AgBiome team in office lobby
Image credit: AgBiome

Future Food 🎙️: Why Bayer’s former CEO joined a startup working on microbial crop protection

June 3, 2021

The pressure is on to find new ways for farmers to protect their crops from disease, pests, and weeds. Synthetic chemicals used to be the name of the game; but there are only so many that can be made – and their impact on the environment is now in the spotlight like never before, with consumers and lawmakers alike demanding change.

One of the world’s biggest producers of these agro-chemicals is German giant Bayer – and its former CEO is putting faith in the humble microbe to provide the next generation of ultra-versatile, environmentally friendly crop inputs.

“At some point, most of the compounds have been made, have been tested, and it becomes harder and harder to really introduce new products that are significantly better than what’s already there,” Marijn Dekkers — who swapped the Bayer C-suite for the rather different surrounds of a startup boardroom — told AFN chief editor Louisa Burwood-Taylor in a recent podcast along with AgBiome CEO Eric Ward.

The startup he has joined is Raleigh, North Carolina-based AgBiome, which is using its intricate understanding of the plant-related microbiome to develop biological solutions to crop problems like infections, insects, and nematodes.

How AgBiome helps African farmers to combat sweet potato weevil – read more here

Listen to the podcast below or on your favorite podcasting app, to find out why Dekkers joined the board of AgBiome, his and Ward’s views on the agro-chemicals industry today, and how AgBiome is approaching this challenging space with backing from high-profile investors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Louisa B-T:
Well, thank you both so much for joining me today. So can you tell us where you are and what you last ate?

Eric Ward:
I’m in beautiful Durham North Carolina and the last thing I ate was actually a supposedly health-conscious stroopwafel. Believe it or not, one of those waffle things, traditional breakfast snack here, along with a double espresso. Thank you very much, from our local roaster counter-culture coffee.

Louisa B-T:
Very good Marijn?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
I ate, nonfat Greek yogurt, believe it or not. And I didn’t know this question was coming, but I eat it every morning with a banana and some green tea. And then very quickly I throw all this healthy stuff away and start sending the rest of the day. I start with a clean conscience.

Louisa B-T:
And how would you both describe your food preferences?

Eric Ward:
Wow. Well, I am an adherent of the belief that I read several years ago someone said that every bite should be as tasty as possible. You only have so many heartbeats, you only have so many bites of food. So I like really delicious food. I’m pretty agnostic about where it comes from or how much it costs. But that’s my very strong preference.

Louisa B-T:
Marijn do you have a typical Dutch preferences?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yes, it’s the Dutch French fries with a lot of mayonnaise. Unfortunately you cannot buy it in the U.S. but in the 10 years that I lived in Germany, there was in town a Dutch, french fry shop in Dusseldorf and every Saturday day for lunch I would go there. And when they saw me coming through the street, they were all already starting. I ordered every Saturday exactly the same. No, I actually have to say when I was young I didn’t care that much and it was mostly fuel. But as I got older I became more and more picky. I’m married to a woman who’s an unbelievable cook, an unbelievable cook. So she sets a very high standard for herself and I’m just happily tagging along. I had short ribs in an amazing sauce yesterday with mashed potatoes and then carrots and some other vegetables steamed and all this kind of stuff just on a Sunday evening homemade. So, that’s how I get spoiled here.

Eric Ward:
Sounds like a proper Sunday roast.

Louisa B-T:
Yes, exactly. Yeah exactly, English Sunday roast. Brilliant. Well, just before we hopped on the recording, I was saying to Eric that I’ve been tracking AgBiome since 2014, which was when you did your series A. I think you were one of the first startups that was so exciting research around the soil microbiome and really looking at ways to bring products to farmers there. Skip forward to today and you’ve got some really big investors. You were actually the first investment I checked back on [inaudible 00:10:04]. First ag tech investment for Bill and Gates, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in terms of equity, I think. So, that’s quite an amazing achievement. Can you just give me a bit of a description? How would you describe AgBiome today to someone who’s not in the agriculture industry?

