Our patented CropCoat® technology helps coffee growers control the coffee berry borer, which threatens the livelihoods of coffee growers worldwide
Coffee is one of the most important tropical commodities, with global production estimated to be over 165 million 60-kg bags and annual revenue exceeding USD 200 billion. Around 25 million farming households depend on coffee for their living. Coffee is grown and processed in more than 70 countries. The top 5 coffee-producing countries account for more than 70% of global output. Brazil is the leading producer with an estimated annual output of 53 million 60-kg bags, followed by Vietnam (28 million bags), Colombia (14 million bags), Indonesia (12 million bags) and Ethiopia (7 million bags).
Coffee rust and the coffee berry borer are the biggest enemy of the coffee growers. At Crop Enhancement we have been working on a biological solution that will help coffee growers deal with these two enemies. Let’s start with the coffee berry borer.
The tiny beetle is endemic to central Africa and over the last 100 years has spread to most coffee-producing countries through contaminated seeds. The coffee berry borer (also known as the coffee borer beetle) has optimized itself well for a life in the coffee berry. As its name implies, it has strong mandibles that enable it to drill into the berry through either the central disc or the side walls.
Once inside the berry, it lays several dozen eggs, which become larvae that start eating the beans. There are about 10 females for every male, and new offspring mate inside the seed. Males remain in the berries for their 40-day lifespan. Females, which can live up to 150 days, are fertilized a few days before they generally disperse to colonize more berries. The same plant can host three to five generations of beetles.
Crop damage and pest control responses
Three types of coffee borer damage have been reported: 1) premature fall of young berries, 2) increased vulnerability of infested ripe berries to fungus or bacterial infection, and 3) reduction in both yield and quality of coffee. The economic fallout from this damage effects the livelihood of more than 20 million families across several continents. Coffee berry borer damage also affects the gastronomic qualities of the coffee, causing our cup of coffee to taste bitter. As a result, growers with significant borer infestations see the marketability of their crop severely impacted.
Coffee berry borers are very difficult to manage with insecticides because they are protected by the berries. Growers have been using a variety of toxic pesticides. The most widely used insecticide was endosulfan—now banned because of its significant toxicity. Nowadays, growers often use another chemical: the now infamous Chlorpyrifos. The Chlorpyrifos label recommends the use of a respirator and other significant personal protection equipment (PPE). Its label also states that Chlorpyrifos is toxic to fish, aquatic invertebrates, small mammals, and birds. The use of this product can significantly endanger the health of the growers and their family, and have a harmful impact on the local ecosystem if not used properly. However, in a tropical environment characterized by high heat and humidity, the workers are generally not adopting the extensive PPE recommendations.
Crop Enhancement’s CropCoat® technology is displacing toxic insecticides
Soon however, growers will be able to use Crop Enhancement’s products. Our CropCoat® product forms durable, biodegradable coatings on plant surfaces that camouflage plants from pests. Insects do not recognize coated surfaces as desirable locations for feeding or reproduction. And if they ultimately choose to feed on the plant, they often consume the coating, which displaces nutrition from their diets. The malnutrition and starvation that results causes the pest population to collapse, providing effective control without the use of conventional chemical pesticides.
To demonstrate CropCoat performance, we carefully selected more than 20 trial sites in Latin America and tested our product using industry-recognized testing standards such as randomized plots with at least four replications. In those trials, we compared CropCoat against the newest and best synthetic chemicals available.
Our results have shown that there are no statistical differences in controlling coffee berry borers between CropCoat and those industry-leading products. We will continue in the next couple of years to test CropCoat in coffee with our partners in Brazil, Columbia and Central America. In the meantime, we will soon start applying for registrations in a number of Latin America countries so that growers can add a sustainable solution to their toolbox to control this devastating pest—and will no longer need to use one of the industry’s most toxic pesticides.
Crop Enhancement provides a pathway to improving how we grow food and will have a lasting impact on today’s food production chain. But what are the regulatory hurdles that must be overcome in order to get to market?
