KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The question why came up in various forms during the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City’s 2020 Ag Innovation Forum held in the KC Chamber of Commerce Board Room at Union Station. In his keynote remarks, Dr. Jim Carrington, president of St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, suggested the science community needed to be explaining why it was researching something instead of describing what it was doing. A practical reason to focus on the why, he said, was that projects “don’t get vested without a Why.” Investors want to know why a platform, a chemistry, a robotic or such is being developed. Dr. Carrington also noted scientists need to keep an eye on the prize: That science should forge economic engines.
The Forum’s closing keynoter, Dr. Michael Helmsetter, president and CEO of TechAccel in Kansas City had a different spin on the Why. He was asking why the Kansas City ag and animal health industry didn’t have a bigger “stake in developing” the area’s ag science innovation, given all the existing talent, capabilities and infrastructure. “We’re the ag leader in the Midwest.” He said there is “a lot of investment capital in the ag space” but other regions are attracting a larger share. He pointed to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, perhaps influenced by the success of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, that is funding ag-related projects in St. Louis. “Money attracts money,” Dr. Helmsetter said, with the implication that the Kansas City region needs to step up.
As speakers and panel moderators commented on advances in ag tech, Dr. Dan Thomson, Jones Professor of Production Medicine and Epidemiology at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, offered insightful food for thought to the proceedings. “There are two groups that don’t care about science and food,” he stated, “the rich and the poor.” Why? Because, he explained, “The rich err to the side of safety because they can afford it and the poor just want to eat.” Poverty is determined by the price of food, he added. “If we make snap decisions that increase the cost of food production without increases in wages for people,” he went on, “we will increase poverty in our country – which not only increases food insecurity but decreases the value of SNAP coupons which decreases the value of taxes paid by American citizens.”
Host and emcee for this year’s Ag Innovation Forum, Chelsea Good, vice president government and industry affairs and legal, Livestock Marketing Association, concluded the event with a question of her own. Wrapping up the proceedings, she cited the industry expertise of both the speakers and the audience. “As we leave the hall today, we’re energized and excited about the future of technology in agriculture,” Good said. “But are we solving problems, offering solutions to problems farmers don’t think they have?”
This year’s Forum featured three panels: Academic – Promising Projects in the Pipeline; Entrepreneur –New Market Technology; and Using Data – Blockchain, Traceability, Precision Ag.
Promising Projects in the Pipeline
- The Academic Panel moderator Dr. Dan Thomson, said that sustainable farming processes face challenges from multiple agendas and advocacy groups.
- Dr. Tom Spencer, animal science professor at the University of Missouri, talked about gene editing – specifically CRISPR gene editing for fitter, healthier and more productive food animals. Describing advances in gene editing, he said “Any type of modification that can be designed can be made. “ All phenotypes can be modified; natural alleles can be added; novel genes can be added. The holdup in advancing his science further, said Dr. Spencer, was governmental foot-dragging, i.e. which agencies would have oversight; what regulations would be implemented.
- Amy Hilske, director of the University of Nebraska’s Innovation Greenhouse, described her facility as a testing ground for optimizing yield and crop efficiencies. “We are developing cheaper, more user friendly technologies to aid farmers and managers with their decision making process,” she said.
- Dr. Justin Siegel, associate professor, University of California-Davis’ Genome Center, explained that advances in genetic technologies now allow everyone to read and write in the language of biology. “We can now communicate with the world we live in and build a better world.
New Market Technology
- The Entrepreneur Panel moderator Kevin Lockett, partner and CFO of Fulcrum Global Capital, identified one of the challenges ag entrepreneurs and startups face is understanding how difficult it is to measure things in the field and aggregate the data. But technology can address most of that. Unfortunately, the wealth of ideas, innovations and platforms for new technology outnumber the opportunities for accessing capital.
- Dr. Brad Fabbri, chief science officer at TechAccel, explained how farmers face the added difficulty of “having only one shot a year at a successful crop or profitable herd. “As technology innovators, we can come up with the technology, but we have to know what the farmer wants.” TechAccel’s business model includes three key steps: 1) Identifying, licensing and investing in technology sources; 2) Continuing to advance the science and technology; 3) Deliver it for commercialization and monetization.
- Pete Nelson, executive director, AgLaunch Initiative, said ag needs to reach success markers at various development stages earlier than other industries because ag’s product is so important. “Food is important,” he stressed, “I look for future ag technology to be developed quicker.”
- Trish Cozart, program manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colorado, talked about how NREL provides technology incubation programs that use the deep expertise at world class laboratories to push innovation forward.
Block Chain, Traceability, Precision Ag
- The Data Panel moderator Doug Dresslaer, director of cultural innovation, Dairy Farmers of America, launched a wide-ranging discussion when he asked panelists what is fueling precision ag’s growth. Where is it coming from?
- Andy Brudtkuhl, director of emerging technology, National Pork Board, said the “advanced, disruptive technology is coming in from Silicon Valley, as expected.” But while the platforms are effective, there are drawbacks and problems that are more attributable to cultural or community conditions than to technological/engineering shortcomings. What the Silicon Valley crowd didn’t grasp, is that that it is one thing to design a sensor, scanner or counter that can collect large amounts of data. “But it’s another,” he quipped, “to use it accurately when pigs are rushing off trucks.” And another thing, he added, is not all farmers are as enamored with big data and are especially concerned about how well its protected.
- Orlando Saez, founder and CEO, Aker Technologies, warned that an emerging problem in the big data business is that there is no middle market for successful startups. “If you’re good, you get bought.” Then the bigger companies tend toward complacency, hampering further technological advancement.
- Matt Teagarden CEO, Kansas Livestock Association, outlined the U.S. cattle industry’s need for a national end-to-end cattle disease traceability system, which provides critical tools to manage a disease outbreak and may provide opportunities to add value to the industry.
— Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City
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