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10 years in agtech

10 Years in Agtech: Ag Innovation Showcase’s Rohit Shukla Shares Thoughts on Future of Food

October 4, 2018

Editor’s Note: Rohit Shukla is CEO of the Larta Institute, the LA-based incubation organization and organizer of agtech’s longest running conference the Ag Innovation Showcase, which just had its 10th anniversary. Shukla shares his insights from the event.

We grapple with the future of food, now more than ever.

Resource limitations are closing in. The nutritional quality of food has diminished over the last 25 years, leaving consumers in both the developing and developed world less able to access the micronutrients necessary to good health.

Resource management, water, and environmental issues have left their own mark on the industry, forcing a rethink of the ways in which we bring food from farm to plate. Additionally, the rising demands of consumers are creating unavoidable pressures for companies large and small to cater to new tastes, natural methods, and increasingly transparent and responsible actions in the way that food is made, processed, and sold.  

This is a critical juncture for the food industry, and an opportune time for broad dialog on these issues. It was a particularly timely staging for the 2018 Ag Innovation Showcase, the 10th anniversary of the event convened by Larta Institute and the Danforth Plant Science Center at Danforth’s wonderful HQ in St. Louis last month.

While this year’s “Showcase”, as it is known, did reflect on the journey the entire industry has taken in the last decade, marked by radical advancements in divergent fields like gene editing, artificial intelligence, and automation, the event was much more a collective admission of the important crossroads we’ve come to, the current pressures the industry is facing, and how these landmark innovations over the last decade and right up to the present moment have brought an opportunity to redesign food systems for a more abundant future.

The event could not have started more appropriately than with a keynote address from Mehmood Khan, the Vice Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of PEPSICO, who put the entire theme “from farm to plate” into context with a talk on the importance of consumers in plotting the future of the food industry. In addressing what he called “the reverse commute”,he spoke about the changing behaviors of consumers, and how they are driving broad decisions around nutrient quality, and sourcing, product packaging, water use and environmental impact. As PEPSICO and others in global agribusiness shift strategies to address consumer desires both in the food they eat and the manner in which it is provided, we can appreciate in a greater sense the understanding they have for the broader impacts of their work, and the efforts underway to rethink those systems that can work more to our betterment and that of consumers while being better for business.

These themes around responsibility and consumer engagement are particularly relevant as we reflected on current events, like the red algae tide that has greatly impacted Florida’s tourist industry in recent months and brought the effects of over-fertilization to the mainstream.  

When we say that the conference centered around the scope of the industry from farm to plate, we might say that the fertilizer industry in many ways sits at the head of the table. The fertilizer industry knows how to scale, to produce in quantity. They know about plants, how to deliver optimum nutrients, and they know that they have to keep diagnosing the soil to understand health. Fertilizer is necessarily a central part of the dialog around the future of food.  

In her keynote conversation with key executives from Nutrien and Yara, Charlotte Hebebrand of the International Fertilizer Industry addressed many of these issues directly, in terms of its industry focus on what we call the “Four R’s”: the right source material (emphasizing better, more effective fertilizers made from environmentally-friendly materials), delivered at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place.

Neil Gutterson, Chief Technology Officer of Corteva, the newly-merged entity of DuPont Pioneer, DuPont Crop Protection and Dow AgroSciences, illustrated not only the company’s quest for innovation within its own ranks to help address ag challenges through their own innovation pathways, but in aggressively adopting an open innovation platform; bringing small, nimble, innovative startups to the table to share resources from a global leader in crop sciences, in an effort to help spur the kind of breakthroughs needed to bring the best solutions forward. There is a strong realization within the ag space that it is not an either-or between early stage innovators or industry stalwarts – but a combination of strengths between them both that can help solve the most critical issues being put forward.

The Showcase companies, selected from many dozens of applicants around the world, presented the way their innovations are addressing these same global challenges across plant biology and genomics, plant protection, and consumer drivers.

Plastomics has put together a strong system for layering in beneficial plant traits through chloroplast engineering, while Pivot Bio leverages sustainable, nitrogen-producing microbes that grow within the plant and spoon-feed the roots. Whether in the genome or microbial plant physiology, these companies stand to change the way in which our relationship with plants can be more beneficial and address growing global challenges for nutrition, yield, and resilience.

We also heard from innovators in plant protection and nutrients. Startups like Phospholutions described their system for devising technologies to minimize runoff of fertilizers into waterways, by retaining and capturing phosphorous, converting it into a fertilizer. Similarly, Aker Technologies, the “WeatherUnderground of the crop market”, is creating a global pest and pathogen information network, bringing rich network of agronomic data to use big data in order to understand farming more precisely. Teralytic, a soil analytics company helping farmers grow more with less, showcased a probe that measures and communicates detailed soil quality for precise decision making in the field. These kinds of solutions bring insight and intelligence to assist the soil and how it’s being used.

Thirdly, our Showcase companies highlighted the ways in which consumer demand drives food systems, and how new food products and processes are emphasizing nutrition, sustainability, and equity. Answering consumer demand for protein-rich, low-carb foods as well as minimizing waste in the supply chain, Planetarians adds new value to overlooked, defatted seeds – converting them into protein-rich ingredients to fortify foods (or in the form of a crispy snack that many enjoyed in the Danforth center). To preserve foods on the shelf, StixFresh proudly displayed a food sticker that extends the life of fruits, while FreshSpoke rethinks the food supply chain by bringing wholesale buyers together with local food suppliers in an online marketplace, solving distribution problems while minimizing food waste.

Ag Innovation Showcase reminded us, now more than ever, that addressing an issue in the agriculture space is best solved when inspecting the entire industry chain holistically, from farm to plate. Consumers drive demand, and consumer-facing companies must in turn demand transparency from their supply chain, in order to begin to solve challenges we face on the farm, in the lab, in the warehouse, or in the store. If innovators continue to share their breakthroughs with the entire industry at events like these, progress and information will be easier disseminated and absorbed, making industry wide innovation more efficient and forward thinking.

For information on the event, and video excerpts of keynotes and special sessions of much of what is referenced above, please refer to the Ag Innovation Showcase Facebook page.

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