Soils all over the world are contaminated with heavy metals and not fit for crop production. Lorcan Allen from the Irish Farmers Journal meets Microgen Biotech, the Irish start-up company that’s changing that.
In 2014, the Chinese government published a new report on the health of the country’s soils. The numbers were frightening. The report showed that almost a fifth (19.4%) of China’s farmland was contaminated by organic and inorganic chemical pollutants as well as heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic.
For context, 20% of China’s farmland equates to just under 62 million acres, which is an area three times the size of the island of Ireland. Any crops, such as rice, grown on this contaminated farmland will be poisoned and not fit for human consumption. Given that China is trying to feed a fifth of the world’s population, its highly contaminated soils are a major concern.
However, new technology is emerging that could have a key role to play in solving this crisis and allow Chinese farmers to grow safe, high yielding crops. MicroGen Biotech, a start-up company based out of Ireland’s Institute of Technology Carlow and co-founded by Dr. Xuemei Germaine, has developed a new biotechnology that can protect crops from heavy metals in soils.
According to Dr. Germaine, who is the company CEO, MicroGen Biotech has developed a range of plant growth promoting bacteria, or PGPB for short, which are tolerant to heavy metals and can protect plants against metal toxicity, while at the same time increasing root length, improving nutrient uptake and boosting yields by up to 10%.
Right now, MicroGen has over 800 field trials ongoing in China where it is trialling its PGPB technology on rice crops growing in heavy metal contaminated soil. So far, the company is finding its microbial products are resulting in a 30% to 40% reduction in cadmium, which is a significant impact.
MicroGen Biotech in China
While China is the core market being targeted by MicroGen, the company’s new microbial biotechnology has far reaching applications that will be of interest to farmers all over the world. After all, soils that are high in heavy metals is not just a Chinese problem but rather a global one.
In South America, cocoa farming is significant in countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia where a significant dark chocolate industry exists. However, in many of these countries soils contaminated with cadmium is a major problem for farmers.
The problem escalated significantly for South American cocoa famers earlier this year when the European Union, which is a major importer of dark chocolate, announced very strict limits on the amount of cadmium in cocoa products.
Since January 2019, a 100g bar of dark chocolate containing more than 50% cocoa solids must not have more than 0.08mg of cadmium. MicroGen has seized on this dilemma for South American farmers and is now trialling its technology in cocoa plants to help safeguard the crop from cadmium contamination.
While MicroGen’s core focus is developing crop protection products through biotechnology, it has also developed a range of products that can clean up polluted soils using microorganisms that degrade toxic substances. This process is known as environmental bioremediation.
The company was recently engaged by Greencore to carry out a commercial trial of this technology at the old sugar factory in Ireland’s Carlow town, where parts of the land have been contaminated following the decommissioning of the sugar plant.
The trial at Greencore’s old sugar plant was successful with the soil decontaminated and the pH restored to a healthy level once more. MicroGen has since signed another agreement with Greencore to carry out a second commercial trial at the Carlow site after another part of the old sugar factory was found to be contaminated.
MicroGen Biotech was founded in 2012 by Dr. Germaine and is a spin-out of IT Carlow. Prior to starting the company, Dr. Germaine had completed a PhD in environmental biotechnology before joining Pfizer for a number of years.
In 2014, the company became a client of Enterprise Ireland, the trade and innovation agency, after it received €50,000 in seed funding from the state agency’s start-up fund in exchange for 10% of the equity in the business. Dr. Germaine admits she had no business experience when starting the company but was able to avail of Enterprise Ireland’s new frontiers programme, which provided her with six months of business training.
A year later, in 2015, MicroGen Biotech carried out its first significant funding round when it raised over €800,000 from private and public investors, including €250,000 in matched funding from Enterprise Ireland’s high potential start-up (HPSU) fund.
MicroGen Biotech is still a young company but its technology is enormously promising and has applications all over the world. With the world headed to 10 billion people and more food needed than ever before, MicroGen’s range of biotechnology products looks like an important development.
