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Monsanto’s Gene-editing Partnership, FarmersEdge Sues Farmobile, World Economic Forum Recognizes 2 Agtech Startups, more

July 4, 2016

Monsanto and TargetGene Partner on Gene-Editing Technology

Monsanto and TargetGene Biotechnologies, a genome-editing company using RNA-guided gene-editing techniques, have entered into a license agreement granting Monsanto an exclusive license to TargetGene’s proprietary “T∙GEE” (Genome Editing Engine) platform. Monsanto has also established an equity position in the private Israel-based company. Additional terms of the agreement were not disclosed. According to both companies, gene-editing technology and the broad array of emerging gene-editing techniques represent a key scientific tool that can deliver breakthroughs in agriculture. The science is the biological equivalent of the “search and replace” function in computer word-processors. Monsanto believes that genome-editing technologies will enable plant breeders to deliver better hybrids and varieties more efficiently, as well as offer plant scientists additional resources to provide new improvements in plant biotechnology.

“TargetGene has uniquely positioned itself to develop precision-editing techniques that can improve a broad range of solutions that help growers around the world deliver better harvests,” said Tom Adams, biotechnology lead for Monsanto. “Monsanto has conducted extensive research with various gene-editing approaches for years, and we believe access to TargetGene’s technology will help drive further precision and efficiency within the company’s robust plant breeding and biotechnology pipelines.”

FarmersEdge Sues Farmobile and Company Founders

Farmers Edge, a precision agriculture decision support platform, has filed a lawsuit against Farmobile and the startup’s founder and CEO Jason Tatge. Filed in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska, the 56-page complaint includes causes of action for misappropriation of trade secrets under Nebraska law, breach of express and implied contract, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty and the duty of loyalty, conversion, civil conspiracy, promissory estoppel, and various other claims.

In response to the lawsuit, Farmobile released a statement in which the company described the lawsuit as “designed to thwart [the founders’] business model.” The statement also calls out the timing of Farmers Edge’s lawsuit:

“On April 8, 2016, we made a game-changing advancement. We announced our new Data Store, the first of its kind . . . Just before that, we announced a $5M round of financing from the top ag-focused venture capital fund in the world.” Ultimately, Farmobile describes its current business affairs as “great” and invites interested parties to follow the litigation as it defends its business “tooth and nail.”

As Farmers Edge readily admits, technological innovations in precision agriculture “have become widely adopted in farming.” But, in response to Farmobile’s statement, Farmers Edge said the lawsuit was “necessary to protect our intellectual property and specifically requests that Farmobile immediately stop using Farmers Edge trade secrets and confidential information.”

The case continues.

Marrone Bio Innovations and Groundwork BioAg Partner on Seed Treatment

Marrone Bio Innovations and Groundwork BioAg have entered into a collaborative R&D partnership to create and commercialize the world’s first all-biological comprehensive seed treatment. The treatment is expected to contain a mycorrhizal biostimulant from Groundwork BioAg as well as a bioinsecticide, a bionematicide, and a biofungicide from Marrone Bio.

Currently, there are available commercial seed treatments that contain chemical insecticides, fungicides, and nematicides for row crops such as corn and soybean. There are also a limited number of successful seed treatments that contain both biologicals and chemicals. According to Marrone Bio and Groundwork BioAg, however, none of the existing seed treatments contain an all-biological stack of insecticides, fungicides, nematicides, and biostimulants.

The proposed product is expected to enhance crop yield and reduce fertilizer requirements—especially phosphorus—while controlling soil-dwelling pests and plant diseases. The first efforts of the collaboration, seeds treated with Groundwork BioAg’s mycorrhizae and Marrone Bio’s microbials, are in field trials on corn and on soybean in the US Midwest and Israel.

The Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, a foundation that supports and encourages cooperation between Israeli and US companies in various areas of technology, selected the collaboration for match funding.

World Economic Forum Recognizes Two Agtech Companies

The World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers has recognized two agtech startups as Technology Pioneers: PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh-based US drone and analytics mapping platform, and precision agriculture provider Farmers Edge. The World Economic Forum selected the companies for their potential to significantly impact business and society through new technologies that will advance the Fourth Industrial Revolution. PrecisionHawk, which provides a drone and aerial data analytics platform, was selected for its contributions to increasing efficiency and accessibility around agriculture and food sustainability. Farmers Edge was selected for its ability to integrate highly accurate data science and services on the farm, achieving increased sustainable yields. Previous recipients of the Technology Pioneer title include Airbnb and Google, and another agtech startup; robotics company Blue River Technology in 2015.

South Dakota State University to Offer Precision Ag Degree

South Dakota State University is getting ready to launch an undergraduate degree program in precision agriculture. According to the university, the program would be intended to prepare students for careers involving agronomy, agricultural machinery management, and data sciences in addition to learning how to use data for agronomic decision-making purposes. It will involve collaboration between among several departments on the SDSU campus including agricultural and biosystems engineering, plant science, mathematics and statistics, electrical engineering, and computer science. The program advocates still need to obtain approval from its Board of Regents, but the proponents already contend that the program would yield roughly a dozen graduates each year.

