This year’s Rethink AgriFood Innovation Week in San Francisco saw an awkward uncle stride proudly into the week’s agenda for the first time with last Monday’s inaugural Animal AgTech Innovation Summit.
Animal agritech often struggles to evince the same aura and hype as other innovation hotspots in the agri and food space. Throughout the two major events later in the week — the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit and Future Food-Tech (FFT) — livestock farming often gets lambasted as an old-school relic; a bogeyman emitting too much carbon or methane; a doddery addict of water, gas, electricity, vaccines, antibiotics or soy; an abuser of animal welfare. And what about all that cow manure? — Ew. So not Silicon Valley.
Those dark, unpalatable visions of animal agritech are proving to be handy pitching fodder for trendier food tech startups touting their alternative proteins or dairy-free options.
Animal AgTech is No Innovation Backwater
But, such lowly placement in no way renders Animal AgTech an innovation backwater. In fact, what the gathering made clear is the giddy rate of change propelled by companies old and new coming to grips with new technologies. At any point during the summit, it was remarkable to glean how advanced livestock farming and aquaculture has become, and how much seems just around the corner.
Buzzwords included gene editing, the Internet of Things, blockchain-backed traceability, facial recognition of livestock, big data crunching, satellite and drone monitoring, robotic milking, and microbiome manipulations.
Cowboys and Zuckerbergs
Representatives of Big Ag on the opening panel were all wary (and even a little fatalistic) about Big Tech — like Facebook, Amazon or Google — stepping in and dominating their sector within five years. Investors on a panel later in the day, however, were bullish that won’t happen — Big Ag will be gored by a stampede of dynamic and disruptive startups instead.
To hold their own, established players at the summit spoke of rapid self-disruption, outlining plans to reduce or even eliminate the use of vaccines and antibiotics on their farms. Some were candid about their attempts to integrate their data systems in search of predictive and near-fully automated farming. Others dwelt on their responses to changing consumer sentiment, and their ongoing quests to bolster animal welfare and combat climate change.
“Our mission really is to remove antibiotics from animal production. We think it is the right thing to do for mankind,” declared George Heidgerken, global head of livestock at pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, vowing to improve productivity while reducing pain and suffering.
On climate change, he spoke out passionately against his sector and even his own company, urging further action. “it’s not part of our strategy — it’s part of our PR,” he said with disgust, saying that has to change for the good of everyone.
Marc de Beer, senior director, Global Nutritional Health at animal health group Elanco was more circumspect and less prone to rhetorical flourish. He also made a case for “judicious use of antibiotics,” an unsurprising stance for a company that makes a living from their distribution. He added, by way of a caveat, that Elanco “would not exist if we did not recognise the strong trends away from that,” confirming how the search was on for alternatives to vaccines and antibiotics. “We feel there’s always going to be a place for treating sick animals,” he concluded, calling outbreaks of swine fever in China a “major threat for the industry,” while expressing confidence the “solutions are there.”
Ask the Water. Ask the Data. Ask The Birds.
Eager to also enter the debate on welfare innovation was Karen Christensen, senior director of animal wellbeing at Tyson Foods, though she did raise a few eyebrows when said that her company was “asking the birds” about their preference for living conditions.
“We’re putting them in a lot of situations where they can make a choice,” she later clarified, providing lighting of chicken hatcheries as an example. “If you really dig into it, vision is very important for the birds,” she said. “We are working hard to let them design their own lighting programmes.”
Bruce Stewart Brown, senior VP of food safety at poultry giant Perdue, prefers to ask the water. “The water consumption will tell you before the chickens do about how they’re feeling,” he said. “You can use the ventilation schemes in the controller to get ammonia, oxygen and Co2 metrics…The problem is, it’s not getting past that, to a decision-making formula,” he said, highlighting a recurring theme of datasets “not talking to each other.”
On the subject of actually bringing the smart use of data onto farms and creating accelerators, E. Michael Casle II, EVP and CEO of the feed division and North America sales at Ireland’s Alltech, said the key was via actually linking data-driven decisions with saving time, money and resources: “If you think about it, reducing environmental impact means increased productivity. That’s one way to help farmers bring data into their work.”
Antibiotics Without Antibiotics
By the time the second panel rolled around, the topic of nutrition and the microbiome became bafflingly complex to the point where one or two members of the audience quietly asked if any of the panelists really knew what the microbiome even was. The takeaways? Humanity has only identified and categorised a tiny percentage of the breathtaking variety of microorganisms thriving in the intestines of animals and the soil beneath them.
