• Jerry Nelson - Can AI help write the next IPCC climate report?

    30 ABR. 2024 · I interviewed Jerry Nelson, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. His research career has spanned climate change and food security, as well as agriculture policy, trade and development. He is one of the world’s greatest experts on the economics of food security in an era of climate change. What he has to say on this really matters. My three top takeaways from this week’s podcast were:  - A very interesting idea by Jerry for uniting two very topical issues – AI and climate change. Regarding the next IPCC report, due out by 2029, Jerry made an interesting connection between the recent news that the world’s biggest AI developers have run out of internet, to train their models, with the great difficulty that IPCC authors are having, to read and curate all the world’s thousands of journal articles on climate change. He suggested the world’s academic journals throw open their doors – at present many are behind paywalls – to give AI access to these articles. In other words, to allow the AI models to get back on track with their training, in return for helping draft the next IPCC report! AI doing good!? - Second, regarding another of his expert areas, on the climate resilience of the food system, I asked Jerry whether he was hopeful for new, more resilient crop varieties. He said there were advances in developing more drought-tolerant crops. But the problem is heat. Cereals that evolved in the Mediterranean just don’t perform well, once temperatures exceed around 31C. And many regions where these crops are grown today will exceed 31C. We also chatted about the possible role of biochar to sequester carbon in the soil, something Jerry is researching just now. - And finally, when I asked Jerry about his reaction to a recent, stunning streak of global warming, with 10-straight, monthly records, through March, he said he was “scared”, partly because the relevant experts say they don’t know where the warming is coming from, implying climate change could be worse than expected, and partly because of the potential, direct consequences, for example for sea level rise.
    30m 16s
  • Can farmers reap biodiversity market benefits?

    22 NOV. 2023 · My key takeaways from this podcast were: - Trinity Agtech believes that carbon is just one part of the story, that farmers have much more to offer in terms of environmental benefits - Their accounting tool is called Sandy, as “another person on the farm” - The tool is used to measure changes in soil carbon, as well as farm impacts on soil, natural capital, biodiversity and water - Carbon is still a big part of what they do. They measure changes in soil carbon – which farmers can monetise via offset markets – using a combination of soil sampling and modelling - They find that farmers can use Sandy, and evidence of improved biodiversity, to achieve a premium on their carbon offsets. - They cite one example where a farmer sold carbon offsets for £100 per tonne of CO2 avoided, because of additional biodiversity improvements, versus average trades of £35-40/ tCO2 - But this market for biodiversity premiums is in its infancy Trinity Agtech is a young company only a few years old, but says it already has 1,500 farming customers in Britain and the EU - The company plans to expand next into the United States and South America
    31m 15s
  • Can peptide-based bio-pesticides displace synthetic chemical pesticides?

    28 SEP. 2023 · Here are my main learning notes from this podcast, an interview with Anna Rath, CEO of Vestaron, the peptide-based pesticide company: - Vestaron’s product focus is peptides, or short-chain proteins. Anna says that they have the same reliability and efficacy as chemical pesticides, but more precision targeting, and therefore safer use. - Vestaron’s products are based off naturally occurring toxins such as spider and scorpion venom. That poses a challenge for product manufacture. Spiders inject venom, but clearly injection is not an option for commercial products. So, Vestaron has developed oral products, which, when mixed with another substance, can reach the target nervous system through the stomach wall. - The pairing of its active ingredient with a “gut disruptor”, which is specific to different types of insects, enables its peptide to kill a target insect, while sparing non-target, beneficial insects, pollinators and wider wildlife. Neither the gut disruptor nor the active toxin is harmful to vertebrates, including people, Anna says. - Vestaron sees its competitors as chemical insecticides, because the company can compete with their high efficacy in insect kill. It sees most microbe-based biological controls as in a different category, with a lower efficacy, at least in the insecticide market. - In the U.S., Vestaron’s peptides are classed as an emerging technology, by the EPA, and as such can access an expedited regulatory path, but still have to prove their safety to the same standard as chemical pesticides. - Partly because of a potentially slimmer regulatory approval process, Anna says that Vestaron can develop a new product in six to seven years, spending around $20 million, compared with around $350 million and 11 to 14 years for a traditional chemical insecticide product. - The company’s first product is already approved for use in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, while the company is working towards entry into the EU market, which it expects by 2025 or 2026, if not sooner through expedited processes. - The company’s first product is a broad-spectrum insecticide, which kills moth and butterfly larvae by ingestion, as well as a contact product killing small, soft-bodied insects like aphids. - Anna draws parallels with a shift in the pharmaceutical industry, about 40 years ago, which she sees now coming to the agricultural chemical industry. - That shift is away from what Anna terms “small molecule discovery”, namely broad-spectrum chemicals that it turns out run into problems with wider side effects, in agriculture’s case on the environment, or in pharma’s case on human health. Over the past several decades, pharma has shifted to large-molecule, protein-based human health solutions, such as antibody and enzyme-based remedies, which are more specific in how they bind to target molecules, and so have fewer unwanted side effects. - Anna sees Vestaron as being able to disrupt the chemical pesticide market in the same way as Genentech or Amgen disrupted the pharmaceutical market, as the first company bringing protein-based solutions to the chemical pesticide industry.
    30m 43s
  • Are viruses the next weapon against crop diseases?