Today, I sat down with Jerry Hjelle, Ph.D, D.A.B.T., an expert in food safety and global regulatory affairs who is excited about the prospects for Crop Enhancement’s technology in different applications. Jerry is a member of the Crop Enhancement Industry Advisors Board and actively advises the company on global regulatory strategy.
Jerry is president of Hjelle Advisors LLC, a regulatory science, regulatory affairs, and research and development consulting network offering services and strategies for startups and early-phase companies. Previously, he worked at Monsanto from 1986 to 2015 in various director or vice president positions in Monsanto’s nutrition/consumer products and agricultural products businesses, including as vice-president of Regulatory and vice-president of Science Policy. In these roles, Jerry was involved with many breakthrough products including aspartame, neotame, glyposhate, and several agricultural and veterinary drug biotechnology products. Jerry’s complete bio can be found here.
What in particular interests you about Crop Enhancement?
Sustainable agriculture is a key interest of mine, and Crop Enhancement is dedicated to the pursuit of finding safer and sustainable approaches to pest management. Crop Enhancement’s technology is elegant, demonstrably safe, and addresses an unmet need to control economic insect pests and pathogens. As an advisor, I like to get involved with a company early on to shape the product strategy and ensure compliance with regulations in various countries. Making the right decisions early in the product development phase is very important — the business decisions a company takes today can ensure avoidance of wrong turns. That said, de-risking product development is critical at every stage, not just pre-launch.
What are the major trends shaping the regulatory landscape worldwide?
There’s mounting pressure on developers, regulators, downstream food companies and farmers themselves to grow and market safer products. Unfortunately, the complexity of how agriculture works and how we determine whether a product is safe for a particular use leads to confusion, and some groups use this confusion to sow distrust in science globally. In the case of pesticides, there are emerging alternatives to older, more toxic chemicals — and Crop Enhancement’s approach is both novel and safe.
At the same time, consumers today have high expectations of corporate responsibility, and they are interested in having farmers of all sizes —not just the very big operations— implement sustainable operations. These factors are influencing the behavior of both companies and regulators, and those companies that focus on scientific breakthroughs to enable a lower ecological footprint will be valuable.
Another trend we’re seeing is the emergence of trade wars. Should these escalate significantly, they may prolong time to market in affected countries. Although product launches occur one country at a time, the regulatory strategies to enable commercial success in one country can be determined by the approvals needed in importing countries.
Increasingly, food safety and local/international agricultural economies are intertwined. Ag is a large part of the economy for many countries—especially in the less developed countries—and so ag exports are increasingly important to governments and their regulatory bodies. For example, growers in one country may use pesticides that are legal domestically. However, in the country to which that food is to be exported, that same pesticide may be banned or may be acceptable at such low levels that disruptions in trade are a possible outcome.
What’s driving the need for safe and ecologically friendly crop protection strategies?
Regulatory pressure is a key driver here, and it’s especially noticeable in two areas:
- Longer-term, there is a need for systematic removal of older pesticides that represent human applicator toxicity concerns, residue issues, or products that are more prone to be formulated or applied incorrectly (leading to human or animal poisoning or environmental damage). Over the years, companies have developed new chemistries to address these concerns and lower the so-called “pounds on the ground” application rates in order to lessen target effects.
- Removal of specific pesticides from some markets after new data indicate adverse effects. For example, unexpected effects of chemicals on beneficial insects like honey bees has led to the EU’s decision to ban neonicotinoid-based pesticides.
What do you see as the implications for other pesticides and longer-term trends?
A key aspect of understanding the safety of pesticides, or any product for that matter, is a clear description of the dose required to produce toxicity and a well-defined intended use to allow an estimate of exposures. If the pesticide has low toxicity compared with the estimated exposure, then the product has a high safety margin. Some of the older, more toxic pesticides yield safety margins that are now too low when calibrated against the modern standards of leading regulatory agencies in the US, EU, Japan, and other countries.
Because of toxicology- and development-related costs, and regulatory review timeframes for a truly new active ingredient, only a handful of global companies have the capacity, from a resources perspective, to be successful. But regulatory agencies globally have developed guidelines that recognize that some products are inherently safer, based on mechanism of action and other attributes. Therefore, it is essential to build in the environmental and human health friendliness aspects into the entire R&D effort.