Eric Ward:
Yeah I think the simplest as description is that we discover, develop and then sell and market naturally occurring microbes that we discover that help protect crops from diseases and Pests. And it’s not very well understood outside agriculture, the importance of crop protection without the ability to fend off those disease causing fungi and insects and nematodes. You literally can’t produce crops. And so they’re a critical need everywhere that food of any kind is grown. So we address that problem very directly. Probably the most important thing we do is we find completely new ways of protecting those crops. If you go back to the sort of traditional synthetic pesticide industry which really was born kind of post World War II, it was quite successful for the past 80 years or so, but the really new ways of controlling diseases and insects have dropped off a cliff over the last 20 years. So we need completely new ways of taking care of those organisms. And that’s what we do.

Louisa B-T:
What’s a nematode?

Eric Ward:
A nematode is a tiny round worm which is probably one of the most ubiquitous organisms on the planet. They’re usually a millimeter or less in size. There are literally billions of them in every shovel full of soil you would pull up in a lot of places. Of course, some of them cause human diseases well, they’re all over. And famously studied as a model organism too. There’s a lab rat called [inaudible 00:12:11] that has only about 900 cells when it’s mature. So it was a popular study organism for development.

Louisa B-T:
So why did you found AgBiome? What were you doing before Eric?

Eric Ward:
Well, I have to credit my co-founder Scott Uknes largely he serial entrepreneur, paradigm genetics of Phoenix prior to AgBiome. He had been working for Bayer actually a couple levels down from the gentleman on this call with me, Marijn Dekkers. And had left in the spring of 2012 and was looking for another company to start in this idea that the microbiome world is this huge untapped source of biological activity that hasn’t really been properly used for agriculture yet. It was kind of top of mind for him. I had been working for a nonprofit called the Two Blades Foundation, actually most recently I was over in Norwich in your beautiful country in East Anglia. And had returned to the U.S. and started to talk to Scott who coincidentally, I have known since August of 1982 when we started graduate school together. So we reformed the bond that’s been formed over the last 30+ years and, got together with a couple of other leading academics, Jeff Dangl, and Paul Schulze-Lefert and got the company going.

Louisa B-T:
Yes. So it’s great to have you on this call Marijn. You’re formerly the CEO of Bayer Ag, and you’re also the CEO of Thermo Fisher Scientific. How did you come across AgBiome and in the context of your experience with Bayer, what really made them stand out?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yeah, I came across AgBiome because Scott called me one day a few years ago and I knew Scott, as Eric mentioned from a few years of overlap that we had a Bayer. And Scott says “Hey, you left Bayer yes,” and I had come a private investor. I started an investment firm later, Novalis LifeSciences and basically making investments in the life sciences space and also do some advisory for the companies that I’m investing in. And I got to know Scott. I got to know Eric and I became very intrigued by what they’re doing, and that led to an investment and to me becoming an advisor about a year and a half ago, which the most recently I became chairman, as you know.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
So why am I so interested in this? Bayer has and had when I was there, I left April 2016, a very large agricultural business as you know, crop science, which is mostly crop protection. Not so much seeds at the time, but mostly crop protection. And anything under the sine fungicides herbicides, insecticides, you name it. We had a very, very broad portfolio with the competitors being Syngenta at the time and DuPont, which is now Corteva, sort of our big three there. BSF is the fourth one. So big four. I began to relatively quickly after I joined Bayer in 2010 recognized that the way to just come up with another synthetic molecule all the time, in terms of driving innovation, innovation from an efficacy point of view, but also from a safety point of view that that was running out of steam.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
At some point, most of the compounds have been made, have been tested and it became harder and harder to really introduce new products that are significantly better than what’s already there. So I got very interested in biologics. I actually bought a company in 2012, AgraQuest, and what I found is, that it’s very, very hard inside of a large company that’s focused on synthetic pesticides to make biological pesticides to success. The R&D people are excited about it because they just want better products. They want alternatives, but it was for the salespeople very, very hard to go and say, “Hey, why don’t you try this biological product?” Well, the farmer says “Why would I do that?” “Well, there might be an environmental benefit to it.” “Well, so you’re telling me that the other stuff is bad?”