Even so, there could be possibilities in the undiscovered, particularly as replacements for antibiotics, said Mike Seely CEO Ascus Biosciences and Viggo Halseth chief innovation officer of Nutreco. They can also turbo-boost digestion, added Bryan Tracey, CEO and cofounder White Dog Labs, which introduces clostridia to chickens, leveraging it from current corn ethanol production in the United States.
“We believe there’s an innovation play,” agreed Susanne Palsten Buchardt, VP of animal health and nutrition at Novozymes. “We might take a small stake to know what’s going on,” she said of prospective investments or acquisitions, describing a tough internal debate of “when are you the best owner, and when can you provide cash and capabilities?”
But not so fast: “We are looking for IP. This is the dealbreaker,” stressed Wilson Antonio Simon, global vice president of animal health and nutrition at Kerry, the taste and nutrition company, before complaining that the regulations “are at least 10 years behind the science and innovation.”
Better to go with oral vaccinations, suggested Mazen Animal Health CEO Jenny Filbey. “No longer any need to spray or inject the animal,” she said, warning that preventions were still necessary to ward off epidemics. Her proof of concept is against the Porcine epidemic PEDV — 100 percent fatal in newborn pigs, and against some aquaculture diseases.
“By 2026, we will be a $300 million company,” she said.
For Robert Gore, VP of agricultural applications at 4RY, spraying is still the way to go. “It’ll be more effective at improving cattle health than anything they’re talking about here,” he told AgFunderNews following a panel on the digitalisation on farms. “None of those guys look like they’ve ever been on a farm. They’ve never stepped in cow shit,” criticising some digital solutions as out of touch.
Admittedly, at this part of the conference, speakers on the digitalization panel had descended into vagaries and bromides. Mareese Keane, who directs the Thrive Accelerator investment arm SVG Ventures, was too softball on her line of questioning, allowing an all-too-comfortable time for Sri Raj Kantamneni, managing director of digital insights at Cargill.
Aidan Connolly CEO at Cainthus, and previously CIO at Alltech, at least pointed out that “we’re under more scrutiny than we’ve ever been,” but then his later comments became so generic as to be applicable to almost any conference. Dane Kuper, founder and CEO Performance Livestock Analytics, and Paulo Loueiro of Zoetis were similarly guilty.
Gene Editing: Less Horny Cows and Exotic Aberdeen Angus
Judging by the gene editing panel, the takeaway is that regulatory paths in South America have been cleared for gene editing of livestock, while in Europe and America, regulations remain tight and restrictive. All panelists wondered how this can be enforced, given the difficulties of discovering which cow is the clone and which one is original.
“The purpose of regulations is to protect consumers from risk — not to stop all innovation from ever happening for ever onwards, amen. So the precautionary principle has probably done more damage to global sustainability than any agricultural decision ever,” said Alison Van eenenaam, an Animal Geneticist at UC Davis, speaking to AgFunderNews during a coffee break.
“It really enables you to introduce useful genetic variants into a range of different backgrounds, which I think allows the ability to maintain the genetic diversity of our livestock.” The public, she added, have “been lied to and fear-mongered to by Greenpeace and a whole bunch of wealthy European activist groups, to be honest with you, spreading misinformation around this technology.”
In Brazil, new genetically-edited dairy cows are being phased in — without horns. That is an issue of welfare, says Mitch Abrahamsen, chief commercial and scientific Officer at Recombinetics, who pointed out the brutal treatment currently to remove horns from cows to stop them wounding others by accident.
“You’ll never get a Frankenstein,” Abrahamsen told AgFunderNews during the drinks reception. Abe Huisman, director R&D, Swine, Hendrix Genetics and Rick Peterson, senior director, R&D, Animal Sciences Division, Intrexon also both mentioned how gene-edited disease resistance could prevent undue deaths of livestock during their talk.
Wrapping up the day by giving the VC perspective, Jenny Rooke of Genoa Ventures, Spencer Swayze of Paine Schwartz Partners, Brett Morris of TechAccel and Kevin Zussman, VP at Cultivian Sandbox Ventures all noted an uptick investor interest in the sector, and were all largely skeptical that plant-based or cellular protein alternatives would reach price parity any time soon. They stressed that startups need to focus on proving their concepts for sectoral success, and needed to work closely with the real needs of farmers, not the imagined ones.