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Notes on the role of technology and innovation in sustainable agriculture

For the last two years, we at Innovation Forum have held conferences on this above topic in Washington D.C. Firstly with the Pew Centre and in 2018 with the Nature Conservancy, at their offices in Arlington. Thank you for the support to both organisations.

Here’s some of the anonymised notes from the conference. A couple of names are mentioned, but only when what it is said is part of public record, as we use the Chatham House rule for our conferences.

So this year we asked the question: “Can innovation and technology make agriculture sustainable?” and instructed our speakers to focus on “How to scale solutions that win for farmers, food and the planet” at the conference, which we held on 5-6 April.

Here’s the notes I took, and some others, and then, at the end, notes from our 2017 event. I think they are useful, given they represent some of the views of more than 200 experts from business, NGOs, government and others.

There’s a lot here, but this stuff is really important, so I’d encourage everyone to take a moment and read at least some of it. The more heads the better, on these most difficult of challenges.

So to start the event, I summarised some of the 2017 themes from my notes a year ago:
2017 themes discussed:
  1. Early warning systems for the unintended consequences of innovation and technology used in agriculture need to be considered. What might an effective mechanism look like for companies, investors, society?
  2. Notable that product development timelines, until very recently, have been up to 15 years, significant for advance planning.
  3. With regard to sustainable intensification of agricultural production, we need to consider how we measure beyond just yields, and the role of technology here.
  4. Bio-fortification and the technologies around it will play a significant future role in nutrition.
  5. Can academic and other partnerships make agriculture appealing to emerging talent, or those switching careers?
  6. Partnerships between companies and other actors are needed to address the barriers to scaling up innovations.
  7. It’s important to note that some innovations in agriculture don’t work, not because they are not potentially good, but simply due to timing and economics.
  8. On climate-smart agriculture, working with governments, for example China, will become ever more important.
  9. Industrial organics. With transparency demands increasing, how do we talk about the pros and cons to consumers?
  10. US investments in agri-tech start ups have more or less trebled since 2015, to around £700m in 2017. 25% of this is from big agricultural firms. “Does this mean “Big Ag” will end up as friend or foe of industry disruptors. Bayer alone has invested $600-700m in agri and biotech companies.

And then mentioned a few further ones:

Emerging technologies include:
  • Microbial fertilers, (e.g. coated seeds)
  • Bacteria
  • Machine learning for areas such as spraying (targeted approaches)
  • Farmer software
  • The Internet of things, e.g. sensors on cows
  • Growers and data: How do we get them excited about collecting data, and re-assure them about it’s ownership and use by other parties? I.e. What’s in it for the farmer?
  • Crop rotation and nutrient replacement, i.e. no till, with a cover crop.
  • Better tools and emerging, affordable technologies to measure GHGs on farms
  • How can we join up conventional and organic food sectors to agree on shared, collaborative sustainability goals?
  • “Collaboration has crystallised what certification has been trying to achieve”
Notes from 2018 conference itself:
  1.  Restoring degraded land for use is a key emerging trend, given only half of land used for agriculture is degraded.
  2.  Water use and upstream affecting downstream, “water funds” / payments for ecosystem services will be significant. Will farmers be paid to help provide municipal water services.
  3.  Natural climate solutions are perhaps 35-40% of solutions to climate change, agriculture will play a key role here.
  4.  Agriculture offers the largest set of low cost emissions reductions.
  5.  Targeting rising / increased investment will be key. Healthcare sector has had $145bn of investments in the last ten years, whilst agriculture has only had $14bn by comparison.
  6. Recently we’ve seen a 5x increase in start up capital in Agriculture and food.
Three significant opportunities in agricultural technology are to:
1) Enhance and restore farmer profitability
2) Switch to practices favourable to the environment
3) Better connect consumers with farmers needs
Emerging technologies and business models seek out plants doing well in difficult areas, extract the microbes, sequence them, work out which are beneficial and which are pathogens by screening thousands of them. (cheaper sequencing and machine learning costs enable this) Screen out those that are of no use, add in those that are. Then work directly with farmers to test the technology. Coat seeds with endophytes and insert them into plants such as in cotton, wheat, soy, rise. So far seen a 10% increase in yield without increased irrigation, up to 18% in some cases. (Indigo Ag)
Enhancing profitability for farmers is not just about yield, it’s also about contracts with farmers, working out the incentives and payments and paybacks that can work, whilst enabling traceability for consumers, millers and others in the value chain. Can smarter approaches created a segregated, higher value product that commands premium prices?

Such approaches need incentives to manage for higher protein content, choosing different crops which can help mitigating risk for farmers.