Right now, the company is seeking to raise a substantial $7m (€6.3m) in new capital from investors.
However, given the exciting results already provided by the company’s range of biotechnology products, this latest funding round is sure to attract plenty of interest from agritech funds and investors in Ireland, Israel and the US.
This article originally appeared in a special publication by the Irish Farmers Journal in partnership with Enterprise Ireland.
Alan Horan, product developer and senior researcher at Moocall, describes how developments in IoT technology are transforming agriculture.
Cows wearing ‘fitbits’. It might seem silly but it’s real. When it comes to the farm, the Internet of Things (IoT) is very much the ‘Internet of Animals’. Increasingly, farmers are using wearable devices to track and monitor the health and productivity of their herds.
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From feeding, milking and breeding, to registration, compliance, general health and herd management, smart devices containing everything from GPS trackers, cameras, and microphones to temperature sensors are fast becoming vital tools of the trade for modern farm operations.
Wearables are a solution for challenges agriculture faces today
Livestock wearables include ear tags, collars, ankle and tail bracelets, and even belly belts. They serve as the farmer’s eyes and ears, allowing him or her to monitor and manage animals with the flick of a finger on a smartphone.
The benefits are immense, most notably in helping to meet the demands of two of the most prominent trends in agriculture: labour shortages, and the need for farming operations to expand.
With a global population heading towards nine billion by 2050 and increasing concern over emissions and climate change, farmers are under intense pressure to scale up their operations and scale down their carbon footprint. This means bigger herds and more production per mouth, while using less labour and fewer resources per animal.
Meeting these challenges, while keeping animals healthy in high-volume livestock operations, is not easy but science and new technologies are finding a way, and wearables are a big part of the solution. I say that with a certain amount of bias, as Moocall operates in this area. Nonetheless, from a development and diagnosis point of view, wearables will always provide the best feedback. If you’re trying to pick any behaviour performance metric, directly sourcing from the animal is the only viable route, whether it’s nutrition, breeding, diagnosis, productivity, or any other type of behaviour.
Certain trends have emerged as pivotal to this progress and will continue to be so: component size, power and connectivity. The size of chips and components to measure movement and temperature are getting smaller and they are becoming more efficient on battery. For example, making chips and circuit boards small enough to fit into Moocall’s original product, the Calving Sensor, only became possible around 2011. Four years later we were in business selling a device that wasn’t even a dream 10 years ago.
New IoT technologies in agriculture
New technologies coming onstream in the network space, such as NBIoT (Narrowband Internet of Things), are offering lower power connectivity. Low power means smaller batteries and smaller devices – you need less battery power to get 12 months or two years’ life out of a device with an open connection from it to some external analytic system.
This means devices that are already small enough to wear can become more powerful, which in turn feeds into them doing more and detecting more, thereby allowing a small farming operation to achieve a scale never previously possible.
There will, of course, be an ultimate limit to these things but the amount of actual farming a farmer needs to do is getting less and less. Farmers are swapping out personal time or labour units for technology that allows them to monitor their herd from anywhere. Wearables are allowing them to do tasks from the office in a matter of minutes, which previously took two hours in the field.
Over the coming years, we will see a continuation of the trend towards smaller, easier to wear, more powerful wearable devices, which consume less energy. In conjunction with that will be an increasing move towards integration with other farm technology systems.
This has already started on some of the larger dairy farms. For example, a cow might alert to being ill or needing investigation through a wearable device or even a feeding machine, and can be diverted on leaving the milking parlour and presented for inspection in a separate location. The investigation and separation is done without the farmer having to have any input at all.
Farmers already learn an awful lot about animal performance from the data that wearable devices capture, allowing them to decide on further actions, many of them partly or wholly automated, such as feeding and nutrition.
It’s a very different experience even to where it was five years ago and the automation of monitoring farm animals will continue. In the not too distant future, it is feasible that every cow in a large-scale farm operation will have their own assigned wearable, from which the farmer will know 80% of their behaviours remotely without ever looking at the cow at all.