    12 SEP. 2023 · Here are some of my main learning points from this podcast, with Guy Elitzur, CEO of EcoPhage, a company which is enlisting viruses to fight bacteria that cause diseases in crops: - Bacteriophages are bacteria-eating viruses. These viruses were discovered in the nineteenth century, but have only really been studied more intensively in the past couple of decades. - Guy’s company has licensed the same technology, from Israel’s Weizmann Institute, as licensed by the Nasdaq-listed BiomX, a pharmacological company looking to tackle bacterial diseases in humans. In that sense, this makes an interesting example where the agriculture sector is applying existing human remedies to crop diseases, in a push to reduce environmental impact. - Bacterial diseases in crops are across the board, including in row crops, and fruit and vegetables. Guy’s company is starting with control of bacterial diseases in tomatoes. - Regulation looms large behind the drivers for this company. To date, bacterial diseases in crops are mostly treated with antibiotics or copper-based chemical products. Regarding antibiotics, bacterial resistance is leading regulators to reduce or ban their use. Meanwhile, copper is toxic. So, farmers are under pressure to find something new. - Regulatory pressure to find safer solutions also confer practical commercial benefits. Chemicals manufacturers face a real burden to prove that their products are safe, which biocontrol developers can avoid through certain waivers. Guy says that his company can develop a new product in 12 to 18 months, versus 10 to 15 years for a chemical solution, partly for this reason, and partly because they are starting with a virus which already destroys bacteria, and so is halfway there, instead of designing from scratch a chemical to do this. - The company’s process starts with sourcing virus bacteriophages from the natural environment, and then screening these for potency. The company will combine good candidates in cocktails, to make them collectively tougher to crack, in terms of bacterial resistance. - Guy says that trials suggest his product, integrated into current farming practice, confers tens of percentage point benefits, in yield and other core attributes. He says that will also be 10-15% more expensive, a cost offset by the superior performance. He expects to start commercialising the product for tomatoes at the beginning of 2025. - He expects the competitive landscape to become more intense, from just a handful of bacteriophage companies in the agriculture space today.
    24m 43s
  • Coming soon: the world's first hybrid potato