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
So it’s very, very hard to get a larger organization with 10 billion Euro in revenue motivated to try different things, which is often a large companies dilemma right? And this is why often innovation at these large companies, if it’s not in the core of their capability and the business happen slow and other people can go around them. So when I left Bayer, I was very motivated to see if I can do something in the biological crop protection area. And AgBiome is one of my investments. I have a few other ones that are different, but in essence with the same goal to provide safer and still very efficacious new crop protection products based on biologics.

Louisa B-T:
So was the AgraQuest acquisition not a success?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
No, it wasn’t. No because in the end the technology was good but we did not get the revenue traction. And if you ask a 1,000 people that probably give a 1,000 different reasons, but in the end it was too different from what that company does and what it stands for.

Louisa B-T:
Did it form the foundation though of Bayer’s biologicals department or?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yes. Yes. At the time, yes. Oh yes. That was the start of our biologic crop protection division.

Louisa B-T:
Does that not exist still today?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
It does. It does, but if you think about the size of it, the revenue it’s modest for the commercial reach that a company like Bayer has. So I think that, it’s not that the large companies could not do this, but there is I would say an institutional hesitation. And it’s going to be up to companies like AgBiome, I think to show society, show the farmers that this is here to stay, this will grow. This will become increasingly important. And therefore those companies have to be funded well with capital, because I do believe there’s a bright future for this and that society needs it.

Louisa B-T:
So is it fair to say for both of you that you’re more interested or your impetus around AgBiome and finding these alternative products for crop protection are more around kind of being effective and potentially running out of options on the chemistry side and less around the environmental side or?

Eric Ward:
Yeah, it’s a fine balance Louisa. It’s really both of course for the focus on efficacy is that as you well know, growers demand that their products work and as well they should. So that’s a cynic well known for us. We won’t develop anything that we haven’t proven to ourselves works as well as our chemical alternative. And we believe that’s going to be required in order to get the kind of market traction that Marijn referred to for biologicals to really make a significant impact on the business. In addition of course, there are other benefits which are tangible not only to growers, but to the ultimate consumers of the food, those of us driving a shopping cart up and down a grocery store aisle where there there’s not measurable chemical residue on the produce, where there’s less worker hazard around spraying some of the chemicals.

Eric Ward:
Now, of course, anything that’s labeled in a major OACD country is safe if applied according to label directions. Not withstanding that there’s increasing concern about the amount of synthetic pesticide that goes into the environment for all kinds of reasons. Some of which are quite valid. And as you well know in the EU, they’ve stated that they want to cut synthetic pesticide use by 50% over the next decade. So that alone is a driver that requires that alternatives come to the fore regardless of what your stance is on how safe these things are. So we’re not going around overtly rubbishing the whole synthetic pesticide industry. It’s played a huge role in the growth of modern agriculture. It’s in large part feeding the world along with synthetic fertilizer. That said, the future is now, and we’ve got to try to continue to augment that and find newer and better ways of doing things over time.

Eric Ward:
That’s true of any technology, right? And it’s especially critical for a technology that is the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy. We’re not talking about a gaming app on our phone here. This is the stuff that we eat and that we’re going to need to produce more of over the next 50 years as the population grows and then eventually plateaus out.

Louisa B-T:
So what is your approach to discovering microbial products and what technologies are you using?

Eric Ward:
Yeah, so we have a large proprietary collection of microbes that we’ve gathered from diverse environments all over. Primarily in the U.S. we’ve also done a significant amount of collecting in Africa through partnerships that we’ve developed in the context of the Gates grants that we have, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So we built up this very large proprietary resource of not only collected samples from diverse environments, but individual microbial strains derived from those. And then something that we started to do early on was do complete genome sequencing of every one of those microbes. So we know effectively all of the gene content of every strain that we’ve collected. All of that information goes into a rather sophisticated data architecture that’s pretty much infinitely scalable now, and allows us to do at very high speed, whole genome comparisons among any organisms in the collection. Including any new ones that come in, we can search the whole collection for similarity, and we can also search all the public data on the same basis.