Technology, as opposed to people, will increasingly monitor animal welfare and productivity, allowing farmers to focus on the efficiencies that will drive profitability.
A Financial Times article published in 2018 states that investors pumped over $700 million into agritech in 2017, compared to $332 million and $233 million in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Meanwhile, according to AgFunderNews, the global agritech sector is experiencing exponential growth and is expected to reach £217 billion by 2021, signalling that investment will likely continue to enable the sector to fulfil demand.
Some countries are experiencing investment growth, with notable support from their government, as they aim to stay competitive, while also improving their market presence in the agritech sector. Furthermore, this increasing level of investment is linked to the need for countries to deal with the challenges facing the global agricultural sector.
Examples of investment in the agritech sector in select countries:
Farming UK reports that global agritech firms such as BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta and Zoetis recently discussed opportunities of investment with the UK government, which will help drive investment in British farming. The UK agritech sector was worth an estimated £14 billion in 2017 and the country continues to experience support from the government through investments (Agfunder news) at national and local levels. This includes offering specialist guidance on skills, visas and migration as well as access to funding.
Enterprise Ireland, the government organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets, recently announced two initiatives that are part of its ongoing work to support agritech companies to innovate and win in international markets. The organisation also launched a Competitive Start Fund totalling up to €500,000 to support start-ups in the agritech sector. This was launched by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine with the aim of providing entrepreneurs with critical early-stage funding.
The Irish Government’s Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) is a grouping of capital grant schemes designed to incentivise private investment in physical farming assets as part of the Rural Development Programme (RDP) 2014-2020. The scheme has a total allocated budget of €395 million under the 2014-2020 RDP. To date, €73.7 million has been drawn down to modernise farming by 15,978 farmers in Ireland. This level of governmental support and investments will help Ireland become a significant actor in addressing the challenges facing the global agricultural industry.
In September 2018, New Zealand became the first country partner in Farm 2050, a global initiative that includes a collective of diverse partners committed to advancing the future of food through supporting agritech entrepreneurs and start-ups. According to Agritech New Zealand, this partnership shows the country’s commitment to providing the country’s agritech companies with improved access to connected capital.
Increased investment in a sector suggests its growth potential. Agritech continues to see increased investment, particularly in Ireland, which will support its outlook and adoption. Significant government support for agritech is expected to increase the willingness to invest so that the future farm will be dominated by technological solutions that deal with the challenges facing the agricultural industry.
Technology is making major inroads into the agricultural and nutrition industry. The number of companies offering agritech solutions is on the up and up, driven by innovation as well as a growing need to deal with the challenges facing agriculture.
To keep up this momentum and remain competitive, agritech providers need to consider several critical success factors:
- Provide means to enable continuous monitoring: Farmers need to be able to constantly monitor key parameters that directly impact yield and consequently profits. Technologies such as wireless sensors and variable rate technologies will help farmers to track key agricultural parameters including temperature, weather, nitrate content, soil quality, plant health, weed and unplanted growth, pest detection, etc.
- Enable real-time data collection: Farmers need to be able to accurately collect and store data for continuous decision-making. Thus, technologies that ensure the accuracy of the data collected (aerial mapping, field harvesting, weather conditions, chemical detection and so on) are necessary to make agritech solutions more reliable.
- Increasing automation of crop cultivation and livestock production systems: Automated tools and equipment for precision agriculture are made possible with the emergence of opportunities for robotics and drones in the agricultural sector. Further developing technologies that enable human assistance and human-machine interaction will help to tackle the challenge of a declining workforce and ageing farmers.
- Demonstrate increased farmer return-on-investment (ROI): Agritech solutions lead to the development of agricultural products that aid in improving the yield productivity without having an impact on the environment. Optimisation and management of resources enabled by agritech solutions lead to an increase in ROI for farmers.
- Efficient use of data: A key feature of agritech solutions is the generation of large datasets. Thus, the efficient use of data remains critical to the sector and highlights new partnership opportunities with data analytics companies.
