by Cate Pedersen
Earth’s forecasted population for 2050 varies, but it is agreed among the experts that our planet will be supporting over 9 billion of us in the very near future. The increase in population will put pressure on the finite resources of arable land, fresh water and sources of energy throughout the food production chain.
At the BC Tech Summit in Vancouver in January, 2016, a group of people passionate about education, collaboration and innovation in agriculture discussed the challenges of feeding the world and the exciting technological advancements that could turn things around. They all agreed that the population expansion is not going to stop at 9 billion, 10 billion, or 11 billion . . . but will continue to grow and place intense pressure on our food producers.
The moderator, Dave Smardon, became immersed in the agricultural sector in 2003, and in 2005 he assumed the role of President and CEO of Bioenterprise Corporation, North America’s leading business accelerator in the agricultural industry. He refers to agricultural-technology as the “New Wave” for investors.
Smardon introduced the panel of speakers: Dr. Saber Miresmailli, applied biologist and CEO of Ecoation Innovative Solutions; Timothy Kendrick, President and Chief Designer of BW GLOBAL; Rickey Yada, Dean of Food Science, UBC; and Kim Keller, co-founder, Farm At Hand Inc.
Smardon announced, “As we approach 2050, we are going to have to produce more food in one year than we have produced in the entire history of our planet.”
Smardon went on to explain that the population issue is not just about the numbers, it is about the type of diet that people living in the city centers expect. “If we had to feed 10 billion people steak, pork, poultry and fish, we would be in deep trouble. Add to that the fact that the amount of arable land we have on this planet is finite, and is going to be more and more degraded each year, putting downward pressure on how much productivity we get out of that land, you can see how something like a perfect storm is waiting to happen here. With climate change, places like the Punjab region where it is predicted in 20 years they will not be able to grow wheat, and in California where they are trying to figure out who has the rights to the aquifers, the issues become more and more complex.”
One by one, the panelists shared their vision for the future, and answered one another’s queries.
As a farmer/producer, Kim Keller “eats, sleeps and breathes” the issues every day. Keller is co-founder of Farm at Hand, an innovative global seed-to-sale management platform which was started as an in-house solution for her family’s farm in Saskatchewan. Keller has insight into industry know-how and end user mindset.
What concerns Keller is the notion that there is a silver bullet to fix every problem. “But at the end of the day there are many parts that need to come together for a viable solution [to feeding the world].”
Home-grown Solutions to a Global Problem
Dr. Miresmailli has a strong interest in food systems and climate change, and his company developed a novel platform that monitors health of plants and can detect plant stress before farmers can even see the symptoms. Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Miresmailli works with a team of scientists and engineers to develop pest management solutions for small farms in West Africa.
Miresmailli said, “We do have an indifference towards starvation in the rest of the world.” He described how western countries are free to talk about the merits of food, but spoke of a region on another continent that relies on one particular legume to sustain them, and described a pest that attacks the base of the flower, causing the plant to abort the flower. “This becomes a problem when you have a healthy plant but no pods.”
Smardon asked Dr. Miresmailli, “What do you see as being critical in agriculture technology?” Miresmailli answered with an invitation to the agricultural technology community: “To better engage and understand the specific needs and requirements in practice because some of the models in place may work in one sector, but would not apply in another. You need to adjust your ideas and visions.”
Smardon said that he had known Dr. Rickey Yada for twelve years. “And he has been at the leading edge of food innovation for all those years. He brings a wealth of knowledge about food systems and the chemical compounds that make up foods. He was also involved in a Canada-wide food research network.”
Yada was asked where his interest in food tech lies. “I am excited about the young researchers at UBC and across Canada who have these really innovative ideas to try and address the issue of feeding over 9 billion. Our challenge is going to be multi-faceted—at the university level there is a relative inability to take a good idea and make it a commercial success.”
A GLOBAL Perspective
Kendrick’s company BW Global is Western Canada’s largest manufacturer of polycarbonate and polyethylene greenhouses. Smardon explained how as a food systems company, BW Global is challenging the current thinking around food production, security and safety. Kendrick’s greenhouse systems retain water vapour and manage humidity levels. They can withstand temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius and below 40 degrees Celsius.
“I think people are struggling to come to terms with what is happening on a global level,” said Kendrick, gesturing to a soil moisture map projected behind him which displayed the loss of soil moisture in various regions. “What we see here is the inability to spread some seeds on the soil and hope that Mother Nature provides enough moisture to germinate. But more importantly, soil will not be able to remediate itself. Our focus is on controlled environment growing and being able to divorce ourselves from the land if need be, and the environment.” Kendrick pointed out that Iran has used 90% of its ground water and it is believed they will be out of potable water by 2030. “We need to get our heads and hands around this issue,” said Kendrick.