Eric Ward:
So what that lets us do simply put is when we identify a strain that looks like it has an interesting property, like it kills a disease or is able to control an insect, we very quickly identify strains closely related to it. And find the local optimum around that initial hit so that the ethos is very similar to what you would do in a traditional chemical screen, where you get the hit structure and then immediately you make an analog cloud of related molecules around it. We can kind of do that in the same way at the microbial genome level. So that’s a unique attribute that we’ve got. And then the whole thing works because we have a validated screening paradigm in the laboratory where we can test really precisely for the control of the actual agronomic pests and diseases that are important in the field that translates with high reproducibility to activity in the field. So when we see something in the lab, we can be quite confident we’ll get a good result in the field as well.

Louisa B-T:
Marijn, how would you compare AgBiome’s approach to others that you’ve come across?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Well I think the microbial approach as an alternative for synthetic pesticides is probably most often used. But there are also some other ways of approaching it with large, bio molecules like proteins for instance. And they’re also biology friendly molecules. They’re again molecules that are based on nature’s monomers so to speak, because it’s a protein and derived from nature. And so there are different approaches. I think the microbes are very much proven in nature. I mean, microbes are in nature insecticides, they are fungicides, they are herbicides. They play a very active role in protecting plants as you know, so this is not new. Nature has been doing this for a long time.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
The challenge here is how do you get the right microbe on the right plan and make sure it procreates and survives in the sunlight or when it’s in a bottle or it’s being sprayed? So it’s more the surrounding technology rather than the concept. The concept is going on around us all day long. And that’s where the trick is. So, how do you make enough of these microbes? How do you scale them up? How does your fermentation process work? When it reaches the plant or the root, does it survive long enough? Et cetera. These are very, very practical questions that need to be addressed by these industry, but not the principle, the mechanism of how it works in my mind. It needs to be optimized.

Louisa B-T:
Interesting. And I noticed that you also a chairman for Ginkgo Bioworks talking about the fermentation and the actual production of microbes.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yeah.

Louisa B-T:
Is there a potential partnership there between AgBiome and Ginkgo Bioworks on the production of the product?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yeah, I mean, they’re very different companies obviously with Ginkgo being a company that can engineer micro organisms, so microbes by changing its DNA, putting genes in that can be very helpful. So there’s a lot of applications, agriculture being only one of them, but it’s a huge array of applications. But certainly if it’s possible to optimize a microbe let’s just say for simplicity, a fermentation process where the yield is relatively low. And that means that the cost of making these microbes is high. A company like Ginkgo has tremendous technology to make the bacteria just a little stronger and create more yield than a higher titer, et cetera, and go from 1% yield to 20% yield and suddenly cost of goods sold is absolutely not a problem anymore.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
So yes, there is an opportunity in a variety of areas. I’m very interested in synthetic biology for the scientific concept of it and the fact that it has so many different applications in different industries that are very different end markets. I’m very interested in AgBiome because it’s really is very focused on agriculture and the challenge of safer crop protection that is still efficacious as the older products. I mean, so that’s a very almost like a forward integrated opportunity of Ginkgo.

Eric Ward:
Yeah. We’re super interested in synthetic biology as well Louisa. To date we’ve found enough natural diversity and enough efficacy within naturally occurring microbes that we’ve isolated that we haven’t resorted to it, but we absolutely don’t rule it out. And it’s mostly for expedience that we haven’t done a lot of it. Of course, you get yourself into various regulatory challenges in different parts of the world when we start to do that, whether or not you think there’s any actual risk associated with it. So we’ve been really happy with the high level of efficacy we found in naturally occurring microbes. But we’ve also mined our collection for other properties outside of our core business, kind of riffing off of this synthetic biology piece.