The importance of Big Data Analytics (BDA) in the agritech sector
Application of big data and data science technologies will enable farm owners to further unlock the potential of the agriculture market. ]
Recent research by Frost and Sullivan titled “Global Big Data Analytics Market, Forecast to 2023″ estimates that the global BDA market, worth $8.5 billion in 2017, is expected to reach $40.6 billion by 2023 at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 29.7%. According to the report, the market is driven by organisations realising the operational advantages of BDA. These include improved Data Discovery Visualisation (DDV) empowering organisations to better target consumers, increased access to cloud-based models, enterprise-grade security and data governance solutions offered by market vendors, and continued vendor consolidation.
With the significant growth expected in the market, BDA companies are expected to apply their services to various industries, given that they can be used in any sector, including agriculture. Examples of big data companies or organisations that are now involved with the agriculture industry and thus contributing to the efficient use of data generated from agritech solutions are:
- CeADAR (Centre for Applied Data Analytics), Ireland: a market-focused technology centre for innovation and the application of BDS and visualisation.
- IBM, USA: as the world’s second-largest BDA company, IBM has been very active in the agriculture industry. According to the company, “there is a tremendous amount of big data in modern agriculture that is created but never used. Past attempts at utilising this data to increase yields and profitability have failed because they relied on manual input or remote internet accessibility.”
- Farmers Business Network, USA: connects farmers to share knowledge and gain trusted insights about their farms, inputs and practices.
- 640 labs, USA: acquired by Monsanto’s Climate Corporation, this precision farming platform collects, analyses and distributes data to optimise farming operations.
- aWhere, USA: analyses data and provides insights that focus on the agricultural industry.
- Strider, Brazil: an agritech company that develops technological innovations for the agricultural market.
- Gamaya, Switzerland: improves the efficiency and sustainability of farming by offering agronomy solutions, enabled by hyperspectral imaging and AI.
- Treemetrics, Ireland: offers a 3D measurement system to assess standing trees in forests.
The importance of big data is evidenced by the support of bodies such as:
- Enterprise Ireland & IDA Ireland through their funding of CeADAR
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) by implementing a vision for data science in agriculture and looking into the economic implications of big data in food and agriculture
- Open Ag Data Alliance, which was set up to help farmers access and control their data “by building an open-source framework and a community of commercial vendors, farmers, academics and developers upon which the emerging ag data market can rapidly grow.”
While innovation is expected to remain vital to the growth of agritech, either through new product development or the continuous improvement of existing products, the success of the sector is highly dependent on the collection and correct interpretation of data — presenting companies with BDA capabilities the opportunity to thrive. This includes Ireland’s agritech providers, whose strong understanding of traditional farming practices enables them to develop effective solutions for monitoring crop, food, water, soil condition and more.
Food safety is a public health priority. That’s according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that 600 million people (almost 1 in 10) fall sick each year after eating contaminated food, resulting in roughly 420,000 deaths.
Food safety affects the entire agriculture and nutrition supply chain, from the use of chemicals on farms to the challenge of food waste at the retail and consumer level. Globalisation has increased incidents of contamination and led to more foodborne illness, food safety scandals and health scares among consumers.
That said, some regions are more advanced than others, with regulatory bodies in place in more developed countries to ensure strict compliance. The Canadian Public Health Association notes that “large-scale farming and food processing as well as access to foods from around the world all contribute to increased opportunities for contamination. These trends make it harder to trace the source of a foodborne illness than outbreaks linked to local food sources.”
So, while the food industry has come a long way in terms of food safety thanks to technological advancements, detection tools and strict regulatory requirements, ongoing issues and recalls across the globe signal there is still a long way to go — and agritech will play a critical role in achieving a well-fed world.
Food safety regulatory bodies for select regions and countries are:
- European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Europe
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canada
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Australia and New Zealand
- National Food Safety and Quality Service (Senasa), Argentina
- China Food and Drug Administration, China
These regulatory bodies have a responsibility to ensure consumers have access to safe foods and agritech offers plenty of opportunities to improve different segments of the agriculture value chain, from production and processing, to packing and distribution, to storage and preparation.