The base technology that Crop Enhancement is developing accomplishes just that. It leverages an understanding of insect pest feeding behavior and critical application periods, and uses non-toxic ingredients that will be an important addition to the grower toolbox.
From a regulatory standpoint, what is the appeal of using a product such as CropCoat?
I think there’s a growing understanding that insect pest management doesn’t always have to involve neurotoxins or other mechanisms, but rather can leverage understanding of insect behavior using a more systems-based approach for crop protection. Also, the testing and securing approvals for new active ingredients or formulations is getting more complicated each year.
Crop Enhancement’s products are formulated from components that are well understood, are of low toxicity, and are arguably much safer for the environment. Many regulatory agencies have specific testing and approval pathways for products or formulations that meet these characteristics. Although each country is somewhat different, most have easier paths to approval and market, and this is a key benefit of Crop Enhancement’s approach.
Crop Enhancement Presents at Agtech Nexus USA
In June, we were invited to speak at the Agtech Nexus USA 2018 conference in Boston. Produced by Global AgInvesting, this event convened leading agribusinesses, investors, tech companies and other stakeholders from around the country to discuss trends and opportunities in the expanding agtech sector. The focus of my talk was on how tools and experience from adjacent industries can be applied successfully to agriculture.
Like me, discussion moderator David Potere (CEO of Tellus Labs) arrived in the ag industry bringing a set of skills and experience from outside the industry: in David’s case satellite imaging and machine learning, in my case materials science and engineering. We discussed how diverse backgrounds and “outsider” experience enable our companies to offer fresh solutions to big challenges in the ag sector. I illustrated the Crop Enhancement approach of applying innovations in materials science to uniquely deliver effective, sustainable crop protection for growers around the world.
I shared how at our company we team up ag industry veterans (for example, our VP of business development, field development manager, and staff entomologist) with technology development experts (scientists from the chemical and advanced materials industries) to solve the problem we are attacking creatively through a blend of our different areas of expertise.
I described that in order to augment our team’s knowledge and capabilities, we actively engage the services of business development and technology consultants, leverage our distinguished board of industry advisors, and seek the advice of respected mentors.
In my concluding remarks, I quoted Dan Vradenburg, president of the Wilbur-Ellis Agribusiness Division, who once said that “farming is a noble profession.” We at Crop Enhancement wholeheartedly agree. As entrepreneurs eager to solve some of the world’s most challenging agricultural problems, we will ultimately only be successful when we approach our grower partners with the respect they’ve earned striving to feed our planet.
Watch Kevin Chen, CEO of Crop Enhancement, at Agtech Nexus USA 2018:
Crop Enhancement Presents at the AGRI Tech Venture Forum
by Kevin Chen
Crop Enhancement was selected to present as a showcase company at the recent AGRI Tech Venture Forum. Held each year in Toronto, this event is among the calendar highlights of any agtech company looking to connect with customers, partners, and investors.
The conference website nicely summarizes the need for this event: “New ventures and high-growth companies require more than just financial capital to succeed in the dynamic global market. Innovation, partnerships, ingenuity, and experience are just a few of the ingredients for an agtech success story.” That’s certainly been my experience.
Crop Enhancement was selected from among many companies that submitted an application, making it to the final 11 that presented to an audience of 125 investors and industry experts. We were the only company selected to represent the sustainable crop protection segment. Other companies presented technologies from manure treatment to crop threat analysis to pesticide use analysis and even precision beekeeping technology. There is seemingly no end to the innovation and ingenuity that is driving the agtech sector.
At the event, we were able to highlight the progress we’ve made on many fronts over the last 18 months. For example, compared to last year when I presented at similar conferences, Crop Enhancement is now significantly closer to commercialization. This year, we’re in a position to report on our field trials with cacao which are proving that our CropCoat® product boosts yields by double digits while permitting reduced or no toxic pesticide use at all. At the same time, we’ve made great progress in terms of product registrations in our target markets and we’re investing in our commercial infrastructure.
