The future of agriculture and the ability to feed a rapidly increasing global population may depend on today's start-up companies to reach daunting production goals.
"What's the attraction of a start-up?" asked Dan Vradenburg, CEO, Trace Genomics, in an introduction to three panelists, all with start-up ag companies, during opening session of the 65th annual Southern Crop Production Association meeting in Charleston, S.C.
"Start-ups begin by looking at multimillion-dollar opportunities. It starts with a pain point, a problem to solve," Vradenburg said. "Quite frankly, as an industry, we need to improve and do things better.
"Soil intelligence will drive more optimal sustainable production practices," he added. "Or how about advancements in the most foundational crop input, seed. We're now utilizing decades of regional insight, coupled with the most advanced gene technology and can promote genetic diversity better suited to the land being farmed to improve yields and economic and environmental benefits."
He said amplifying billions of living organisms in the soil can "trigger a plant's natural ability to feed and protect itself when under abiotic stress factors and can more efficiently use nutrients in the soil."
Vradenburg said the three panelists represent companies on the forefront of a new agricultural revolution.
Panelists Ponsi Trivisvavet, CEO and director, Inari; Poornima Parameswara, co-founder and president, Trace Genomics; and Travis Bayer, co-founder and CTO, Sound Agriculture, in a Farm Press interview following the opening session, explained how their companies are revolutionizing agriculture.
Improving stress tolerance
Bayer said Sound is creating new chemistry to increase farmer productivity and efficiency. "We're doing that by understanding all the ways a plant interacts with its environment, especially during stressful conditions."
He said factors like improving drought stress tolerance, making a plant more productive when nutrient availability is low, and increasing plant efficiency early in the season increase yield.
"We estimate another 100 percent yield gain if we can deal with all those environmental stresses."
He said producers should be able to double yield and reduce costs. "If you're able to improve yield by, say, mitigating drought stress, you're able to use resources you put down more efficiently. That improves fertilizer and pesticides use and uses the land and soil nutrients more efficiently. For us, sustainability means increasing both economic and environmental sustainability."
Sound is launching a new product this year to meet some of these goals.
"A product called Source stimulates the native soil microbiomes," Bayer said. "It turns on microbes in the soil that are able to manufacture fertility right at the plant root. The soil has the ability to do that, but that function usually is not switched on. Our chemistry helps activate or enable the soil to do what it is capable of doing naturally."
Bayer said Source will be on the market for the 2020 growing season.
Trivisvavet said Inari is creating seeds that are much better for the environment as well as for farm economics. "We combine the tools of conventional science and genomic technologies to create seed with more genetic diversity and require much less water, chemical fertilizer and pesticide. We are focusing on corn, soybeans and wheat."
She said this technology, marrying computational science with genomic tools, allows Inari to develop seeds much quicker than in traditional breeding programs. "We can create new seed in 30 percent of the time required through the usual process and in only 10 percent of the time the current process of developing seed would take. We hope the cost reduction and a reduction in time will allow us to pass those benefit to the farmers."
Trivisvavet said Inari has limited product volume already available in corn, introduced in April 2019. "We will continue to add new technologies that provide these seeds to farmers."
Parameswara said agriculture typically looks above ground to evaluate crop health. Trace Genomics looks underground.
"When most people think about farming, they think about farming above ground. They think about managing the crops, about how to manage the weather, the climate, and the plants. But what's happening below ground, what's happening underneath our feet?
"We are shining light on what the soil is telling us, what needs to be managed below ground, in the soil, a universal asset in agriculture," she said. "We trace and illuminate data in soil — soil biology, soil chemistry — and make that data actionable and insightful for farmers and trusted agronomists to make decisions around disease risk and fertility.
"We also think about the capacity of soil. We see incredible potential to use soil management, not only to increase farm productivity in terms of optimizing input, but also to do so in an environmentally sustainable manner."
The process drills down into site-specific agriculture. "Each field is like a unique child," Parameswara said. "Farmers develop a customized management practice for each field, even subsections of the fields." She said Trace Genomics baseline customers' fields and "show what is missing, what risks they need to be managing in areas that are not as productive as other areas.
"Sometimes risk factors that need to be managed are diseases. For example, in soybeans it could be soybean sudden death. If the crop is lettuce, the problem could be fusarium. If you are growing almonds, it could be phytophthora. This insight, coupled with the other side of the coin (It's not always diseases that bring down yields; there's also fertility issues like the good microbes in the soil that are important to make nitrogen available to plants.) improves farm management," she said.
Any of those elements could be missing in certain sections, she added. Some areas may be low in nitrogen, needing additional fertilizer.
"These are risks we can expose because we're able to aggregate and synthesize all of the soil data and provide it to farmers. It's never before been available to them across all crops."
She said Trace Genomics currently focuses on a handful of crops. "But the technology is beneficial to any crop; any arable acre of land can benefit from this. But for us to convert the data generated from this technology into insights that matter at the farm gate, we focus on about a dozen crops."
Vradenburg said these start-up companies, and perhaps others like them, will make an impact on farm efficiency in the near future. "I believe they are shaping production agriculture in a profound way."
He said new technology, gene editing, the ability to perform complex test and analyses in a matter of months instead of years and for hundreds instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars, offers opportunities to start-up companies not possible just a few years ago.
He said agricultural science now has a better understanding of the most critical component of crop production, the soil.
"We can appreciate the complex associations between soil biology and chemistry, which helps farmers develop optimal production programs with insight that has never been available until now."