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One of FYTO's farm units. Image credit: Bill Reitzel

FYTO: The startup growing protein with robots to decarbonize agriculture

October 14, 2021

Disclosure: AFN’s parent company AgFunder is an investor in FYTO.

So much of the rhetoric surrounding agriculture’s impact on the climate centers on the meat and dairy industries, and rightly so; animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions, not far behind the most obvious emitter, transport.

If you’re reading AFN, you’ve no doubt read about the numerous innovations looking to replace animal products with plant-based, fermented, or cell-cultured alternatives. And according to various data, consumers are turning increasingly towards those categories. While these are exciting, there are major question marks lingering over their potential from a scale and cost perspective.

Data also indicate that animal agriculture is going to continue to be an important source of human nutrition for a growing global population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for instance, expects meat and dairy consumption to more than double by 2050. These projections include surges in demand in the developing world, where more than 90% of vegetarianism has been based on economics rather than free choice.

So while plant-based alternatives will gain market share in some instances, there’s an urgent task at hand to bring down the carbon footprint of traditional animal agriculture if we’re to meet any of our climate targets.

What if you could improve both, and more?

The carbon question

Enter FYTO, a US agtech company producing aquatic plants in a controlled and automated environment. FYTO’s crops, which include a type of duckweed called lemna, can be used as a protein-rich alternative for traditional animal feed ingredients, plant-based foods, biofertilizers, and soil amendments, and can be produced nearly anywhere in the world with minimal human intervention.

“We started by deeply analyzing the feed and food supply chains in terms of financial and environmental costs,” founder and CEO Jason Prapas tells AFN. “You find out some fascinating things. For instance, more than 75% of global soy production goes to livestock feed, and the largest acreage crop and highest water consumer in California is alfalfa, primarily for cows.”

Soy has increasingly become scrutinized for its environmental footprint. Brazil, the largest producer of soy in the world, has earned that title partially by clearing forests in the Amazon, a climate double-whammy.

“We wanted to out-innovate soy,” Prapas says. “What makes it such a strong candidate as a protein source? How could we grow something with even better nutritional characteristics while also crushing the carbon footprint? We found our answer in aquatic plants.”

Cattle feed varies but typically consists of grains — corn, wheat, barley, or seed meals — alfalfa, minerals, and protein concentrates from soy, peas, and distiller grains. According to Prapas, FYTO’s aquatic plant-based feed product could replace soy and alfalfa proteins on a one-to-one basis, if not better, while reducing the carbon footprint of a dairy operation by at least 40%. Furthermore, he estimates that FYTOfeed could replace about 30-40% of what a dairy cow currently eats, rather than the typical 10% that soy or a similar protein accounts for. This is due to the combination of highly digestible protein, starch, vitamins, and minerals that FYTO has been able to produce in a single crop.

The startup has started to deploy its lemna growing systems on dairy farms, using cow manure as feedstock, and producing a core feed ingredient at a fraction of the carbon footprint of soy, or water footprint of alfalfa.

“We need to be rapidly decarbonizing human activity while also designing solutions for reality,” Prapas says.

“There are well over 25 billion animals on the planet right now that are raised for human food and that number has been rising. While we strongly support including more plants in the human diet, we also recognize that billions of humans rely on animal products to meet their nutritional needs.”

“In the future, we are also happy to help the cellular and alt-meat industries with their large and growing supply chain problem around plant-based ingredients,” he adds.

How FYTOfeed can reduce animal feed’s carbon footprint

  • By producing locally, often on the livestock operation itself, FYTOfeed can eliminate transportation-related emissions (and costs) associated with the ingredients they are substituting for, many of which are shipped cross-country or overseas.
  • By utilizing and upgrading animal manure, FYTO captures carbon and nitrogen that would otherwise enter the atmosphere and groundwater. It also allows farmers to completely avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, which have a heavy carbon footprint as well as other environmental concerns like runoff and associated algal blooms.
  • By providing feed ingredients that are nutritionally dense and highly digestible, FYTO thinks it can reduce emissions from the animals themselves. The company is actively testing this factor now; “early tests indicate we could make a big dent in the enteric emissions of these operations,” Prapas tells AFN.
  • Since FYTO doesn’t require arable land and uses a much smaller area to produce crops, it can remove pressure on forests.
  • In some scenarios, FYTO can even be carbon negative as it stores carbon by using cow manure as the main feedstock for its aquatic plants, which can be turned into fertilizer — when not used as feed — completing the cycle and storing carbon in the soil.

Growing duckweed

After identifying the problem and potential solution, Prapas needed to work through all the “drudgery” associated with growing aquatic plants.

“What makes these plants very special is that they can, under the right conditions, grow incredibly fast, doubling every two to three days; 10 to 20 times faster than other protein crops like soy,” he says.

“However, this makes farming them very physically demanding and logistically challenging as it requires constant monitoring, fertilization, and harvesting, which also creates a labor and training challenge.”

Embracing his mechanical engineering background and leaning heavily on FYTO’s small but highly technical team, Prapas looked for ways to automate the growing process, combining computer vision and predictive algorithms with robotics and an engineered bioreactor where the plants grow.

The company says it has several patents pending and is “amassing significant in-house knowledge that will lead to considerably more IP.”

One of FYTO’s farm units. Image credit: Bill Reitzel

Pandemic acceleration

The potential autonomy of the technology was put to the test much sooner than planned after Covid-19 hit and lockdowns ensued. FYTO’s engineering team could no longer access their new research facility in Maine from their base in Cambridge, Massachusetts as state borders closed. FYTO’s biologist, who was based in Maine, was able to tend to the crop – but lockdown essentially put the technology into a “pressure cooker” as they were forced to operate it remotely, according to Prapas.

“This trial by fire allowed us to accelerate the technology development and put us in a much better position to prove out the product-market fit on real farms sooner,” he says.

It also prompted an early move for the company into its beachhead market, Northern California, where Prapas and his team can be closer to their initial client base of organic dairies. FYTO has started to deploy units on farms, operating as a feed-as-a-service business with farmers paying for the resulting feed on a per pound basis, as they typically would otherwise.

One of FYTO’s first pilot customers, John, told the company recently that he’s “excited” about the offering.

“[We’re] utilizing dairy wastewater to grow highly digestible feed,” said John. “We will be reducing feed costs, reducing our carbon footprint, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and sequestering more carbon into the ground. FYTO is an important piece of our regenerative ag program.”

But the best days may be yet to come. While FYTO believes it has created a bonafide substitute for soy, it’s just getting started on crop optimization. Compare that to soybeans, which have had decades of improvement, and you can imagine a scenario in which FYTO is able to produce a crop that is far more nutritious, faster-growing, consumes much less water and land, and is far cheaper to produce.

FYTO is currently expanding its team in the San Francisco Bay Area and rolling out commercial operations in 2022.

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