It being a primarily North American audience, investors I spoke with at the forum were very interested in our efforts in domestic markets. To that end, we’re working with growers and partners focused on high-value specialty crops such as fruit,
berries, and even coffee. These were just some of the many insightful questions we fielded from an audience of ag-focused investors and experts who attended.
If you’re an agtech company looking to engage with investors and potential partners, I highly recommend this forum. Thank you to Aryn Guthrie and the AGRI Tech Venture Forum organizers for the invitation to present.
[dt_highlight color=”” text_color=”” bg_color=””]by Kevin Chen[/dt_highlight]
2017 was a pivotal year for Crop Enhancement, and we exited the year well positioned for 2018. During the course of the year, we focused our efforts on three initiatives: strengthening the company structurally; product and field development; and market education. In this blog, I’ll take you through the highlights and tee up the year ahead.
On the staffing front, 2017 was an important year for Crop Enhancement. We were pleased to welcome Damian Hajduk as VP of R&D, with Eric Flora joining as global field development manager. We hired our first entomologist, Kavita Sharma, who quickly established a new biology lab for mode-of-action studies.
We also announced the formation of a distinguished board of advisors consisting of agribusiness industry veterans Marcus Meadows-Smith, Mark Phillipson, and Mary Shelman — talented individuals who actively contribute market insights, strategy recommendations, and valuable connections.
We moved our operations to the heart of Silicon Valley, occupying a newly renovated multipurpose lab and office space conveniently situated 1 mile from San Jose International airport and blocks away from public transportation. The entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley is no more apparent than seeing how an agriculture technology company such as Crop Enhancement can be just a block away from an internet pioneer such as PayPal.
This location perfectly suits Crop Enhancement’s creative culture and enables us to maximize our operational efficiency, reduce overhead costs, be closer to our customers and partners, and access industry talent. As part of the move from Cambridge, MA, to San Jose, we expanded our local team with experienced and entrepreneurial individuals for our formulation (Anne Xie and Gina Leung), CFO (Steve Terry), general counsel (Archana Ojha), and senior accountant (Kathryn Lorenzo) roles. We sadly said farewell to our team members who remained in Cambridge, and thank them for their contributions and friendship: Bob Mahoney, Rosa Casado, Matt Bosley, Rodrigo Telles, and Kavita Sharma.
Amid these personnel and geographic changes, we were happy to begin a banking relationship with Silicon Valley Bank, which has provided Crop Enhancement with a $2M venture debt line. With this additional financing, we will be able to achieve more value creation milestones.
Product and field development
Throughout 2017, our product development team made important improvements to the CropCoat® formulation, including advances to the concentrated formulation itself, how it is applied, and how the product coats plant tissues. We also explored formulations that combine CropCoat with various active ingredients, including biologicals, to evaluate crop protection benefits. We continue to make progress on these efforts. We launched a product registration process in a key international geography to enable commercialization of CropCoat.
In terms of field development, we established a robust research bioassay and field trial program with partners that include contract research organizations (CROs), universities, and corporate partners to evaluate CropCoat performance. Our crop targets include cacao, coffee, and tree fruits across multiple geographies. We are also testing the response of a variety of pests and pathogens to the CropCoat product. I am also pleased to report that our Tunable Release Vehicle (TRV) technology is attracting interest from manufacturers of active ingredients and fertilizers seeking to improve the performance of their chemistries.
Market education initiatives
As a new entrant into the integrated pest management (IPM) sector, we are focused on introducing growers and farmers to our planet-friendly approach. To that end, we worked closely with several influential publications to raise awareness of the applications CropCoat has in different sectors. As a result of these initiatives, we were fortunate to place articles and CEO interviews with AgroPages, Food Processing, Fresh Cup, and the TerraTech podcast. More of these educational pieces are planned for 2018.
The Crop Enhancement team was also highly visible at industry events where we were lucky enough to be invited to speak on various topics:
- Silicon Valley AgTech Conference – on international ag
- Entomological Society of America – on CropCoat performance
- World Cocoa Foundation – on cacao crop issues
We were also delighted to win the pitch competition for new materials startups at Plug and Play Tech Accelerator’s 2017 Summer Summit. And you should also check out our new corporate video:
2018 will be an even bigger year for Crop Enhancement!