Eric Ward:
We’ve identified thousands of novel CRISPR genome editing systems in our collection for instance. So we put together a small team in a subsidiary that pretty quickly went through those invalidated several dozen of them show that they had efficacy in mammalian cells. And we’ve now partnered with ElevateBio out of Cambridge, Massachusetts to put together a company called LifeEDIT Therapeutics which is using that platform of genome editing tools from our collection for human therapeutic use for cell and gene therapy. So we’re mindful of other opportunities in this big microbial discovery space that we’ve created within the company.

Louisa B-T:
There’s definitely been some question marks around the efficacy of biologicals over the years. Can you share a bit about some of your traction and success and about the products that you have currently out there?

Eric Ward:
Sure. Yeah. So we launched a product called Howler fungicide in the fourth quarter of 2019. So we just taking over a full year of selling for the first time. We’ve had tremendous grower response to it that’s backed up by trials that we’ve done with the university cooperators that are experts in the particular crop disease combination as well as with contract research organizations, as well as with distributors. And what we’re finding over and over again is the product works as well as the synthetic chemical alternatives, in the specific crop disease combinations we’re going after. So there’s been huge interest in it as a result of that. And yet no doubt, there is a hurdle you got to get over at the start, which is biologicals are insert pejorative phrase here snake oil, you name it.

Eric Ward:
And that’s a bit unfair I think in some cases, given that some of those older products have been around for a long time. They have well-recognized limitations and okay they’re great, they don’t work as well as some sort of broad spectrum elderly pesticide that’s a multi-site pesticide, but some of them are actually okay. I think another differentiator between what we’re doing in the crop protection space and a lot of the other biologicals out there is we’re not selling based on yield enhancement or bio stimulant activity. And those products are tougher to work with. They tend to be very environment specific and weather specific even. In addition, they’re effectively impossible to identify in the laboratory. Nobody’s ever come up with a way of testing in the lab or greenhouse for something that will cause growth stimulation that actually carries over to the field.

Eric Ward:
And that experiment’s been done over and over in many different companies of all different sizes. So we’re quite skeptical when we see dramatic yield increased numbers attributed that given that in a row crop like corn, you’re looking at a minimum of three seasons of data across 24 locations in order to be able to get a statistically significant result. In crop protection it’s much more black and white. The disease is controlled or it isn’t kind of. So in that sense it’s an easier target, but you’ve got a very quantifiable hurdle you have to get over. It has to work and it has to work in a way that the grower can see.

Louisa B-T:
What is the mode of action typically for your products? Is it killing the pest or is it putting them off?

Eric Ward:
A whole bunch of different things is the somewhat complicated answer.

Louisa B-T:
Is that a good way of saying, is that the technical way of saying putting them off?

Eric Ward:
Yeah. So Marijn referred to this natural diversity out there. So microbes have been kind of at chemical warfare with one another for like 300 billion years on earth, right? So these things have a lot of different ways of inhibiting each other’s growth. And so if we look at a product like Howler, that’s a naturally occurring bacteria. It makes a number of directly antifungal chemicals. It makes some fungistatic chemicals. It makes enzymes that digest fungal cell walls. From microscopic studies, it’s currently able to directly parasitize the fungus, so actually grow on it and create a biofilm around it. And in addition, we know that the organism can grow as an endophyte. So within the plant tissue in the root for instance. So it’s probably performing some sort of exclusion effect in there. And extrapolating from some academic studies that have been done.

Eric Ward:
So, a whole bunch of different things. The neat part of that is it means it’s very unlikely that resistance will develop to a product like Howler anytime soon, because of this combination of modalities, those are basically multiplicative. So if a mutation can occur at rate X to one of these, then it’s going to be many times X before you actually would see resistance. Unlike with a synthetic chemical which typically targets like a rifle shot, a single target. And we know like for some of the leading fungicide classes, like the strobilurin, you can get a single base mutation that gives you effectively complete resistance to that chemical, like an antibiotic to a human pathogen. So it’s one of the really neat properties of the biologicals that we’ve discovered.

Louisa B-T:
Marijn, in your six years at Bayer, what would you say was one of the most exciting developments in the agriculture industry?