Examples of technologies expected to impact food safety
Recent research by Frost and Sullivan on technologies enabling food safety expects the following technologies to enable food safety in the next few years:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Gene editing
- Point-of-Care devices
- Intelligent packaging
- Advanced encapsulation
- Printed electronics
- Synthetic biology
Traceability will be the main contributor to farm safety at the farm or production level, as it makes it easier to track the origin of food, while AI and Blockchain will provide opportunities at the farm level.
Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain technologies
AI is already on the verge of revolutionising the agriculture industry. Autonomous farming equipment incorporates sophisticated AI systems and sensor technologies to understand their surroundings and the needs of farm owners to fulfil designated agriculture goals. Additionally, AI enables remote monitoring of conditions to ensure safety and improved quality of the final agricultural produce.
An example of AI helping with food safety is IBM’s collaboration with Cornell University, a leader in dairy research, where the technology is leveraged to gain insights into how microorganisms interact within an environment to reduce the chance that the global milk supply is impacted by safety breaches.
Blockchain, meanwhile is a digital immutable ledger that can keep a record of transactions in a database synchronized and shared among members of a peer-to-peer network. Its implementation in food production and supply chains can enable increased levels of transparency and control in maintaining food safety. It can also help trace the origins of raw materials and ingredients used in the production of a particular food at any point in the supply chain, from the farm to the end consumer.
Additionally, Blockchain can be adopted by farmers to monitor crop health via the adoption of precision farming. Multiple data points such as the use of inputs are measured using an Internet of Things (IoT) platform, which are then fed into the blockchain to monitor crop health.
An example of this is when Cargill piloted a secure blockchain solution in 2017 that allowed consumers to track the turkey they purchased for Thanksgiving. Last year, HSBC and ING Bank successfully executed a live trade finance transaction for Cargill using R3’s Corda scalable blockchain platform.
While AI is already making a difference in the agriculture industry, blockchain technology is still in its infancy, thus offering big opportunities for the industry. According to Frost and Sullivan’s research, any deployment of blockchain in food safety is yet to prove its value in terms of a successful scalable deployment, but this is expected to change as innovation continues to prove
its importance in global food safety and traceability. Increased adoption of both AI and Blockchain will strengthen food safety infrastructure, leading to less contamination and fewer mass recalls.
Europe’s agricultural workforce is expected to fall by 28% between 2017 and 2030, according to the latest agricultural outlook by the European Commission, largely as a result of structural changes within the EU agri-food industry and better employment opportunities in other sectors.
This decline is not confined to Europe: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service reports that the country’s agricultural workforce has been dropping for years. Specifically, the number of self-employed and family farmworkers in the U.S. plunged from 7.6 million in 1950 to 2.06 million in 2000—a 73% reduction.
Elsewhere, data from the World Bank’s International Labour Organization shows that agriculture’s proportion of total employment continues to decline in most countries across the globe. At the same time, farmers are ageing: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the average age of farmers in the U.S. and other developed countries is 60.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Despite the drop in labour in the U.S. of late, total farm output actually increased between 1948 and 2015, as per the USDA’s farming and farm income report, due to technological developments in agriculture.
This demonstrates the value in providing agritech solutions that can not only assist and replace an ageing agricultural workforce but also improve farm efficiency and output.
Autonomous farming to the rescue
Technological developments are already making headway in the global agriculture sector, but there is still a long way to go to deal with the challenges it faces—particularly when it comes to improving efficiency and profitability in a sustainable manner. That said, advanced technologies such as autonomous farming and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help overcome many of these.
Examples of companies with autonomous farming solutions are:
- Harvest Automation, USA: A material handling company that provides robots to resolve manual labour problems in outdoor environments.
- Naio Technologies, France: Develops and manufactures robots for agriculture and viticulture as well as tools for weeding, hoeing and harvesting.
- Dairymaster, Ireland: A market leader in dairy equipment manufacturing with products such as automatic feeders and automatic manure scrappers.
