Food 2.0: Will farmers be able to meet the ecological challenges ahead?

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Paul Farrell, a columnist for the business news website MarketWatch recently ran an omnibus column, ‘Why ‘Food 2.0’ is tech’s next big start-up craze“, looking at the challenges and opportunities for businesses in attempting to feed 9 billion humans by 2050. He maps out a hodgepodge of looming problems and how they might effect the market. He covers how all this could affect the big ag companies and describes some start ups that are already tackling some problems. It’s worth reviewing what the future might hold.

Farrell, known for his exaggerated takes on issues, gives his spin on the environmental challenges that might arise due to climate change and how they might affect large ag companies like Monsanto:

Tim Radford on the Climate Change Network (warns): “Coming soon to a farm near you: just about every possible type of pest that could take advantage of the ripening harvest in the nearby fields.”

According to the Global Ecology and Biogeography journal, by 2050 many more “opportunistic viruses, bacteria, fungi, blights, mildews, rusts, beetles, nematodes, flies, mites, spiders and caterpillars that farmers call pests will have saturated the world.” Researchers at UK University of Exeter reviewed “the present status of 1,901 pests and pathogens and examined historical records of another 424 species” since 1822.

Bottom line: “If crop pests continue to spread at current rates, many of the world’s biggest crop-producing nations will be inundated by the middle of the century, posing a grave threat to global food security,” warns Exeter’s Dan Bebber. This is obviously bad news for Monsanto and other Big Ag companies. But worse for the 10 billion of us living on Planet Earth, by 2050 these armies of food pests will be getting first bite of Big Ag’s crops, leaving much less for 10 billion humans.

This is an outlier characterization of what the future of farming may hold, as most experts see the challenges of pesticide management as very manageable. But let’s take his doomsday scenario at face value. While an inundation of pests would not be good news for farmers or their customers, why would this be a problem for the likes of Monsanto, Dow Agrosciences or Syngenta? Selling farmers solutions to their problems is their business.

Love them or hate them, as organic farmer Rob Wallbridge said upon touring Monsanto’s breeding facility, “It’s very difficult for someone with an interest in agriculture, and especially seeds, not to be impressed with the scope, power, and potential of the research taking place at Monsanto.”

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The big ag players are really good at solving problems for farmers. Monsanto has made two major acquisitions in the last few years, Climate Corp and Beelogics. Climate Corp, founded by former Googlers, offers farmers up to date weather information and forecasting at the level of the quarter acre, in terms of granularity. This allows for precision use of irrigation, planting and use of inputs. Beelogics, now a division of Monsanto is working on RNAi (RNA interference) based products that are designed to protect bees from infectious diseases and parasites. The first product out deals with preventing Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. The more problems farmers have, the more opportunities for Monsanto and its competitors to sell farmers products to deal with them.

Related article:  Climate change historian Naomi Oreskes rejects consensus on nuclear energy, GMOs

Farrell then turns his attention to a bunch of Silicon Valley derived food tech start ups that have been dubbed Food 2.0. They share the use of big data to combine obscure ingredients into novel and useful combinations. Consider Hampton Creek and the sourcing challenge that it creates.

Hampton Creek is using a massive database of plant proteins to hunt for and replace the proteins in eggs that are useful for binding and emulsifying in the production of processed foods. Instead of the entropy involved in the raising and keeping chickens to create binding and emulsifying proteins, they are plucking the proteins straight from plant sources. Its most successful product, Just Mayo uses protein from Canadian yellow peas as a substitute for the protein from the egg for emulsification.The environmental impact is a big improvement over eggs and the economics are great for a small company.

While an egg farm uses large amounts of water and burns 39 calories of energy for every calorie of food produced, Hampton Creek’s CEO, Josh Tetrick says he can make plant-based versions on a fraction of the water and only two calories of energy per calorie of food — free of cholesterol, saturated fat, allergens, avian flu, and cruelty to animals. For half the price of an egg.

But the economics start to shift if the company is successful.

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“I think their success is going to be limited to a niche market for now,” says Christine Alvarado, an associate professor of poultry science at Texas A&M. And should the company discover a compelling protein that comes from an unusual plant, it must convince farmers to supply that crop in huge quantities without raising costs. “The more specialized your raw material, the higher risks the supply chain will face,” observes Jon Stratford of Natural Products, which makes a soy-based egg substitute for the food industry.

How far off is the day when Tetrick’s company will turn to synthetic biology? Why convince a farmer to grow a pea just so you can extract a protein from it when algae or yeast produce just the protein needed without having to figure out what to do with the rest of the pea or worry about driving up the price of peas as demand increases.

That touches on what was missing from Farrell’s round up of what the big guys are facing and the upstarts are tackling. The biggest challenges we face in the food system are distributional. There’s where waste happens and that’s where matters of equity are amplified. The big ag firms are developing text message data platforms for developing world farmers, but beyond that, I’m not hearing much about start ups working to put the best food and ag tech into the hands of the farmers or consumers who need it the most.

Marc Brazeau is a writer and agriculture editor for the Genetic Literacy Project. He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg.

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