The Council on Foreign Relations met on Monday in Washington D.C. to discuss 3D-printed meat, crowdfunding for agriculture, and policy. Chaired by Carol Adelman, Senior Fellow and Director for Global Prosperity at the Hudson Institute, the panelists included Andras Forgacs, the cofounder and CEO of Modern Meadow, Mark Rosegrant, a Director at the International Food Policy Institute, and our very own Rob Leclerc, CEO of AgFunder.
The discussion, Technology on the Menu: Food of the Future, focused on advancements within the AgTech space — from research and development, to public policy practices, to cutting-edge investment marketplaces — and how new technologies and methods from each sector might shape the way the global community produces its food in the coming decades.
The panelists spoke about companies they represented, and then fielded questions from the audience. The main discussion points revolved around the challenge of enacting innovative solutions to the nutritional, environmental, economical, and political issues that surround the global agriculture industry, and how these changes could help usher in a more sustainable future. The complete panel meeting can be viewed in the video below, but we also rounded up a few highlights from the hour-long session.
Andras Forgacs is the co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow Inc., a tissue engineering company that is researching and developing new techniques in growing animal proteins for cultured meat and leather. Prior to his work at Modern Meadow, Forgacs also co-founded Organovo, a biofabrication company geared towards regenerative medicine.
Forgacs introduced Steak Chips, Modern Meadow’s premier food product to the panel, and discussed the process and motivation behind engineering edible and wearable animal protein.
The idea behind Modern Meadow
“If we can make medical grade human tissues that are good enough to test and develop new drugs, that are good enough to serve certain medical applications, could we also grow muscle that can be made into meat? And could we also grow skin that could be made into leather?”
Forgacs said that while the idea of tissue engineering sounds “radically new”, there has been a long “history of using cells as your engine to grow things. In food for example, you’ve had yeast and various bacilli that have been used to make foods for centuries. This is just a way of making food — in this case, animal protein — using a different type of cell.”
“We take healthy natural cells from the most perfect animal you can imagine, we grow them in large quantities, we mix in a little bit of pectin, which is the fruit sugar that congeals jam, and then we add barbecue sauce or teriyaki spices.”
Forgacs described the growth process as safe, “extremely controlled, and highly auditable.”
Benefits of tissue-engineered food products
“Environmental efficiency, not having to kill animals, and actually making products that have advantages in terms of nutrition.”
While living in China for a year, Forgacs saw that both the price and demand for meat was rising dramatically. “The environmental livability of cities like Shanghai and Beijing was deteriorating. If we extrapolate these trends over decades, it will be disastrous. It’s unsustainable,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it could be amazing technology, but if it doesn’t look taste good, or if it doesn’t look good, it’s not going to be successful. These products will either fail or succeed based on their desirability.”
Rob Leclerc discussed the origins of AgFunder as the premier online marketplace for AgTech and agribusiness, described how regulatory restrictions initially made it difficult for industry innovators to connect with accredited investors, and also broke down the benefits of raising capital after said restrictions were modified.
Why AgFunder was created
While developing Ag-related projects in West Africa, Leclerc “found it difficult to attract additional capital” and was ”unable to efficiently aggregate investors” given the time frame and resources available.
After witnessing the large investment gap in agriculture, Leclerc co-founded AgFunder. He told the panel that the Ag community — “agriculture technology, agriculture production, and anything through the supply chain, really”— had been comparatively underserved up until that point.
More than a crowdfunding platform
“Generally, we’re an investment marketplace that will bring investors — whether individual investors, the gatekeepers in the world of finance, [or] foreign capital — and gravitate those investors towards opportunities that have investment-worthy aspects to them.”
Raising capital once Title II of the JOBS Act was enacted
According to Leclerc, after amendments were made to the JOBS Act in September 2013, startups and investors began to “transition from a door-to-door sales model of raising capital” to a more multimedia approach. Startups can now openly advertise across social media platforms that they are looking to raise capital.
Prior to those changes, raising capital was a tall order for startups. “A lot of regulatory restrictions limited the ability of an entrepreneur to go out and communicate with the investment community about what they were doing. You could not advertise and solicit an investment offering. And on the flip side of that coin, you had to have a ‘substantial and pre-existing relationship’ with an investor for them to invest in you,” he said.
Why the best opportunities will take place on an online forum
According to Leclerc, not only can entrepreneurs receive funding, but they can also connect with other stakeholders, such as press, customers, and strategic partners. “That’s particularly important for early-stage companies,” he said.
Although initially focused on AgTech innovations, AgFunder is beginning to broaden its scope. “We’re starting to expand into agribusinesses. We have a project in Guyana, and we’re also looking at a project in China,” Leclerc said.
Leclerc also mentioned that businesses featured on AgFunder are experiencing a broad spectrum of demand, with “all sorts of different investor classes” interested in accessing agriculture investment opportunities, such as private equity investors, foreign investors — namely Chinese — venture capitalists, and family businesses within the agriculture space.
Mark Rosegrant, Director of the Environmental and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), is the third and final panelists to speak. Rosegrant heads research in a variety of areas that impact food security and the environment, including sustainable land and natural resource management, biotechnology, and energy efficiency. He addressed the 11 Ag-related technologies he recommends for increasing yields and efficiency in maize, rice, and grain production.
Key findings for maximum food security and efficiency
Rosegrant said his team studied “a wide range of technologies” and figured out the potential impact they could make over the next three decades. The team looked at “farming systems approaches, including precision agriculture, integrative soil fertility management, no-till conservation, and advanced irrigation” as well as the breeding of more robust seed varieties, which are genetically equipped to tolerate nitrogen deficiency, drought, and high temperatures.
“We also looked at plausible adoption paths under improved policies and investments, and found that a combination of those [technologies] up to their feasible potential could reduce hunger by almost 40 percent in 2050” than without those advancements, he said.
Global benefits of precision agriculture
According to studies, Rosegrant said precision agriculture proved highly beneficial in improving farming on a global scale. By using smaller-scale sensors and machinery in places like India, South Africa, and Southeast Asia, precision Ag is proven to boost crop yields significantly, while also reducing water use and the production of greenhouse gases, Rosegrant said.
He also said that measurable improvements were most noted in Africa and Asia, possibly because they have a lot of catching up to do technologically.
Changes for an improved global community
“Of course, these technologies aren’t just going to happen. Another thing we explored was what would be the policies and investments to support [them.]”
Rosegrant said that, firstly, it’s important to increase investment in biotech research, which can help us build stronger plant varieties that can better handle the direct effects of climate change. He then added that public extension services should be improved in the developing world. These services include cell phones, radios, and better information technology systems that keep farmers connected to the global market. Finally, we need to reform regulatory and legal systems, which can obstruct foreign investment opportunities and prevent biotech solutions from catching on globally, while also broadening economic policies so as to improve the trade of agricultural products.
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