Agrosavfe’s Patrice Sellès doesn’t pick sides in the chemical versus biological crop protection debate. He believes every tool in the arsenal is needed to meet the world’s growing food demands. But he also recognizes that food production can’t be so chemically-dependent long term, for both human and environmental reasons.
“We need crop protection—we can’t grow the food we need without them. But we need options to provide safer crop and food protection, so we should consider efficient alternatives to chemicals when we can,” Sellès tells AFN.
Sellès is the new CEO of Agrosavfe, a Belgium-based startup that is developing a line of protein-based biocontrols to protect crops against pests and disease. The company is just over two years away from launching its first product for US-based fruit and vegetable growers. It has just raised a €35 million in Series C financing round to get the product to market.
The funding round was backed by Belgium-based investment firm Ackermans & van Haaren, which invested €10 million, and prior investors Gimv, Sofinnova Partners, PMV, Agri Investment Fund, K&E, Biovest, Madeli Participaties, VIB and Qbic.
Agrosavfe launched out of Belgium’s Vlaams Biotechnology Institute (VIB) in 2013. Its first product is a biofungicide that is engineered to target specific molecules essential to the survival of pests and pathogens. The chemical design of Agrosavfe’s products are meant to perform more predictably than strict biological products, which can be difficult to control in diverse environmental conditions. But they’re safer than synthetic chemicals, because they eventually degrade.
The company has performed more than 100 field trials since 2017. And while Sellès notes that it still has to validate its environmental safety, results so far are promising: when used on strawberries as a replacement to some chemical sprays, for example, Agrosavfe’s biofungicide can reduce chemical residues by up to 40%.
Sellès explains that this is significant because strawberries are one of the so-called “dirty dozen” produce items with the highest levels of detectable chemical residues.
“The fact that it contains detectable chemical residues does not mean it presents a health issue for consumption; however, let’s be honest, if we can provide the same level of protection, the same quality for the berries with almost half the residues and longer shelf life, we would all feel better about it, from the growers to the consumers,” he says.
Indeed, Agrosavfe’s products are meant to be used as part of an “integrated” crop protection program, to reduce rather than completely replace synthetic chemically-based products.
Other startups, like Dutch biofungicide producer Ceradis, are taking a similar approach in an effort to mitigate the environmental impacts of agricultural chemicals. Ceradis, which raised €9 million in April, is partnering with Syngenta to help farmers minimize the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by pairing Ceradis’ biofungicide with Syngenta’s existing products.
Agrosavfe still has two years to go before its own biofungicide is ready for the US market, and three years before it launches in Europe. The company already has multiple fungicide and insecticide proteins in the works via its proprietary tech platform, AGROBODY, which Sellès says can be approved faster and cheaper than synthetic chemicals.
“It takes about $280 million and 10 to 11 years to get new synthetic chemistry to market,” he explains. “What we’re offering with our platform is a fully, de-risked R&D process [that reduces] the timeline to seven years, and the costs by 90%.”
For Sellès, the ability to get new and safe crop protection technologies to market quickly will be essential to combatting food waste—which is near 30% for all food and 40% for fresh fruits and vegetables—and increasing food production in line with global demand.
“You use all of this energy, water and land to produce food to feed the planet, and at the end of the day, you lose 30% of those resources. It’s not acceptable,” he says. “Before we think about growing more food, we have to think about growing and protecting food better.”