Controlled growing environments have shown to increase yields by as much as 40 or 60 per cent, just from light conditioning. Kendrick also showed images of two Swiss chard leaves. The smaller one was grown is soil, and matured in 15 days. The larger, more robust looking leaf was grown in water and matured in 5 days without the use of chemicals. It is conceivable that hydroponic or aquaponic systems similar to the one Kendrick used could more than triple food output.
Kendrick explained how increased weather activity is taking out many field crops and traditional greenhouses, which is catastrophic for the food producers and the consumer. Hail storms and tornados are wreaking havoc in places not used to such weather. “We are building a two acre greenhouse in Lethbridge where they experienced 120-140km/hr. winds, and even though the greenhouse was partially built we did not lose a single panel; down the road in Medicine Hat, 10 acres of brand new glass structures were lost—a 12 million dollar project. So as we intensify food growth, it’s important to manage risk at the plant level and business level.”
Miresmailli concisely described the panel’s focus: “We have the humanitarian capacity to share certain technologies to put in the hands of the right people and make sure the ministries understand that agriculture and food production impacts everything else. We can all live without our smartphones but we cannot live without food. We all have to eat. One of the issues we have is that public policies and technologies are driven by what the public feels is cool. We need to make farming cool again and channel all the amazing technological talent that we have into something a little more meaningful.”
He also described what bothered him about agriculture technology. He said that many tech developers design something and dictate to users what they need and how to use it instead of asking end users what they want to achieve with the technology. “We cannot create technology that shuts down the voice of the farmer. We need to trust farmers and give them a voice, because they know what’s best for their environment and their locality. When we invest and invent in the ag sector, we must realize that the customers are not just users, their input is important.”
Dean Yada said he agreed that what researchers might not be doing well is listening to the users. “What we need to do now is listen to the growers. They are in the trenches every day identifying problems and those are the problems we should be working on.”
Smardon asked Kim, as a farmer, what would convince her to adopt new farming technologies. “Farmers are quick to adopt new technology if it benefits their land and operation and keeps it profitable,” she said.
Is Precision Farming the Answer to Food Supply?
Kim was of the opinion that precision farming is not the be all and end all of solutions for the farming community. “In general, we are collecting a lot of data, but as farmers we have no way to make sense of that data. The data is just thrown at us and there is no company today that is gathering all the data and analyzing it all in one spot. In order to truly make a difference in feeding the population, you have to look at the entire farming operation and make changes and improvements to the entire operation.”
Miresmailli agreed wholeheartedly. “Many tech companies think that if they fix one thing or automate one thing, you will resolve all problems. A farm is a living ecosystem, and we put the farmer first . . . they have all the knowledge and expertise but they can’t clone themselves to be in all places at all times and it takes years to train staff to that level of expertise. We try to mold our data to meet their requirements using language they are comfortable with. Our technology collects data directly from the plant itself and the farmer. We make an extension of the farmer and digitize the knowledge of the farmer so they can be everywhere. Otherwise it’s just another tool that they don’t know what to do with.”
Will Investing in Agri-Tech Pay Off?
Miresmailli recommended that investors need to be patient when it comes to ag tech, and be ready to be in it for the long haul. “It takes time for a tomato to grow!” he laughed. “You cannot accelerate nature. It’s not like making an app where you can have revenue the day after with an exit two years down the road.”
Kendrick mentioned a Japanese aquaculture company who presented a 50-year plan to their employees. “I think there needs to be a different model from a business management perspective where we do consider things in longer terms. And we need to not sacrifice resources in the short term because we do have to look in the medium to long term.”
Smardon also pointed out that with ag tech, there is a crossover to other sectors: drone technology to monitor soil might be considered ag tech, but the software and hardware is also ICT; tech developed for water reclamation for ag is also clean tech; plants grown to cure cancer is also about life sciences. “From an investor standpoint, yes, there are some investments that will take decades to get into the marketplace, but you can pick technologies that are closer to market and will get you the returns.”
Smardon asked Yada if he thought Canada was behind in the “race” to feed the world. Yada wasn’t sure if Canada was behind, but suggested we might have more researchers working in the ag tech areas based on population. “But we do a poor job in communicating what we do. We need to more research and translate that into language the grower community can understand and evaluate.”