Eric Ward:
Well, let’s say that the project that I paid the most attention to was interestingly enough glyphosate replacement by glufosinate ammonium, don’t know if this means anything to you. But glyphosate Roundup started finding a lot of, resistance from certain weeds particularly in the Midwest, in the U.S. and it became less and less efficacious. You have to spray more and more and more. So we’ve been working on alternatives for glyphosate in this case glufosinate ammonium. And we’re selling the product quite well, particularly in areas where there had been a lot of Roundup resistance building up, and the demand for that increased, increased, although it was a more expensive product. And we were very hyped on expanding the capacity for that. And that was a major undertaking and a very, very big investment for Bayer at the time that high risk, tough process, hundreds of millions of capacity, new capacity investment.

Louisa B-T:
What do you think of all the lawsuits that Bayer has faced since the acquisition of Monsanto? Would you have seen that coming? Or do you think that was … It must’ve been a surprise to those that undertook that acquisition. It’s been a disaster in many ways.

Eric Ward:
Yeah. It’s very unfortunate what happened with that. It comes to show that and this is the challenge in general I think in our society and it’s spite of the business model. So it’s part of Bayer’s business model, but everybody’s business who basically tries to influence biology, which is what we do. You do that as a biopharma company with humans, you do it as an animal health company, as a plant company, you try to influence biology, and there are going to be side effects. We know that. And I think the issue is that society does not accept those side effects and feels that accompany has the responsibility that if those side effects could occur to make that abundantly clear, abundantly clear. And I think that is where Roundup probably failed making that not abundantly clear. And I think this is the crux of the issue where in an American court system with jury trials, you can very quickly get into trouble. And there’s a lot of precedents for this.

Eric Ward:
It’s not just the first time it happens to this Roundups. So it’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the business model and yeah, Bayer decided to go forward with it so that you need to then live with the consequences unfortunately.

Louisa B-T:
It seems- oh, did you want to add something?

Eric Ward:
I was going to say Louisa it bears on your earlier question about are we focused more on efficacy or on safety? And this is where safety becomes a sort of a functional definition, right? If you look at what happened at glyphosate in the tort system, you could ask yourself who’s next? There’s plenty of other chemicals out there that are arguably much worse actors than glyphosate ever was. So it points to the need for additional ways to address this critical meta crop protection that growers have.

Louisa B-T:
Just quickly. Do you guys have a hard stop in four minutes?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
No, I have a hard stop just before 10 mine time.

Eric Ward:
I’m good till 10.

Louisa B-T:
Oh, great. Okay. Cool. All right. That’s great. So do you think that the agriculture industry might have a bit of a communication challenge? If you think about not only is there definitely a gap between people’s understanding of where their food comes from and people are trying to educate themselves more. But again about this clearly well, it seems to me that some agribusiness companies got very caught up in the science and very excited about the developments and thinking about, GMOs and gene editing and it wasn’t necessarily communicated to the consumer as well as it could have been. The anti GMO lobby is huge and it’s serious, but I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people don’t necessarily really understand what it is for something to be genetically modified. And then on the other side, you could say the dangers of certain inputs and certain synthetic chemicals, maybe are not understood. What do you think is a solution to that? And what are you doing at AgBiome to ensure that communication with consumers and others through the supply chain is improved?

Eric Ward:
Yeah, we’re acutely aware of the challenge there. One version of the issue historically has been that the incumbents have seen their costumer, their ultimate costumers being the grower with an intermediate customer being a distribution channel. And the grower can tell what works and what doesn’t work, as long as the grower is, happy with the results and sees a good ROI, great good product, no reason to pay any attention over here, end user consumer. I think that’s really where the problem starts, right? And so we’re very interested in heightening consumer awareness of crop protection practices. We feel like we’ve got a great story around that, that’s born in hard science and really good things for the whole chain all the way from the final grocery consumer through to the grower and the distribution channel. And so we’re happy to talk about that. And we intend to do more of that.

Eric Ward:
And I think that’s going to be a continuing challenge for the incumbents. It’s hard for them to say, “You should be happy that this chemical got sprayed on your food.” Even if it’s a perfectly safe chemical, and it has been regulated as such. That’s just a tough message to get through to people that probably don’t have the scientific literacy to your point. If you just focus on, “Oh, well, this is a very sound scientific argument.” Well, good luck with that a lot of times.