Building on the strong foundation we laid last year, in 2018 we’ll expand our field development efforts, advance our CropCoat and TRV platforms, and kick off market development initiatives. We’re already off to a fast start with two formulation scientists (Neal Ryan and Yeon Choi) and a staff entomologist (Matheus Ribeiro) joining the team in just the last week. We are actively interviewing talented candidates to fill additional job opportunities, including one for business development.
We are also very pleased to welcome Dr. Jerry Hjelle to our board of advisors. A former technology executive at agrochemical leader Monsanto, Jerry brings extensive experience in worldwide regulatory strategy and product development strategy.
Connect with us this year
We’re eager to hear from potential customers and partners. Growers of high-value crops tell us that they are eagerly looking for solutions that reduce insecticide and fungicide use, save them labor costs and application time, and improve their sustainability profiles. We are taking their input to heart and looking forward to a productive and exciting year ahead. Contact us if you’d like to learn how Crop Enhancement can help you.
On October 25th, 2017, Crop Enhancement CEO Kevin Chen introduced CropCoat® to attendees at the annual partnership meeting of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) in Washington, D.C., receiving public recognition from a top chocolate manufacturer.
Each year, this event brings leaders from industry, government, nonprofits and academia together to share new developments in the global cocoa industry. The 2017 conference theme, Accelerating Sustainability through Technology and Innovation, focused on innovation and highlighted several new technologies which aim to improve sustainability outcomes for cocoa farmers around the world. Crop Enhancement was invited to join a limited number of companies in the WCF’s inaugural Innovation Marketplace.
Kevin hosted a poster at the Innovation Marketplace and spoke about Crop Enhancement’s CropCoat® product which is applied onto cocoa pods and forms a non-toxic protective layer that shields pods from pest and disease damage. We were very pleased with the high level of interest and engagement at our booth from chocolate companies, cocoa growers, cocoa processors, certification bodies, and governmental groups. We shared with them about our ongoing field trials that are showing that CropCoat can significantly reduce yield losses caused by one of the cocoa industry’s most destructive pests, the cocoa pod borer, using sustainable chemistry. We also described ongoing evaluations on the use of CropCoat in treatment regimens to control fungal diseases including black pod. The many discussions we had at the meeting and the excellent networking were just the beginning of dialogues that continue.
We thank the WCF for this opportunity to contribute to this year’s program and look forward to connecting again in October 2018 in São Paolo, Brazil.
Crop Enhancement Presents at Entomological Society of America (ESA) Conference
On November 8th, 2017, Crop Enhancement Global Field Development Manager Eric Flora introduced our CropCoat® product to attendees at Entomology 2017, the annual conference of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), in Denver, Colorado.
Eric began with an overview of CropCoat and explained how it can be used to disrupt pest behavior without the use of conventional toxic pesticides. CropCoat is a sprayable film made from naturally-occurring materials that are exempt from EPA tolerances. The film protects crop tissues and reduces insect feeding success on treated plant surfaces.
Eric then shared successful results from bioassays on the cocoa pod borer and the coffee berry borer, pests which respectively affect thousands of cocoa and coffee farmers around the world. He also presented field data showing CropCoat’s effect on other insect types including spider mites and other lepidoptera.
For a copy of the presentation abstract, please click here.
We thank the ESA for the opportunity to present to association members and look forward to sharing updates at the 2018 conference in Vancouver, Canada.
Q&A With Crop Enhancement Advisory Board Member and Agribusiness Leader Mary Shelman
We recently announced the formation of our advisory board, a group of talented individuals who will help inform and guide our business strategy, and provide useful industry connection. One of the three members of this board is Mary Shelman, who is well known in the agricultural sector as an industry visionary. Mary brings 30 years’ experience in business and academia, and is recognized as an expert in the global food and agribusiness sector. She was most recently director of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program and is former chairman of the board of RiceTec Inc., where she guided the largest U.S. rice seed company from its formation to commercial product launch.
I sat down with Mary to learn more about where she sees our industry heading, and emerging trends that may have bearing on Crop Enhancement.
Mary, could you please share some of the key trends that you are seeing in terms of sustainability within the foodtech and agtech sectors?