United Egg Producers to End Chick Culling by 2020

After a series of discussions with The Humane League, United Egg Producers has announced that it will eliminate the culling of male chicks from its egg laying hen hatcheries by 2020, or as soon as commercially available and economically feasible. The organization, which represents 95 percent of all egg producers in the US, plans to replace existing male chick culling practices with in-ovo egg sexing technology. Currently, female chicks born in hen hatcheries are raised to become layer hens, but the industry has no use for male chicks which cannot lay eggs or efficiently grow to become meat birds. Common culling practices include grinding the chicks in high-speed industrial grinders, asphyxiation, or crushing.

To address this practice of culling day-old chicks, a new technology developed by German scientists, determines the sex of each fertilized egg before the chick inside develops. The embryo-sexing technology, which should soon be available for commercial use in egg production, will enable the termination of all male-identified eggs from the hatchery, preventing them from ever being hatched or culled. The Human League characterizes this as both a more ethical and more sustainable process, which will remove tens of thousands of hens from factory farming as the male-identified eggs will be used for an alternative supply, like vaccinations or pet food. The German government recently made a similar commitment to put this technology to use within the next few years.

Agri-Tech East GROW Business Plan Competition 2016 Announces Winners

Six winners have been announced for the 2016 Agri-Tech East GROW Business Plan Competition. The event, which represents the UK’s first national agri-tech business plan competition, was developed by Agri-Tech East to encourage entrepreneurship in the agri-food industry. Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, says: “Agri-Tech East’s vision is to be a globally recognized catalyst for open innovation and agri-entrepreneurship. Through GROW we are rapidly establishing a vehicle to find and support these new agri-businesses and by harnessing the power and diversity of our expert network, we can also greatly increase their chances of success.” This year’s competition attracted entrants from across the country, and many of the six finalists already have international aspirations. The full list of finalists and winners:

  • Non-Student Winner: Pinpoint Phenomics, which allows growers and breeders to know ‘what a plant is thinking’ by using the plant’s own messaging system to see its response to environmental stress;
  • Non-Student Finalist: Aponic, a soil-less growing system which allows crops to be grown vertically, fed by a fine mist of water and nutrients. Suitable for urban warehouse farming, it produces 30 per cent more yield with 90% less water;
  • Non-Student Finalist: Smartbell, which, by using the ‘Internet-of-Cows’ to detect changes in animal behavior, brings the expertise of an experienced herdsman to an automated dairy system;
  • Student Winner: Softharvest, a gentle robotic harvester that uses visual recognition to allow just-in-time picking of lettuces without damage to delicate plants.
  • Student Finalist: Aerial Crop Technologies, which offers a pay-as-you-go drone-based monitoring system delivered in a box;
  • Student Finalist: Share Your Foods, a food sharing platform to allow those with a surplus to reach potential consumers directly.

Nestle Names Suprise New CEO 

Nestle named Ulf Mark Schneider as its next CEO succeeding Paul Bulcke in a surprise move that hands the reins of the world’s biggest food company to an outsider for the first time in nearly a century. Schneider will join from health-care provider Fresenius where he has been CEO since 2003. He will join on September 1 and start as CEO on January 1 after “an introductory period,” the maker of KitKat chocolate bars and Nespresso coffee said.

The decision to hand the reins to Schneider, whose background is in the medical industry, hints at Nestle’s goal to move beyond its roots and redefine itself as a scientifically-driven nutrition and health company. Over the past five years, as packaged-food makers have been pilloried for contributing to a growing obesity crisis, Nestle has invested heavily in its health-science subsidiary, which seeks to commercialize discoveries made by its research arm in areas like metabolic health and Alzheimer’s disease.

Perdue Unveils Sweeping New Poultry Welfare Reforms

Major national poultry producer Perdue announced this week that it had adopted a sweeping set of reforms to its animal welfare practices. Titled 2016 and Beyond: Next Generation of Perdue Commitments to Animal Care, the plan was developed with input from stakeholders such as farmers, academics, and leaders of animal advocate organizations who were invited by Perdue to help shape the animal care plan. Chairman Jim Perdue shared the company’s commitments to animal care, a four-part plan that will accelerate its progress in animal care, strengthen relationships with farmers, build trust with multiple stakeholder groups and create an animal care culture for continued improvement. The new policies will require the installation of windows in chicken barns, more square footage, breeding modifications to slow growth and breast size, and putting chickens to sleep before slaughter. The four commitments involve: (1) the wants and needs of the animals; (2) the farmers that raise the chickens; (3) openness, transparency, and trust; and (4) continuous improvement.

Other News That’s Fit to Chew:

  • Thrive Market, who recently raised $111 million, is challenging the USDA when it comes to food stamp policy, on com.
  • Candy maker Mars and major online retailer Alibaba are partnering to promote e-commerce and safety, on FoodDive.

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