Louisa B-T:
Marijn what do you think? And did you see the evolution of consumer demand for more information while you were CEO at Bayer in the last few years?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yeah. I think that we as an industry can do more, but I will also say that it’s hard. Okay. So I am not hungry right now. If I go shopping to the local grocery store, there are plenty of bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, corn. I can buy anything I want. So if somebody there at the exit of the grocery store and say, “Isn’t this great? These potatoes they were grown with 7% more yield for the farmer.” Then well, I don’t care. I just bought five potatoes. I don’t care about the yield. I hardly know what these things cost. They don’t cost a lot, they’re a lot less than my car or my internet subscription or my Netflix subscription. So I don’t really care. I have enough food and I don’t really want to take risks to have more food if higher yield because I have enough.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Okay. Now, if that is your issue as an industry to now explain why you’re so important and why new technology is going to help us all, it’s very hard to do. Now for a company like AgBiome says, “You know what? Some of these residues are potentially not healthy for you, probably not. And we can change that. We can reduce the use of synthetic pesticides significantly. It doesn’t mean they’re all bad, but particularly the ones that are suspect we can reduce the use or even eliminate it with this new approaches.” I think that will be a much easier story to tell to a consumer than yields. And I think this is the problem with GMO. It was always about yields for the farmer and never about what’s in it for the consumer. The consumer did not relate to it. If you have cancer, you say, “There’s a new cancer drug.” Everybody wants it right away almost irrespective of what the side effects could be. There is a motivation there. With higher yield corn, you got to be kidding. What do I need higher yield corn for?

Louisa B-T:
Yeah. And it’s a shame that they never really communicate it to the consumer, that there is a potential to put that technology to ways that could be beneficial to consumers. Or it hasn’t yet been done that way, but I think you’re starting to see it to make a more nutritional crop. I think that’s a real shame and that was missing a trick. You could have developed the two more in tandem.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
If I may Louisa, that’s also a challenge because I already feel healthy. I don’t at least in a relatively high income-. Now, in a developing country there’s huge, more nutritional content of food is huge. But also in our world, does the carrot need to be even more nutritious? I don’t know. I’m eating five carrots so it should be okay. And if not, I take vitamin pill. It’s like, what do I care?

Louisa B-T:
That’s a good point. Yeah. So thinking- oh, did you want to-

Eric Ward:
Just overall Louisa, I mean we’re very heartened by the trend of people being more interested in where their food comes from, right? This is like mainstream stuff now. And 20 years ago it was this niche organic movement eat, going back to places like shape in the East and the like in the Bay area. And now it’s everybody wants to know where their stuff has grown. They want to know more about the farmer. That inevitably will lead to a higher literacy among consumers about how agriculture is practiced. That’s a good thing for everybody. So we’re super psyched about that and we want to encourage that trend.

Louisa B-T:
So thinking more broadly about ag tech moving on from biologicals and microbes for just the time being. Which other categories of ag tech are you excited about? And Marijn maybe, I don’t know if you’ve invested in any others, but would love to hear thoughts there.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Yeah. So in my farm so far I have limited my investment range in crop protection. Because I know it well and investing is already hard enough, and advising is already hard enough if you actually know something about something, let alone if you don’t know that much about something. So I’m sticking with what I know. And I know crop protection well from my years at Bayer. I have other areas that I invest in, as well in life sciences from my Thermo Fisher background, I have life science tools and diagnostics. So I have quite a few options there. And as I said there are in my portfolio, three companies that all have a different approach to I would say, safer, crop protection methodologies.