Over the last decade, we’ve woken up to the challenge of feeding a larger, wealthier, and more demanding population while living in a world with limited natural resources. Agriculture today has a significant environmental footprint, producing 13% of greenhouse gas emissions and using 70% of global fresh water. So if we need to increase food production by 60% or more by 2050 (as projected by the FAO), we can’t follow the same approach. Looking ahead, we must continue to increase productivity per unit of input (land, fertilizer, crop protection, and especially water) on areas already under cultivation in order to provide enough nutritious and affordable food while preserving the environment.
One important trend to raise productivity is the “digitization” of the farm. New technologies are helping producers collect sophisticated data from many sources and model outcomes under different scenarios, which allow them to optimize yields through precise applications of inputs. These technologies often combine both hardware and software innovations: for example, sensors will measure daily field conditions, nutrient levels, and plant growth and integrate with GIS and weather information throughout the growing season. The same approach can be used for animals, such as dairy cows. These advances can help farmers maintain soil, plant and animal health and become more resilient to site-specific and regional challenges. Precision agriculture is really about doing more with less—using data to optimize every farm and the unique challenges it faces.
Another trend is the use of technology to track products from farm to fork, which allows better supply chain management—including lower waste—and also provides greater transparency and the possibility of direct consumer engagement. For example, every package of Driscoll’s berries has a unique 12-digit code on the bottom. Consumers are invited to input the code and to take a survey about the quality of the package they’ve purchased. In addition to providing consumers with a way to trace their product back to the farm, the code provides Driscoll’s with actionable insights into short-term quality issues and helps refine the company’s long-term breeding targets.
A third trend relates to consumer preferences. Consumers today care more about where their food comes from and how it was produced. Transparency, authenticity and “clean” labels are prized. We’re also seeing a greater awareness of the connection between diet and health, and diet and the environment among mainstream consumers. In the U.S., this is leading to a shift away from meat (especially beef) and higher interest in plant-based proteins. In the coming years, we may see proteins produced through tissue culture rather than from a physical animal (i.e. beef without the cow).
How about trends specifically in the area of agricultural crop protection?
For most of the 20th century, the crop protection industry focused on discovering new active ingredients. Over the last twenty years, we’ve seen a new paradigm, with crop protection moving into the plant itself (such as Bt corn). We will see more of this strategy as precise gene editing techniques such as CRISPR are applied to agriculture. However, many consumers in the U.S. and abroad remain concerned about biotech in general and the use of synthetic chemicals. Today a number of companies are working on innovative products including microbials and biochemical pesticides that have greater efficacy and are lighter on the environment. Future solutions will require greater adoption of integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, more frequent crop rotations, and the use of pest controls derived from naturally-occurring sources and/or novel technological approaches.
In addition to your leadership of the Agribusiness Program at HBS, you have led an international ag company (RiceTec). What that kinds of differences are there in domestic U.S. ag vs international Ag? What are some of the things that companies should be aware of as they enter regional markets?
Most farms in North America are large, well capitalized, highly sophisticated, and have access to the latest information. Distribution and marketing channels are well established. The U.S., in particular, benefits from strong IP and regulatory systems, a large domestic market for ag inputs, and favorable perception of technology—all of which have made it into an epicenter of new product development for seeds and crop protection products.
Internationally, ag varies by market. Some countries, like Brazil, are similar to the U.S. in average farm size and sophistication. But in many areas, farms are much smaller, knowledge and access to credit may be limited, land rights may not exist, and distribution channels for ag inputs may be immature. Infrastructure, including roads, may not be developed, making it difficult for farmers to get to market and sell their output at a price that is higher than their production cost. These factors, especially the fragmentation, present significant challenges to companies with new products to sell. And no matter the location, government plays a large role, particularly in the crop protection sector where new chemicals must be registered.
It’s exciting to see many new companies start up in the ag sector, from data-focused plays to alternative foods to new materials. At the same time, it seems that new approaches and new technologies will take time in terms of penetrating into the food and ag industries. How should startups think about go-to-market and navigating the unique challenges of commercialization specifically in the ag industry?
