume more meat and dairy products. Instead of eliminating meat, we must focus on producing meat in a way that will not harm the planet. Important work on this front has already begun: Precision pastoral systems for dairy and beef cattle emit about 60% less GHG than typical feedlot systems.
We can dramatically reduce emissions from there by implementing selective breeding, accelerated progeny dissemination, gene-edited forages, and optimized feed additives or vaccines that inhibit bacteria growth without compromising milk and beef quality. Leading corporations like Danone and New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra have committed to climate-neutral production by 2050, spurring a global market shift towards identity-preserved, low-carbon meat and dairy. In addition to climate-neutral meat, others like Silicon Valley’s Memphis Meats are also revolutionizing so-called molecular protein, to enable cost-effective production of real meat without animals, and therefore a fraction of the GHG load.
2. Digitized supply chains to reduce food waste
25-30% of all food is wasted today, which creates a combined social, environmental, and economic cost of $2.5 trillion annually. Impact investment to overhaul our food system is critical to boosting productivity while simultaneously eliminating waste and reducing GHG. Specifically, today’s outdated analog supply chain must be updated with digital technologies. Consider that 20% of the food produced in developed countries is left in the field. Startups such as Full Harvest that demonstrate innovative ways to capture this “waste” from the field and sell it to food processors via regional market making technology are getting serious funding and traction. Other companies working on the waste issue include those using livestock waste as a nutrient source such as Netafim and food waste as fertilizer such as California Safe Soil.
Meanwhile, consumer behavior research and advancements in data analytics and artificial intelligence are helping restaurants and other commercial food institutions better predict consumption, “upcycle” food materials, and reduce waste, potentially transforming the food service sector, such as we are seeing with companies like Aggrigator and Farmer’s Fridge. (Disclosure: Our firm has an investment in Farmer’s Fridge.) In addition, there are chemistry-based advancements like Apeel Sciences and Hazel Technologies to enhance shelf life and minimize supply chain constraints.
3. Modernized farming practices to improve water quality
Water pollution from farming is a major contributor to GHG. Today, 60-400 grams for each kg of nitrogen applied is wasted to denitrification, or runoff, which causes pollution of nearby lakes and streams. Modernized farming practices, such as the use of soil-based and aerial sensors, drones, data analytics, and pest and pathogen detection systems, are slowly but surely taking hold. When combined with advanced fertilizer formulations, these digital farming technologies can substantially reduce nitrogen and nutrient loss, and mitigate water pollution. Startups in this space include Greenlight Biosciences, Joyn and Pivot Bio. Spurred by supply chain members and consumers alike who demand greater traceability and transparency, this evolution will continue to grow in scale.
4. Intensified sustainable production to maximize land and water use
The use of controlled environment agriculture (“CEA”) together with machine learning and automation is beginning to transform the production of high-value crops – from leafy greens to berries and fruiting vegetables – that require significant land and water use. Leaders in CEA such as Plenty, Bowery, and Crop One Holdings, promise 200 to 300X the land productivity and less than two percent of conventional water usage, while using no pesticides and producing no fertilizer runoff. (Disclosure: Our firm is an investor in Plenty.) While there are now more than 30 funded players in this space, 80 Acre Farms, Aerofarms, InFarm, and Ocado are also gaining traction. These innovations are maximizing outputs that deliver on urban consumers’ increasing demands for healthy and convenient plant-based foods.
The investment imperative
Many of the above technological opportunities, and even the latest directives from influential organizations like the United Nations, put the financial onus squarely on farmers. As a result, both corporate agriculture technology and equipment majors like Covanta and John Deere are teaming with venture capital firms to develop technologies that can reduce waste and improve yields, which combined lower the environmental footprint and make regulatory compliance more affordable. Our firm, for example, has invested in a combination of technologies that improve yields through gene editing (ZeaKal), digitally optimize water and nutrients with data analytics (CropX), and provide financial insurance for underwriting agronomic technology prescriptions (Growers Edge Financial) could potentially double the profit margin per acre of major staples like soy. There are a number of other players in the digital space to note, from Arable, Ceres, and Cropio (acquired by Syngenta) to FarmMobile, FieldIn, Prospera, Taranis (another of our investments), and Terravion. Crop and plant science players include Benson Hill Bio and Tropic Biosciences. Meanwhile, NGOs like The Gates Foundation fund projects in developing countries to advance tech and management practices improving food sustainability and resilience.
The good news … and the bad news
Our current food system needs to be fixed. The good news is the market is poised for the same radical efficiency improvements and structural transformation that we witnessed in the energy sector.
The bad news is that agtech is still underfunded relative to its climate impact. While food and agriculture contributes a whopping quarter of our net GHG emissions, only a fraction of cleantech venture investment over the past decade has gone to mitigation technologies in agriculture, despite the fact that ag and food tech have earned superior returns.
Illustrating this point, PitchBook found that from 2002 to 2017, U.S. venture capital returns (IRR) in ag and food tech were 13.4% compared to 8% returns in cleantech. While between 2012 and 2017, the gap tightened, with ag and food tech yielding 16.3% IRR versus 13.2% IRR for cleantech.
This needs to change before it is too late. Our planet’s food supply, safety, and security depend on an increased focus on agtech innovations that can dramatically improve our GHG footprint.
Arama Kukutai is co-founder and Partner at Finistere Ventures.
Kyle Datta is Sustainability Advocate and Senior Advisor at Finistere Ventures.