Louisa B-T:
When do you think chemicals will be obsolete in agriculture? Or do you think that will never be the case?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
No, never and there’s no need for it. The word chemical, I’m a chemist so I’ve been frustrated by this for a long time, but the word chemical is immediately suspicious. Even though we’re all made up out of chemicals and we drink water which is a chemical-

Louisa B-T:
This is true.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
There’s nothing bad with chemicals. There’s nothing bad with synthetic chemicals. What I think is challenging crop protection synthetically is crop protection is very hard because in the end you want to kill something, right? You want to kill a weed or you want to kill an insect and you want the plant to survive. So it has to be strong enough to kill. And it has to be subtle enough to tell the difference between what to kill and what not. So it has to be very focused and specific, and then it has to withstand nature. You have to be able to spray it. If the sun shines it has to work. If it rains, it has to work, et cetera.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
So there’s quite a lot of the men’s and as a result of that you get relatively sophisticated, complicated chemicals. If you look at the molecular structure of these things, it’s wow. This is like, complicated drugs. But in principle, there’s nothing wrong with it, but some of them have more side effects than others. And I think that’s where with us like a company like AgBiome you focus particularly on those applications where there is question about the safety of the synthetic chemicals that are widely used and try to come up with a substitution for it that works as well, but is safer. I think it’s a huge need for society and a huge opportunity for companies in this space.

Louisa B-T:
So what’s next for AgBiome?

Eric Ward:
Well, we’ve got a pretty deep pipeline we’ve built up. We’ve got our next, active ingredient, another naturally occurring microbe that’s now pending EPA approval. We anticipate getting that in the fourth quarter of this year. We branded that as Theia, it’s another fungicide it has a complimentary disease control spectrum to Howler. And then behind that we’ve got some really interesting products we’re developing that are combinations of some of these legacy chemicals, synthetic pesticides with our proprietary biological. So what we’ve found in the field over and over again is we can dramatically reduce the rate of some of these chemicals that people would like to spray less of and supplement that chemical with our proprietary biological and get efficacy that’s as good or better than the full rate of the chemical along.

Eric Ward:
So we call these Connate products. They’re still a little tricky, you’ve got to co-formulate the biological and the chemical into a single product. But we’ve got several of those in development that get expedited review at EPA. It’s about a nine month process there. So we anticipate launching several more of those over the next couple of years. And then we’ve got insecticides, nematicides, herbicides all further back in the pipeline that we’re working on as well.

Louisa B-T:
Okay. Well, to finish off a big question. If you could both tell me what would be your biggest hope for the food system by 2050?

Eric Ward:
Wow. I am a huge technical optimist and I believe we will be in a position in 2050 where we can say that we do not have a significant number of people on the planet who go to bed wondering where their next meal is going to come from. I think that’s probably the biggest societal challenge we face going forward. And we have figured out how to grow enough food on the arable land we have in the context of widely varying climate, which increasingly seems to be upon us.

Louisa B-T:
Marijn?

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
Well, I think that less animals should be grown to be eaten. We’re obviously talking about agriculture here but, wow what an industry and how complicated is that and how much food do we have to create and how much environmental impact is there? But the question is then how do you replace the nutritional value? And this is part of why I’m so interested in synthetic biology, because if you can sort of take a bacteria, put a gene in it, and it starts making in a steel tank suddenly proteins that are present in cow milk, that good yields. And the proteins just drip out that the bottom of the steel tank. You don’t need the cow for the milk anymore to get those proteins. So suddenly you are creating different ways of making something that you have been getting excess to by growing animals.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
And I think that is a huge opportunity for us to rethink the whole meat production. And I think that’s so in its infancy right now, we all know about impossible burger. But there is so much more behind this and what’s behind this is very dependent on synthetic biology. So I think that is a 2050, you look back 30 years probably and say, “Wow, we had no idea that this industry was so at its infancy.” I think in biological crop protection it’s been around. We have never had a bacteria make a milk protein, but we have had bacteria control pests. So for us it’s more a matter of optimizing a system that already exists. Well, my 2050 dream is to create a system that doesn’t exist yet.

Louisa B-T:
Great.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
You understand?

Louisa B-T:
Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much. Well, thank you both so much for coming on Future Food podcast and I hope we can stay in touch.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers:
All right.

Eric Ward:
Thanks. Thank you Louisa. Appreciate the opportunity to be on the podcast.

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