Given the complexity of agricultural supply chains, it’s essential to understand the entire value chain and how the profits and risks are spread across that chain. Just because your product creates value does not mean you can capture market share or build a profitable business.
For new products, it is also critical that the company and its investors understand the time horizon. Agriculture does not have the same commercialization timeline as software, where you can release a product early and then fix bugs as they come up. Most crops have one production cycle each year, meaning there’s one opportunity to sell. In addition, the farmer’s livelihood is on the line with every decision, making them understandably slow to adopt. To gain farmers’ trust requires demonstrated performance through multi-year trials under many different conditions. Some product flaws don’t show up until field-level production or a particular climatic event.
For example, in RiceTec’s early days, we launched a very high-yielding new rice seed variety based on excellent small plot and field trial data. Unfortunately, we found that, in large scale production, many plants fell over due to the stalk not being strong enough to consistently support the heavier grain weight. We didn’t see the problem until the variety was grown on a number of commercial fields spread over different geographies, soil types, and growing conditions. That led to a multimillion dollar write-off and sent us back to the breeding and selection stage for two additional years. Fortunately, we had kept our investors well informed about the risks and opportunities. They were confident in our ability to solve the problem and recognized the large potential prize for success.
Global climate trends and food security are on the minds of many world leaders and companies. Where do you see crop protection technologies having the most impact?
Rising temperatures and more variable precipitation will likely lead to higher levels of disease, pests, and even weeds—all of which reduce yields. Farmers will need new tools and technologies to understand and manage these threats in real time, as well as more targeted applications to avoid environmental damage and keep production costs low. Massive crop failures and soaring ag prices are not an attractive option in a world that must reliably feed 9.6 billion people, the majority of whom will be living in cities and thus depend on the commercial ag system for their food.
These challenges present a strong business case for greater investment in biologicals and other novel crop protection technologies, such as coatings, that are effective, easy to apply, and environmentally friendly. We also should develop systems to learn more quickly, for example by creating peer-to-peer networks that allow growers to share information about successful pest control strategies. And like other areas of agribusiness, the crop protection industry must work harder to attract the best talent if it is to successfully meet future challenges.
Studying Seasons of Agricultural Growth, Berkeley Students Grow Themselves
Guest post by BEACN
The Bay Area Environmentally Aware Consulting Network (BEACN) is a student-run environmental consulting firm at UC Berkeley that undertakes semester long projects with innovative and progressive clients. During the fall of 2016, we created a database of 50 crops that could be a potential “best fit” for Crop Enhancement (see our blog post here). This was our second semester partnering with Crop Enhancement and we were thrilled to begin a new project to better understand the future of pest and disease control.
This spring, we took a deeper look into the supply chain of coffee, citrus and cocoa. Analyzing and reconstructing the supply chain for countries where information was scarce required reaching out to salespeople, farmers, and other industry professionals who could give us insight into the daily operations of agrochemical distributors and other farm input suppliers. We learned that many farmers around the globe struggle with debt because of the very thin margins they make from selling their products. It begged the question: how can farmers afford to change their agrochemical inputs when the risk is so high for them?
We began with coffee, the primary means of income for 25 million smallholder farmers in the world’s tropical regions. Many farmers have been in the industry all of their lives, inheriting their land and practices from parents and relatives. Many coffee growing communities are tightly knit and rely on the transfer of knowledge from neighbors and family members. At the same time, the agrochemical industry in this region is also particularly fierce, with Brazil being the largest consumer of agrochemicals in the world. Farmers are often susceptible to purchasing and spraying chemicals they don’t need. This harms the crop and threatens the safety of workers, communities and the environment.
Stricter environmental regulations regarding the use of agrochemicals also impose significant cost implications for farms. Many farmers are calling for effective alternatives for recently banned pesticides. While fertilizer and pesticide applications happen throughout the year, the need for pest and disease control is often higher during the rainy seasons in the winter. It was surprising to find out that each farm has its carefully chosen unique set of agrochemicals, reflecting the incredible diversity of growing conditions, knowledge and resources. Uncovering and piecing together the multitude of components allowing farm production to be profitable demonstrated the lack of standardized practices among farmers, even in the same region growing the same crop.