    5 JUN. 2023 · Here’s some of my main learning points from this podcast, with Charles Miller, director of strategic alliances and development at Solynta: - Solynta is the first company able to hybridise potatoes. Hybrid breeding is used extensively in many crops, such as maize/ corn, tomatoes, sunflowers. The idea is to cross two in-bred, so-called elite lines each with highly desirable traits, to achieve what is known as hybrid vigour, achieving highly targeted improvements by combining both sets of attractive traits in a single line. - To explain Solynta’s breakthrough, an initial requirement to achieve hybrid breeding is first to make plants able to self-pollinate, by finding and switching off a so-called self-incompatibility gene. You can then create two separate, in-bred lines of male and female plants. The hybrid step then involves artificially cross pollinating those two in-bred lines. Solynta’s breakthrough was to find this incompatibility gene in potatoes. - There are a couple of key advantages of using hybrids in potatoes: - First, your seed product is then a true seed, as opposed to a potato tuber. Using seed potatoes, or tubers, has been the favoured approach to breeding potatoes – to clone and then plant potato tubers of a particular variety. The trouble with that approach is that potatoes are very bulky, and tubers can spread disease, from the parent plant and the soil. If you can market a variety using true seed instead, then suddenly you save a lot of fuel in haulage, as well as storage space, and a cleaner product. Solynta estimates the seed weight comparison, when sowing a field of potatoes, is 2.5 tonnes per hectare of tubers, versus 25 grams of true seed. - Second, it should be easier and quicker to improve particular characteristics or traits, because of the targeted nature of the in-breeding /hybrid breeding process, where many desirable traits involve multiple genes, and so require significant, multigenic, breeding precision, for example using genetic marking to identify the right genes, and using introgression – for example targeting particular wild potato genes – to incorporate these into a new elite in-bred line. - Charles says that the company is now transitioning from being a technical company to a commercial company, as it seeks to exploit the breakthrough it has made, and that it should take only two to four years to go from an idea to a final hybrid in most cases, versus a decade of so under the previous, centuries-old techniques. - Regarding specific traits, the first target is late blight resistance – quite sensibly, as by far the biggest cause of economic damage to potato yields, and also the biggest financial cost in terms of crop protection chemicals. Charles puts the latter in the EU alone at more than €500 million annually. He says Solynta has gone from blight resistant concept to product in two years, and the company is now testing that product. “The results are quite promising.”
    27m 51s
  • Can gene editing fast-track food security?

    9 MAY. 2023 · Here are some of my learning points from this podcast, with Ponsi Trivisvavet, CEO of Inari, the seed design company. - The goal of the company is to design seeds for crop varieties that consume fewer resources, such as land, water and chemical inputs. The focus crops are corn, soybeans and wheat. - Inari’s three specific target products at present are, first, to increase yields significantly, without an increase in use of nitrogen. Further down the pipeline are goals to reduce nitrogen use without sacrificing yield, and to reduce water use. - Inari aims to achieve these goals by targeting changes to the “architecture” of the plant, such as the number of seed per pod, or pods per node, and increase the individual seed weight – and all three of these, at the same time, to increase yield. - The company has two technology platforms: predictive design, and gene editing - Predictive design is the process of understanding the full complexity of crop genomes, their genetic maps, which are more complex than human genomes. - The idea of predictive design is to narrow down what changes to the crop genome may lead to particular changes in crop performance. Inari’s predictive design engine uses ML and human interpretation to understand how genes interact with each other, digitally “in silico”, as well as at the plant cell level, and at the plant level. - Gene editing is the process of then altering the genome, to favour particular traits, for example using the gene editing tool, Crispr. Gene editing is distinguished from genetic modification (GM) in that it involves changing the existing DNA of the species – whether inserting, removing or tuning this DNA – in contrast to GM which involves introducing new DNA from another species. - Regarding products, Inari is most progressed in a goal to increase yield, and specifically in soybeans, by 20%, followed by goals to increase yield in wheat and corn, by 15% and 10% respectively. Further down the pipe, it wants to reduce nitrogen and water use by 40%. - Ponsi said she couldn’t disclose how far the company had gone to date, in quantified increases in yield. She stated that the company has already seen evidence of progress in each of the levers to increase yield in soybean plants, namely more seeds per pod, more pods per node, and higher grain weight. - Ponsi said that traditional crop breeding historically took 10 years to develop a product, and genetic modification took roughly 16 years, while Inari expects a two to five year time-frame to develop a product. - Inari recently produced a white paper, at Davos, calculating the combined ecosystem benefits of its products, through 2042, in terms of GHGs, nitrogen run-off and farm profitability, to show how companies can be net nature positive, available https://inari.com/remote-media/Dynamic-System-Modeling-White-Paper_01-2023.pdf, and a detailed overview of its gene editing platform, https://inari.com/remote-media/Multiplex-Gene-Editing-White-Paper_11-2022.pdf.
    30m 32s
  • How computer vision can halve farm weedkiller use

