Welcome to another installment of AgFunderNews’ weekly news blitz, offering you a snapshot of news from across the food and agriculture industry globally.
While many folks may have turkey on the brain this week, some researchers are hard at work figuring out how to get genetically modified pork on the menu. A group at the University of Edinburgh and another unaffiliated group at Seoul National University are starting to attract global attention over their efforts to bring “beaker bacon” to life. The Scottish researchers are focusing on developing a pig that is resistant to African swine fever, a currently incurable disease that has devastated porcine populations in Europe while the South Korean cohort claimed to have already developed a double-muscled pig that can offer more protein and less fat. Not all consumers are giving oinks of approval over the scientists’ efforts, claiming that the potential dangers of genetically modifying and consuming animals are still too uncertain.
International GPS technology giant Trimble is set to acquire the assets of privately held AGRI-TREND, a Canadian-based company operating the largest network of independent agricultural consultants in North America. According to Trimble, the acquisition will enable it to provide agronomists and other crop advisors with a stronger set of brand-agnostic tools to advise growers and manage operations. AGRI-TREND’s network of over 200 specialists spread throughout the US and Canada includes over 110 independent “coaches” specializing in agronomy, precision farming, crop marketing, and farm business management.
The Middle East’s largest weather company, ArabiaWeather, has added another $5 million to its funding total, following a $2.1 million round closed earlier this year. Comprising one of the largest venture raises in the region during 2015, the round was led by Silicon Badia and Wamda Capital, including founding investor Jabbar Internet Group and DASH Ventures. The company provides a variety of weather data related services, including decision support services for agriculture in the region. The investment will be used to expand ArabiaWeather’s consumer and enterprise offerings, including an effort to expand its widely popular flagship mobile app.
One of the largest commercial farmland investments in Eastern Europe hit the news this week after entrepreneurial investment group Kinnevik sold its Polish agricultural business Rolnyvik for a total of roughly $46 million. Kinnevik founded Rolnyvik, an agricultural business comprising 6,700 hectares of land in Poland, in 2000. The acquirer of Rolnyvik is a Polish enterprise within the agricultural sector.
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The food e-commerce market appears to be maturing at last as The Fresh Diet, a national gourmet meal delivery service, is set to IPO in a spin-off from Innovative Food Holdings. Founded by South Florida entrepreneur and food enthusiast Zalmi Duchman, IFH acquired the company in August 2014. Now operating in 44 states, the move toward IPO is intended to help differentiate The Fresh Diet’s direct-to-consumer operations from IFH’s long-established direct-to-chef specialty food platform. As part of the deal, institutional investors have committed $1 million in funding to The Fresh Diet.
In accelerator and startup news, North Carolina is making a name for itself as a hotbed of agtech innovation. According to a recent report, the state is home to some 50 agtech startups, with 28 of those located within The Research Triangle, a region in Piedmont anchored by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and Duke University. The area also encompasses major cities like Raleigh and Durham. One of the state’s biggest startups, AgBiome, has raised over $50 million from venture capital investors to advance its natural fungicide product for use in organic farming, including a $34.5 million investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back in August 2015.
Heading only one state to the south, craft brewing tech company SouthYeast Labs has been accepted into SCRA Technology Ventures’ SC Launch Program, an economic development program providing mentoring, support services, and potential funding matches or larger investment deals. SouthYeast Labs has developed a chemical and engineering process for bioprospecting, characterization, and banking of regional microorganisms for the craft brewing industry. The Greenville-based company has used the technology to advance sourcing of yeast for specific locations, fruits, flowers, and more. SouthYeast Labs joins the growing ranks of agtech startups that have won big in general tech competitions or made waves in accelerator programs.
The USDA was busy allocating funds this week, firstly in Africa, the government department allocated $58 million to launching two Food for Progress programs in Ghana’s poultry sector, which will focus on helping the country modernize and strengthen the industry. On the home front, USDA has invested $30 million in improving water quality in the Mississippi River Basin in collaboration with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Spread out of 33 new high-priority watershed projects and 40 existing endeavors throughout the region, the funds will help strengthen agricultural operations and promote water quality as part of its four-year initiative to dole out $100 million in funding in rural communities.
Meanwhile, Tel Aviv University and Peking University have executed a memorandum of understanding to establish a joint research institute for food security in China’s Shangdong Province. The outfit will focus on the agricultural effects of climate change, improving crop yield, and creating food strains with enhanced nutritional properties.
This weeks’ Capitol Hill report is jam-packed with major changes on the horizon—some proposed while others are a done deal. The final version of the US Food and Drug Administration’s long-awaited Produce Safety Rule was released on Friday, causing consternation among the fruit and vegetable industries over what the new requirements actually mean. The rule is one of the first installments of the mega food safety overhaul legislation enacted in 2011, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act. Designed to convert our national food safety system from a reactionary mechanism to a proactive landscape, food producers across the spectrum face tougher burdens, more paperwork, and potentially tougher scrutiny over their food safety practices.
Not to be left out of the spotlight, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made a historic trip to Cuba on Friday to discuss soil management, crop diseases, and other ag issues at a cooperative farm in the country. The visit is part of President Obama’s push to create solid times with the island before his term expires. The President’s camp has indicated that a new set of regulations further loosening the existing embargo against trade with Cuba may be on the horizon. According to Secretary Vilsack, Cuba’s food imports total roughly $2 billion per annum, with the United States claiming 16 percent of the pie.
Although the FDA’s proposal to require food manufacturers to list the amount of added sugar in their products may seem like a sweet move to some, it’s creating sour moods in certain camps that think the regulation would be unduly burdensome and create consumer confusion. The agency made more waves this week when it rejected a request to extend the public comment period on the proposed rule. In a comment responding to the proposed rule change, Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—arguably the largest industry trade group in the country—took issue with the agency’s existing definition of added sugars, which includes naturally-occurring sugars isolated from a whole food and concentrated so that sugar is the primary component. Under this definition, fruit juice concentrates along with a bevy of other common food additives would now need to be listed as added sugars.
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