North America specific points included:
  • The North American Climate Smart Ag Alliance recently sent recommendations to the UNFCCC pertaining to three key areas of focus: a) Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and livelihoods; b) Enhancing adaptive capacity and improving resilience to climate change; and c) Delivering ecosystem services, sequestering carbon, and reducing and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Many of the conservation practices that farmers and supply chain partners are currently focused on can contribute to each of these goals (e.g. advanced nutrient management, conservation tillage, cover crops, irrigation efficiency, precision management, etc.).
  • Cross-sector collaboration can help accelerate adoption of best practices, especially if sectors play the roles they are most suited for. The supply chain can send market signals about the importance of sustainable outcomes. Local ag retailers and crop advisers can become more engaged in evaluating environmental impacts and recommending locally relevant solutions. Ag input companies can focus R&D on technologies and innovation that advance these goals. Public funding in research and conservation can focus on climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
  • Pre-competitive, multi-stakeholder approaches to ag sustainability remain critically important for ensuring adequate transparency and credibility across industry efforts.
  • More work needs to be done to understand the economics of sustainability. Ultimately, what is the value proposition for farmers? Can we better document how certain practices drive efficiency and save money for growers or contribute to long-term productivity? How do low commodity prices affect growers’ willingness and/or ability to make longer term investments, and what are the best mechanisms to help overcome these economic barriers?
  • Working with local ag retailers and crop consultants is the most effective way to influence farmer behavior, because it builds on existing trusted relationships. Food and retail companies hoping to make progress in their supply chains should find ways to infuse sustainability into the discussions between growers and their trusted advisors.
  • Private companies, particularly ag retailers and crop consultants, can help play a connecting role to federal government conservation programs, which sometimes go unused. These incentives and cost-share programs, when coupled with local technical assistance, can help accelerate grower adoption of conservation practices. As available personnel at USDA wanes, technical assistance within the private sector becomes more important.



One approach is to offer high quality seeds and fertiliser on credit to farmers. Deliver to their doors, help overcome their infrastructure challenges (roads, delivery, last mile). Train them in agronomy and storage. One Acre Fund has grown from working with 2000 farmers in 2006 to 600,000 today. Approach is a blend of fertiliser, timing and application, with SMS nudges for farmers on cellphones. Mobile repayments are key, along with apps for pest control, helps increase yield.
By 2025 the objective is to provide “tailored agronomy for each farmer”. Possibility to drop fertiliser ½ a mile from where they live, use crop insurance, data, AI, machine learning.
One Acre Fund has seen a 98% repayment rate since inception, offering a flexible repayment model, often 40% up front, and 60% later. Must pay back by end of growing season.
Insurance and crop yield insurance based on better data, use 10 years of data to create tailored insurance products.
US farmer engagement. Some key linked metrics are:
1) Air – reducing GHGs
2) Water – consumption and quality
3) Soil – health and restoration, tillage, sequestration, cover vegetation
Mars: global footprint of 2.3 million hectares to grow 142 ingredients.
GHGs CAN be reduced by changing what you buy. For example different kinds of animal proteins in pet foods.
Some key lessons for working with farmers: Get the incentive structures right, don’t wait for the perfect data.
Animal welfare
  • It’s clear that ranking systems have played a positive role in the UK in pushing up standards. Now the benchmark includes 38 US companies and interest has trebled in recent years, from investors and companies.
  • Rising demands for disclosure on animal welfare by groups of investors. Seen some big changes in the last five years, with some large companies improving disclosure by 50%+ from 2012 to 2017, as an overall trend.
  • Big challenge now is reporting performance over disclosing targets. 55% of companies in one key benchmark are now reporting performance over policy.
  • Improving animal welfare is not just about risk, there are also business opportunities in talking to consumers, changing legislation, NGO relationships, and the media. But the business case needs much more attention, there’s a lack of material about how improved animal welfare reduces costs and improves opportunities. However consumers are not willing to pay 15% extra for improved animal welfare, and past capital is ‘sunk’ into old systems, which can last another 10-20 years without innovation taking hold.
  • So far a billion farm animals have been lifted into better conditions.
  • Companies had low capacity until recent years to focus on this area, this is changing rapidly.
  • There are targets to improve the welfare standards of broiler chickens by 2024.
  • There are safety links with animal welfare. This is a key part of the business case, linking safer food and working conditions with rising animal welfare.
  • Collaboration will be key in accelerating change that improves welfare. Consumers are ill-informed about how food is produced, companies need to lead the way in showing them. Unilever’s example of Hellman’s Mayonnaise is a good example. McDonald’s and Arla foods is another good example.
  • In emerging economies there will be rising demand for animal protein in the coming years, food companies will need to start considering mixed animal and plant proteins to meet demand and cut environmental impacts.
Gene editing and technology
  1. We can now sequence everything inside a plant.
  2. Key question for the future is around organics and biotech. How can they co-exist, and collaborate for sustainability outcomes? Is the answer integration not co-existence?
  3. Given the environmental challenges the world faces, we need all the best options on the table, together, at the same time.
  4. The high deregulation cost of technology in plants is holding back use. For example genetically engineered strawberry plants. Fear of consumer rejection is holding back innovation.
  5. “Organics is today a marketing concept, not a sustainability concept”
  6. The corporatisation and consolidation of big agri, with all the mergers and takeovers, is a big concern for innovation in the future. Will the giant agri companies be friend of foe of agricultural innovation, particularly in gene editing?
For a podcast interview with Jon Entine, Kevin Folta and Perry Hackett on this topic please visit this link below:

Weekly podcast: the future for gene-editing in sustainable agriculture
Gene-editing, soy sector innovation, carbon risks for the finance sector, Iceland and palm oil, and a modern slavery recruiter initiative – Listen here

And here’s a couple of other podcasts from the event, more to come soon at:

Land O’Lakes: influencing agri value chains for sustainability
To change famer behaviour, work with those with most influence in agriculture value chains – Listen here

And here are the notes from the 2017 conference below.
Innovation for sustainable agriculture:
How science and technology can help business meet sustainable agriculture objectives
March 22nd-23rd, Washington DC
A lot of themes emerged from the debate over the two days in Washington. Here are what our session moderators found were the main points along with some links to relevant Innovation Forum podcasts.
Please note that these are not designed to be records of what was said at any particular session – and no points should be attributed to any one participant.
Key themes: role of innovation; measurement and data; continuous improvement.
Role of innovation
• The key commodity crops are beginning to move towards sustainability targets, with the help of new research and technologies, and growing interest to proactively address sustainability issues, through voluntary and collaborative efforts
• Innovative research and demonstration sites are proving important tools to test, improve, and show practices that can work and, critically, that can be profitable
• Some practices such as improved fertilizer efficiency, no till and cover crops, are the most accessible methods for addressing sustainability goals – these are good starting points, but we need to go further
• Technology and innovation is not a silver bullet for agricultural challenges, but is an important part of the mix
• Keeping technology on the table, i.e. drought resistant crops, is vital. Nitrogen and other fertilisers are seen as an excellent insurance policy
• Bio-fortification has serious potential, with research into how local crops can be used to improve health and nutrition. i.e. Beta Carotene in Sorghum
• Vertical farming can deliver 95% water savings in leafy greens, and levels of vitamin C in these plants can be trebled
• The technology transfer to Africa is vital given the yield and education gaps. Digital tools in developing countries are significant, coupled with last mile extension services. Danone’s supply chain in Africa is a good example
• Partnerships to address barriers to scaling up innovations are important, as is breaking down barriers to help start-ups scale up
• Can government use their own influence in purchasing to encourage sustainability? China is writing specifications for how they want food crops grown, to encourage innovation and scale
• Industrial organics is a new trend but there are difficulties in communicating the pros and cons
• A key challenge is moving from research and demonstration sites to broader adoption – how do we scale up?
• Importantly, we must learn to ask about unintended consequences of development early on – one issue is we often lack a mechanism for doing so
• Product development can stretch over a 15-year timeline, so planning for a world 15 years ahead remains a major challenge
• Sustainable intensification remains a challenge, and looking at how we measure systems beyond yields? How will ICT help?
• Learning how best to talk about modern agricultural practices, improving communication and discussion
Genetic modification and gene editing
• Arguments of an ideological and political crisis, rather than a sustainability crisis
• Need to join up conventional and organic sectors but there is still a lack of consensus, and acceptance varies widely around the world
• The precision of genetic editing technology has improved significantly in the last thirty years
Measurement and data
• One consideration is that data is needed to demonstrate that practices are working – for the environment and for farmers.  However, there are still issues with data gathering and sharing that need to be overcome to address trust and privacy concerns
• Measuring key performance indicators and objective evaluation is critical to allow action and a focus for results
• What are the measures of sustainable agriculture beyond just yield? What can we conclude from chemicals, water, biodiversity etc
• Regarding water, companies need to evaluate and understand the risks they are exposed to and take action to address those risks. Farmers then need support for financial and educational resources to tackle water challenges
• We have a major grower engagement challenge – we need to get them excited about data and its accuracy
• Agricultural retailers hold the key to the farmer, and the data ag retailers hold is vital
• Growers must own their data, and its use must be clear: what do I get for it, and what are you doing with it? Furthermore, growers should understand the benefits of engagement, for example tax breaks and subsidies
• More thought needs to go into where public research priorities go – we need more tools to understand effective GHG measurement on farms as the margin for error is large
Continuous improvement
• Some big FMCG companies see sustainability as a business/continuous improvement challenge
• Consumers are becoming much more active in telling companies what they want, the transparency agenda is rising
• Outcome based metrics for continuous improvement is what we are looking for. Science based metrics needs standardised data points.
• Collaborations between companies must be built on agreed goals, or they risk serious failure – a good current example is the Mid-West Crop Row Collaborative
• A key outcome of partnerships is the collection of field data
• Financially, we are seeing some significant growth in green bonds and general deal flow from commodities
• Governments face a challenge given different cycles and state of infrastructure
• Studies have shown that farmers using the certification systems have seen significantly higher income and yields
• The development of certification schemes should be about performance not compliance
• A challenge with companies rejecting certification is they can focus on standards that cover too much as a result, and they are self-managed at cost
• Certification is part of a mix of credible sustainability tools, and can be a vehicle for continuous improvement
For more insight and debate on innovation in agriculture, go to