    23 ABR. 2023 · Here are some of my learning points from this podcast, with Nadav Bocher, CEO and co-founder of Greeneye, the precision spraying company: - Greeneye’s mission is to transform the present, broadcast approach to spraying herbicides –where farmers spray an entire field, regardless of weed incidence. - Greeneye wants to spray only actual weeds, using AI-enabled cameras first to detect weeds, and then turn individual spray nozzles on and off accordingly. The company estimates that actual weed infestation in an average U.S. Mid-West field is around 10%, indicating the scale of possible savings. - The system comprises, on a 36m spray boom, some 12 graphics processing units (GPUs), and 24 cameras. Once a GPU detects and classifies a weed, it triggers the nozzle to spray, all in real time. The typical system will comprise a dual mode, allowing simultaneous broadcast spraying of a residual pre-emergence product (used to control weeds preventatively), and spot spraying of weeds with a leaf contact product. - Nadav says identifying grass weeds in some cereal crops is complex, such as grass weeds in a grass-based crop such as wheat – “That’s tough, we’re not there yet.” - The company’s focus today is detecting grass and broad-leaved weeds in three key crops, soy, corn and cotton. - Nadav says its algorithms have been tested in multiple fields in multiple countries, giving it the ability to differentiate the crop from weeds, the key task, rather than worry about actually identifying weed species. - The company’s system is retrofitted on to any existing sprayer, a different approach to some of Greeneye’s competitors, who are teaming up with equipment manufacturers to sell an entire new sprayer. - Nadav says their full retrofit cost is about $200-250k, and expects an 18-month payback on that investment. There, he is assuming a $33/acre/year herbicide saving, and a 4,000 acre arable operation – so to be clear this speed of payback is only achieved on a fairly large operation. - Nadav says Greeneye is now going into its second season of rolling out commercially in the U.S. Mid-West. He expects to sell "dozens" of actual systems this year, moving from a “spraying as a service” model in 2022.
    31m 21s
  • Can AI make farm practice smarter?

    11 ABR. 2023 · Here are some of my learning points from this podcast: - Agmatix is trying to consolidate agronomic field trial data, through digitalisation, to make this data more available, to agricultural researchers, agronomists and farmers. - Agmatix has two main activities. First, the digitalisation of agricultural R&D, focusing on agronomic insights and especially field trial data, and second, interpreting and applying those data, to develop prescriptions for agronomists to share with farmers. - Both activities rely heavily on the use of smart algorithms, under the company’s Axiom platform. - Regarding the digitalisation of field trials, Agmatix has first had to standardise crop research data, including agricultural taxonomy, such as crop names (corn or maize?), as well as units of measurement (bushels or tonnes?); and research protocols and methods, such as soil depth in soil sampling trials. - With its standardised approach in place, it has gone on to digitalise more than 50 million field trials to date, covering more than 150 crops. - Research groups and agricultural companies can use this digitalised platform to organise their own field trials, using the standardised format to share results more easily, for example in collaborative projects. Agmatix says it has developed an open platform for plant nutrition, with various partners, based on more than 2,000 sources of field trials. The link is here: https://cropnutrientdata.net/ - The second main activity of the company is to translate these insights from aggregated field trials into digital prescriptions, via its Crop Advisor decision support tool for agronomists. - Agmatix can use its ingested field trial data to develop models, to understand for example the risk factors governing eruption of a particular disease, which agronomists can then use in their work with farmers. - The standardised field trial data can help agronomists to deliver prescriptions according to local circumstances and practices, for example how to balance chemical inputs and farm practice to deliver a particular yield in a particular way, for example with the smallest carbon footprint. - By working with agronomists and farmers, Agmatix can also ground-truth its algorithms, and so improve their accuracy.
    21m 25s
  • Is it green? the UK's newest vertical farm

