Re-Engineering The Way We Grow, Get and Eat Food
Leaders in the agricultural sector are leveraging technology and traditional farming to create cleaner, safer food.
Climate change, food waste, a world population predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and the COVID-19 pandemic are a few of the major challenges facing the world right now. Adapting requires finding new ways to reduce the environmental footprint of the food supply chain, improve the health of the planet and integrate technology with nature. Organic farming may be the key to these.
Among progressive innovators using organic farming methods is YPO member, impact investor and CEO and Founder of the Urmatt Group, Arvind Narula. He is also a 2020 YPO Global Impact Award regional finalist — a recognition celebrating YPO members driving significant, sustainable and scalable impact through a business or initiative.
Founded in 1982, Urmatt Group is a pioneer of the organic agriculture industry in Thailand, Argentina and Laos, and the world’s largest organic jasmine rice producer. Urmatt has achieved this success by using a business model based on choosing a crop with more demand than supply, then selling it at a premium while also supporting economically underprivileged and culturally indigenous communities of farmers. Urmatt finds its strength in operating a circular economy, zero-waste model using every part of the plant and creating multiple value-added products beyond selling rice as rice.
“Today, every food product you find in a supermarket needs an organic counterpart, but many products are simply not available in this form,” explains Narula. “This makes for a very high growth area for expansion and diversification with high profits. Impact oriented businesses must be highly profitable to alleviate financial risk to the very families the business is trying to help.”
According to Narula, around 3,000 farmer families in Urmatt’s project earn at least 20% more than farmers not in Urmatt’s program. Urmatt’s impact is furthered by setting up funds for each village they work in. These funds are managed by four elected villagers and one company representative, with 24 agronomists on the ground to advise the farmers.
“These funds permit farmers to avoid loan sharks and eases their financial burdens,” says Narula. “Many funds and banks want to invest from their desks, but that’s not the way to make an impact. Local autonomy and knowledge are critical. Producing organic food on scale is good for the land and for the families working it. Transferring knowledge of organic agriculture, alters the financial status of each family in the system and the community.”
Benefitting from bugs
Many organic farmers move away from monocultures – where crops are farmed in single-species plots – to crop rotations and mix planting, which benefits the soil and the environment. But for these organic farmers, how do they keep their crops healthy without using chemical sprays?
If you’re Karn Manhas, founder and CEO of Terramera and also a 2020 YPO Global Impact Award regional finalist, you create Actigate™ — a transformational technology that blends computational biochemistry, genomics, machine learning and robotics, with green chemistry and plant biology. Actigate improves the efficiency and effectiveness of both conventional and natural/organic products for crop protection by using a number of naturally occurring compounds that help guide the materials being sprayed to the right targets.
“Traditional agriculture’s ’spray-and-pray‘ approach only reaches a fraction of their target, with the other 50-90% getting washed away,” explains Manhas. “Not only is this inefficient, but excessive, built-up chemicals can result in unintended consequences on our health, the health of our environment and waterways, and on non-target species like fish, birds, beneficial insects and wildlife.”
Terramera’s Actigate technology was first tested to improve the performance of a commonly used organic extract from a plant product he identified in 2010 called neem, which he originally developed into a bedbug deterrent and control formula for breaking through the bugs’ armor.
“Terramera started with us deconstructing how we could apply science and technology to make natural and organic materials much more effective and scalable,” says Manhas. “We started with enhancing the performance of neem oil, which we found we could improve by up to ten-times, and now we’re working with global players to apply Actigate technology to improve major active ingredients used in crop protection today. Our goal today is to make both organic and conventional farming cleaner and more economical.”
With the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicting food production will need to double in the next 35 years to feed the expected global population, creating efficacies in food production are imperative. Agricultural innovators like Narula and Manhas are finding innovative ways to increase food production while reducing waste and minimizing environmental impact.
“We believe agriculture can have a huge, positive impact on addressing the issues of climate change, instead of being viewed as part of the problem,” says Manhas. “By improving farm practices and soil carbon levels, we not only can make farming more productive and profitable, but done at scale, can help turn back the clock on climate change.”
From startup to scaleup
There are no easy answers to today’s myriad of environmental challenges, but innovation, entrepreneurship and technology all have important roles to play. Recently, Terramerra raised USD48.5 million in a Series B equity funding round in order to scale its technology and operations and meet their 2030 goal of reducing the global synthetic pesticide loads by 80% globally.
“This funding will enable us to scale commercialization of our technologies, build our leadership in the growing sustainable ag-tech and crop health industry, and transition from startup to scaleup,” says Manhas. “This is a pivotal turning point in how we grow food and sustain ourselves over the coming years. I believe these technologies will have an exponential impact on the world.”
The economic value of anything depends on what behavioral economists call four different types of usefulness: form, place, time and ownership. Pioneers like Narula and Manhas are creating significant enterprise value while simultaneously improving the lives of communities and farmers across the globe. Their form is healthy food. Their place is the world. Their time is now. And their ownership is collaborative, partnering with others who share their vision and see the potential for vastly changing the current state of agriculture.
“In all honesty, it’s easier not to be organic,” says Narula. “But oftentimes the easy way is not necessarily the right way. If you are convinced of your own vision, the innovation, transparency, and integration will come.”