Silicon Valley Business Journal Leadership Trust
By Roger Royse , Partner at Haynes & Boone, LLP
Partner, Haynes and Boone, LLP, Emerging Growth and Venture Capital
Agriculture has long been charged as a major culprit of climate change. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture accounts for 21% to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the indirect effects are removed, like transport, packaging and deforestation, the number is still as high as 24%. It doesn’t need to be that way. For years, the tech industry has been working on ways to make farming smarter, more efficient and more sustainable.
Despite the issues, venture capitalists have shown interest in this sector, and rightly so. Like many world-changing industries, agriculture technology (AKA agtech) is being driven not by large established players but by startup innovators, often backed by venture capital. According to AgFunder, the sector of AgriFoodTech investment continues to break records, reaching $31 billion in 2020 — up more than eight times from 2012.
As the organizer of the Silicon Valley AgTech Conference, since 2014, we’ve aimed to showcase the newest, boldest and most innovative agriculture technology companies in the Valley and beyond. Here are a few highlights from our recent conference developments that are worth keeping an eye on.
Precision agriculture is often thought of as a way to maximize output with minimal inputs, but the benefits of technology go far beyond farm profits. For example, Silicon Valley startup Blue River Technologies (acquired by John Deere in 2017) replaces herbicides with visual imaging, deep learning and robotics to identify and zap weeds while leaving the rest of the field alone. Autonomous vehicle (AV) tractors are also gaining momentum, and electric tractors are now available.
Cattle is a large emitter of methane. Unless alternative proteins become widespread, the most likely solution is the reduction of emission through feed additives. Manure is also a contributor, as it produces methane. Some startups are working on recycling technologies that mitigate the problem. The Yield Lab runs the global “manure challenge,” which highlights some of these solutions.
The Western U.S. is in a serious drought this year and has been in and out of drought for decades. California’s storage is depleted and groundwater will only last so long before it becomes too briny or salty for commercial use. Whether due to political reasons or lack of action, California has too few reserves and technology must fill the void. Desalination machines can convert salty groundwater to water that can be used for agricultural production, but desalination is costly. Some companies have built water farms based on solar power. Other ideas include water from air, water substitutes and precision irrigation.
“Who can the weather command?” asked Jerry Garcia in the song “Black Peter.” Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is now applied to varietals other than cannabis, such as tomatoes, berries and leafy greens. LED lighting (which replaces natural sunlight) has traditionally left a large carbon footprint, but that problem will soon be solved. CEA also reduces carbon emissions by reducing the need for cross-country transportation of food and results in greater food safety and reduced inputs.
The protagonist in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden thought he had the solution to the food transport problem with refrigerated train cars. Having grown up in the produce industry, I have seen firsthand how much food is wasted from farm to table through spoilage, damage or time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates food waste at between 30% to 40% of the food supply. Much of that waste can be eliminated through sensors and data. Some companies working on the problem of food waste include Full Harvest, Re-Nuble, Spoiler Alert, Apeel and BinSentry.
Modern technology is taking the chemicals out of farming and replacing them with clean solutions. Marrone Bio Innovations, for example, creates biological products for crop protection, plant health and waterway systems treatment. Farmers are becoming more aware of biological solutions and integrating them into their pest management and crop protection programs.
Similarly, Karsten Temme, CEO of Pivot Bio, spoke at our 2018 Silicon Valley AgTech Conference about replacing synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (one of the biggest environmental issues in agriculture) with microbes.
GMO stacks reinvented
Several exciting companies are working on newer genetic approaches to help grow crops with reduced nitrogen, water, pesticides and even turning a plant into a living sensor. Inner Plant, for example, can detect plant stress within hours (not weeks) from space.
Some of the biggest, most revolutionary advances are being made in replacing animal protein with plant protein. As an example, IndieBio is incubating companies engaged in this modern-day alchemy. Plant protein is not just being marketed to the small percentage of people who are vegans. Getting the non-vegan population to eat just one plant-based meal a week would have a big impact on the amount of animal protein produced in the United States.
There is a large knowledge gap between agriculture technology companies and their markets. Technology companies have traditionally experienced difficulty accessing agricultural markets, and some view it as their last frontier. In recent years, however, tech has made inroads into the industry. Microsoft’s FarmBeats, for example, built on Azure, brings robust data analytics to the agriculture sector. Because agriculture is largely a relationship business, successful tech companies tend to be the ones with strong local connections.
The role of investment
Agriculture technology is not only addressing problems like food insecurity, but it may also help address climate change. These are just a few of the advancements under development as of this writing, and many more are on the drawing board.
In a world of bad news and daily disasters, technology offers a glimmer of hope. By investing in the right technology, VCs can be at the forefront of change. The best is certainly yet to come.
The information provided here is not investment, tax or financial advice. You should consult with a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.
Roger Royse is a Corporate and Tax Partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP, an AmLaw 100 law firm, practicing in Emerging Growth and Venture Capital.