- Precision Hawk, USA: Provides drones, UAV remote sensing applications and data processing services.
- Deepfield Robotics, Germany: Develops autonomous machinery to improve conventional and organic weed management.
- Universal Robots, Denmark: Manufactures collaborative robots that automate and streamline repetitive and monotonous processes.
Robotics is already transforming agriculture in areas that do not require much human intervention and optimises farm land using data, AI, and other smart technologies. With the rise of drones, UAVs and robots, the future farm is expected to be highly reliant on autonomous farming, which will reduce reliance on human labour, thus alleviating the issue of declining labour.
Not only will these automated systems improve the quality of produce, lower production costs and reduce manual efforts involved in labour, but they will also enhance the safety of field operations by enabling machines to operate in areas that are otherwise too dangerous for manned vehicles.
Overall, solutions that deal directly with the challenge of labour shortages will be welcomed by the agriculture industry.
The global agritech market is expected to reach €13.1 billion by 2030, up from €2.8 billion in 2016 at a compound annual growth rate of 11.9%, according to the Agricultural Technology Market Review from Satellite Applications Catapult. A need for the industry to produce more food in an efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly manner is driving this growth, as the world’s rising population continues to put pressure on land and water resources.
That’s one reason why investment in agritech has increased substantially in recent years: As stated in AgFunder’s agrifood tech investing report, investment reached $10.1 billion in 2017, up 29% on the previous year. At the same time, notable acquisitions by large agricultural companies including John Deere, Monsanto, DowDupont and Syngenta are all expected to contribute to market growth. These purchases show that these reputable companies have identified and responded to the opportunities within the sector at the centre of the future of farming.
Innovation continues to increase across the industry
Innovative Irish start-ups have been transforming the agritech sector and achieving global success. For instance, Herdwatch was recently awarded the Silver Online Innovation Award at LAMMA 2019, the UK’s leading agriculture and machinery show, for the new Farm Medicine Scanner feature on its farm management app. Meanwhile, MagGrow raised €3 million last November to fund the development and global roll-out of a breakthrough device that reduces unwanted and potentially dangerous drift from crop spraying.
Collaborative agritech solutions are expected to play a key role in increasing adoption
Based on case studies provided by various agritech providers on their websites, farmers are increasingly choosing agritech solutions. But having so many options to choose from can often complicate the buying process and result in costly purchases. That’s why farmers need to be clear on what exactly they need. For example, whether they need a farm app to manage their farming operations or buy precision machinery to use inputs efficiently.
That said, there are very few agritech solutions that cover a multitude of pain points, which highlights a need for more all-in-one solutions. Thus, agritech providers who can offer comprehensive solutions that meet multiple needs for minimal investment will stand out in the market. This also presents opportunities for collaborations and partnerships in the sector that will increase the availability and efficiency of solutions offered to farmers.
Examples of comprehensive Irish agritech solutions in the market today are:
Keenan InTouch: InTouch is a cloud-based technology that links feeding machines across the world with a live monitoring centre to provide farmers with real-time analysis and optimisation of animal diet, health and performance. Specific solutions are: Consistency in both feeding and mixing, improvement in milk yield and milk solids, faster finishing, monitor and control feed costs, herd health improvements, and ration formulation.
Moocall: Moocall provides beef and dairy farmers with wearable sensors that solve the main issues relating to calving, heat detection and herd management to help ensure efficient and profitable farming.
Agritech is now widely recognised as the future of farming, given that it is expected to help solve some of the biggest challenges facing the industry. But while there has been a marked increase in innovation across the industry, most solutions available on the market target different areas, meaning that farmers must invest in a range of different solutions from different providers. Although some collaborative solutions already exist — such as precision technologies mounted on tractors and the Keenan InTouch technology that can be used with any mixer wagon — there is still a need for more.
In order to limit the challenge of farmers facing too many choices, agritech providers that think about adding value by providing all-in-one solutions will stand out in this market. These comprehensive and collaborative solutions will provide more value to farmers, increase adoption rates and thus support market growth.