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Wheat fields in the US, from Unsplash

We must scale US agtech innovation to fight the looming food, energy crisis

April 13, 2022

Editor’s note: The following editorial is a joint ‘call to arms’ for the agrifoodtech community. The authors, listed at the end of the article, represent decades of experience in global agribusiness and are now leading efforts to rapidly scale innovation as entrepreneurs, investors and advisors. 

The views expressed in this guest commentary are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

As we watch the ongoing horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we also witness in real-time the far-reaching implications on food and energy security – both historical catalysts for global unrest.

Last month, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of the impacts of the Ukrainian invasion on the world food system, noting “All of this is hitting the poorest the hardest and planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.”

Russia and Ukraine supply half of the world’s sunflower oil and 30% of the world’s wheat, and Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of corn. Yet, as Russian bombs delay Ukraine’s spring planting and destroy global food stores, it’s increasingly clear we are looking down the barrel of an unprecedented hunger crisis.

But we can solve this crisis.

For generations, US agriculture has worked to feed the world through advancements in mechanization, plant breeding, and chemistry, resulting in increased crop productivity. The Green Revolution saved an estimated one billion people from starvation. We must rise to the challenge yet again.

As one of the planet’s largest food-producing countries, it is a moral imperative to protect our domestic food security and agricultural interests. One immediate way is by improving the efficiency of fertilizer utilization in cropping systems via technological and biological agtech innovations.

New solutions to improve fertilizer efficiency lower agriculture’s carbon footprint, increase crop resiliencies and lessen the impacts of geo-politics on a world food production system dependent on globally traded fertilizer.

Import dependence

Despite being the third-largest global fertilizer producer, the US imports as much as 80% of its potash needs and half of its nitrogen. Aside from Canada and China, most of those imports come from Russia and Belarus – making the Ukraine invasion an attack on global agriculture as we know it.

Last year, a series of global macro-economic factors sent global fertilizer prices skyrocketing as high as 300% or more over last year. Then, the worldwide fertilizer shortage went from bad to catastrophic with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In early February, Russia – the world’s biggest exporter of fertilizer imports – banned its fertilizer exports. Russia is also a significant supplier of Europe’s natural gas supplies, a critical component of nitrogen fertilizer production. US ag retailers are warning that 50% of fertilizer needed for US spring crops have been delivered. And in March, Canadian fertilizer imports became ensnared by a rail strike – another blow to the global fertilizer supply chain during the peak season.

The Ukraine crisis shows climate stability & biodiversity are crucial to long-term food security

We face a “perfect storm” of a coming global food crisis, Ertharin Cousins, the former executive director of the World Food Programme and founder of Food Systems of the Future told more than 1,500 agricultural and food systems leaders gathered in San Francisco for the World Agritech Innovation Summit in March. Opening remarks underscored the Russian invasion and the impact lower yields from commercial and smallholder farms can have globally.

Also in March, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new $250 million grant to support additional US-led fertilizer production. A nod to just how serious this situation is, but far from a sustainable solution on its own. As Cousins pointed out, there is now a real fear that the coming hunger crisis will force countries around the world to backtrack on climate change commitments.

While US agriculture has long heard the call to feed the world, we also must lead the response to climate change. Luckily, US agriculture can make a significant contribution to both food security and climate change through increasing the efficiency of fertilizer use.

In the US, nitrous oxide (N2O) – a greenhouse gas 300 times more warming than carbon dioxide – released from spreading nitrogen fertilizer on farm fields accounted for 73.9% of the US total N2O emissions. All told, fertilizer accounts for 20% of the world’s total agricultural emissions.

And the worse climate change becomes, the more it derails agricultural production. Increasing occurrence of high precipitation events in the US heartland has spiked nitrogen run-off from farmer’s fields, compromising drinking water quality and polluting waterways. Not to mention, that’s a farmer’s profit margin literally washing away with their fertilizer costs.

Fostering innovation

While we call on American-made fertilizer production, we must also look to agtech innovation in biologicals, robotics, precision technology and the adoption of soil-health agricultural practices to break the chain of dependency on foreign fertilizer inputs.

As stewards of the land, US farmers have long been adopters of innovation. Today, regenerative practices – like no-till farming, cover cropping and rotating – are paving the way for an all-hands-on-deck response to the geopolitical, energy and now food security crisis.

Now more than ever, high output crop yields require high impact ideas. Scarcity can unlock innovation and drive greater levels of efficiency.

At World AgriTech, ag leaders came together to advance new technology for the global food system. Among them were biological companies providing alternatives to nitrogen and phosphorus; robotics start-ups whose autonomous machines deliver unprecedented precision application; and data companies are working with food companies to improve sustainability; and many more.

Globally, crop nitrogen-use efficiency is estimated at 46% – the rest is lost to the atmosphere and downstream. By reaching 100% efficiency use, a goal well within our scientific and technological capabilities, we would improve the environmental impact, reduce input costs, and reduce dependency on fertilizer imports.

Already, AI-enabled ag robotics have allowed farmers to apply fertilizer precisely where it is most needed, reaching an impressive 95% reduction in chemical use. Farmers using naturally-derived biofertilizer applications are reporting they can reduce starter fertilizer applications by 50% with no loss in crop yield or quality. There are also solutions in plant genetics, like bioengineering seeds to better capture carbon through photosynthesis, and enabling microbes to convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant-available form. And, startups are using nature to restore carbon-rich soils. Together, these represent a small fraction of the innovation available today.

Private investment and the newly funded government support can spur science and innovation, and mobilize US farmers to switch to more effective, efficient processes.

Our planet’s food supply should never be held hostage. We must break the chains of our global fertilizer dependency and restore a resilient, shock-proof world food system. By rapidly scaling the tools available to farmers through agtech innovation, we can solidify yields and rise once again to meet our promise to feed the world.

As entrepreneurs, investors, and leaders in agriculture, our innovation helps fulfill a global solution – and it is our moral obligation to press on. Just as Ukrainian farmers defend their fields, farmers around the world – and those of us who support them – must too.

Authors: Paul Schickler, owner, III Ag and retired president, DuPont Pioneer; Ivo Daalder, president, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs; Mick Messman, CEO, DPH Biologicals; Ponsi Trivisvavet, CEO, Inari; Stephen Kahn, CEO, NewLeaf Symbiotics; Kay Kuenker, CEO, Advanced Agrilytics; Dan Cosgrove, CEO, Growers Edge; Kevin Schwartz, CEO, Paine Schwartz Partners; Jim Borel, Ag/Food Tech Investor, independent director and retired ag executive; Steve Brody, president & CEO, BioConnect Iowa; Richard Broglie, chief technology officer, Pivot Bio; Mike Lassner, chief science officer, Amfora; Natalie Hubbard, vice president – regulatory, Pivot Bio; Dave Gebhardt, general manager, EarthDaily Agro; Joe Neumann, senior director – collaborations, Inari; Chad Van Bell, senior director – business operations, Pivot Bio; Tracy Willits, vice president – communications, Pivot Bio; William S. Niebur, president/founder, Niebur Advisors; James B Gumpert, owner, Gumpert Family Farms LLC; Christine Bobst, founder, Bobst Advisors

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