    20 MAR. 2023 · Here are some key points from this podcast interview with James Lloyd-Jones, CEO of the Jones Food Company (JFC): - The main differences between a vertical farm and a high-tech greenhouse are – no glass; multiple layers; and a more controlled environment, which allows a higher output per sqm of growing area. - James is about to launch his new “JFC2” farm, which will add to an existing farm at Scunthorpe, and R&D facility in Bristol. The new farm structure is a 15,000 sqm factory. The farm is presently being commissioned, and will start operation on May 1. - “It’s a beast. It’s a monster.” It will be the biggest vertical farm in Britain, built as a single unit. - The growing area is 35m wide, comprising six planting corridors, each 80m long. It is 10m high, stacked in 15 levels. - James expects the farm to produce just over 1,000 tonnes of leafy greens per year. He sees total UK national annual demand at very roughly 50,000 tonnes, for leafy greens, implying that his new farm alone will cater for at least 2% of total national demand. - Energy costs are higher, but they’re also more predictable than a greenhouse. Being indoors without natural light, the lighting and HVAC are the same throughout the season, allowing the operator to predict future margins, and lock these in with long-run forward energy contracts. James says this ability to lock in energy supply contracts, and have a more stable growing environment, may make vertical farming more resilient to energy price volatility, for example during last year’s surge in gas prices. - Regarding capital costs, by building much of their own technology, under a design, build and operate model, JFC has been able to cut capex more quickly. At their first farm, capex was £1.5k per sqm. Now they’re at £1k, and aiming for less than £900, for automated systems, a level broadly competing with a smart greenhouse. - Operating costs are in descending order: power (HVAC and lighting); labour; and distribution. They have been able to reduce these, for example by going fully automated; packing on site; and through economies of scale, building larger units. - Vertical farming is already competitive with imports of smaller, more perishable plants, such as salads and herbs, which JFC have been selling for several years into the UK market. - JFC’s carbon footprint is slightly higher than Egyptian field agriculture, one benchmark competitor for herbs. James sees some fairly straightforward ways to cut their footprint, including using local renewable power, and optimising plant growing space. - Being local to demand centres, unlike imports, it might be expected that vertical farms would benefit from a renewed focus on food security. James says JFC did see some greater interest after Brexit and Covid, while disruptions from climate change are a demand driver, to keep food shelves stocked, year-round, with local produce. - The company’s next steps, after a week’s holiday for James, will include domestic UK and international expansion. - And the next big thing in the market at large? The most exciting thing, he says, is “realism” – away from recent hype. And … berries!
    19m 31s
  • "Biological solutions will dominate" - the EU's head of pesticides

    6 MAR. 2023 · This week, we heard from a senior European Union policymaker involved in one of the biggest drivers of change in the agriculture sector today, namely pesticide regulation. I spoke with Klaus Berend, head of the EU’s pesticide unit, in the EU’s health and food safety directorate. What I wanted to understand was just how big the pressure is on chemical pesticides; over what time frame the portfolio of pesticides available to farmers will fall; any news on specific product bans, including very widely used active ingredients such as glyphosate (aka Roundup); and finally how the EU is working to make chemicals bans square with food security. Some of the main points of interest that emerged from this podcast were: - Today, there are 453 approved active ingredients (AIs) approved across the EU. About 10 are revoked annually. At the same time, around 10 new AIs are approved for the first time. In other words, at present, the overall number is roughly unchanged from year to year. - However, the composition of those pesticides is changing dramatically. Already, 170 of these 453 approved AIs fall into the category of non-chemical AIs. These so-called “low hazard” pesticides include microorganisms used to combat pests, as well as natural plant extracts, pheromones and other low-risk substances. They have increased from less than 40 such approved non-chemical AIs in 2012. - As Klaus says - "Slowly, over time, the number of synthetic chemical substances will probably go down further, while the number of biological control tools will increase. In the long term, it will be the biological solutions that will dominate.” That seems to me a clear statement supporting further growth in the biological pesticide market globally. - It is the more toxic, and perhaps for farmers more effective, chemical pesticides, that are disappearing first. That’s because the technology around measuring the toxicology of chemicals has improved, meaning more now fall on the wrong side of the definition of harm to humans or the environment, for example as carcinogens. - The two main European agencies that form an expert opinionon pesticides, in a 10-year review cycle, are the European Chemicals Agency (which measures hazard) and the European Food Safety Authority (which measures risk). - Klaus could not speculate on the outcome of presently ongoing reviews. Glyphosate - perhaps the world's commonest herbicide - has passed its ECHA review (i.e. with an unchanged hazard finding). EFSA will release its long-awaited corresponding risk opinion for glyphosate in July 2023, with no extreme changes announced yet in the meantime. However, the review of one of the most common fungicides, tebuconazole, does follow on the heels of bans for closely related triazoles, such as epoxiconazole. - Klaus stated that the principles of Integrated Pest Management were not fully implemented across the EU, and that was hindering support for crop yields and food security, as chemical pesticides are gradually banned.
    34m 40s

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On this podcast, we discuss how to reduce the environmental imapct of food production, through technology, science and policy, in interviews with thinkers, decision makers, entrepreneurs and farmers.

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