In addition to coffee, we studied citrus farms. Citrus refers to a wide variety of fruits, including tangerines, oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits. The United States, Brazil, and China lead the world in citrus production. Over the last decade, citrus farms in the southeastern United States have been hit hard by “citrus greening,” a disease spread by the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The US government has pledged an enormous amount of money in R&D costs to combat this disease, and some preventive measures are enjoying to a degree of success in California. However, there are many opportunities to work to prevent this disease before it begins.
Like much of farming in today’s mechanized world, citrus farmers rely on razor thin profit margins. As such, the trend has been towards larger and larger corporate owned farms. As a result, in places like Brazil, many of the family farmers are moving to crops with larger margins – such as sugar cane. This trend provides both benefits and costs, but we see the standardization of farming techniques by large growers as beneficial in the sense they are able to take larger risks, try new products, and disseminate more information on a wider scale.
We also conducted value studies on conventional citrus farms versus their organic counterparts. It was interesting to see the differences. Organic farms spend almost double the amount that a conventional farm will spend per acre due to increased labor costs and the lack of herbicides. But organic can often be sold for a premium. The differences between the two styles of farming offer exist with their own set of tradeoffs.
Another crop we dug into was cocoa. Global cocoa production relies on the aggregate yield of millions of small scale farmers throughout the tropics. Up to 90% of domestically produced cocoa in the three nations with the largest tonnage exported – Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia – is grown on farms less than three hectares in size. Smallholders in these regions generally lack access to the capital required for new technologies that reduce input costs and improve efficiency. Our study noted these trends, and further research explored how variance in production inputs contributed to associated yields on three continents.
We also examined the cyclical boom and bust nature of the cocoa industry and the factors that lead to rapid rises in production in some countries and precipitous crashes in others. In particular, one study of the pre-2000’s collapse of the Malaysian cocoa industry helped us understand the conditions under which these industries fail. The correlation between the prevalence of pests and the ability of smallholders to limit yield loss became clear, as did the reduction of yield loss as the best means to increase smallholder wellbeing and overall production. Going forward, promotion of agroforestry regimes by domestic governments appears capable of limiting the susceptibility of smallholder-sustained national industries to external and widespread threats like the cacao pod borer and black pod disease.
This semester’s project provided us with a realistic look into farming in agricultural regions of developing countries. Learning about the process of documenting and tracking the agricultural inputs showed us the diversity in approaches to pest and disease management as well as the systems of knowledge which influence farmers and farm owners.
The BEACN team this semester greatly enjoyed our time working with the amazing team at Crop Enhancement. Our team consisted of first through fourth year students, including Allegra Saggese (Project Manager), Anindit Gopalakrishnan, Elisa Chen, Garrett Parzygnot, Grace Pratt, and Sanju Anne. The majors of our team vary from statistics and economics to environmental studies and computer science, with everyone having a variety of interests and skills in the sustainability realm.
Improving our research and outreach abilities, the project provided us with a new appreciation for the highly complex and sophisticated global market of agriculture we intensely depend on. Engaging with stakeholders across the entire supply chain and learning about the methodology of technological diffusion in these geographical locations was a unique growth opportunity for the whole team and will help shape our future career paths.
We’re thrilled to announce that Crop Enhancement won the pitch competition for new materials startups at Plug and Play Tech Accelerator’s 2017 Summer Summit (held on June 7 at the Sunnyvale, CA, campus). The event concluded a 12-week accelerator program which enabled us to make valuable connections with Plug and Play’s corporate partners including some of the world’s most recognized leaders in consumer packaged goods (CPG) and applied materials science.
“The startups in our programs have amazing potential to shape our future. We connect them with corporations who can bring them to market faster. We believe Crop Enhancement will help farmers around the globe.”
Founder and CEO, Plug and Play Tech Center
It was an honor to join Plug and Play’s 2017 Spring cohort of startups and we’ll continue to support PnP as an active contributor as it grows its Food & Beverage vertical.
UPDATED September 29, 2017: Crop Enhancement is featured in Plug and Play’s Disruptor League. Check out the video here or below: