KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Keynote speaker Carl Casale opened the Council’s 2021 Ag Innovation Forum on an optimistic note with an offbeat message. Casale, a fourth-generation farmer with a twenty-six-year career at Monsanto Company and seven-year stint as CEO of CHS, Inc., and currently a senior agricultural partner at Ospraie Management, LLC, said the agriculture industry needs “to use the tools we already have.” He noted that investment should be directed toward production systems and processes and improving existing tools and technology. COVID-19 has crafted a new lens through which the world views food production. A shrinking world population has plenty to eat. The challenge he said is how to produce, process and distribute calories and protein in a way consumers want them. He is positive about entering the post COVID-19 era: “Where there is change, there is opportunity.”
In the Forum’s closing keynote address, John Niemann, president, Protein Ingredients & International Cargill Meat Solutions, said Cargill has doubled down on its message about protein: “For Cargill, protein is about more than nutrition; protein has purpose.” That theme, Niemann explained, is designed to enable the company to create new skills and capabilities and to exceed expectations of its customers. He illustrated these points noting that consumers didn’t ask Apple to develop its iPhone. They never saw it coming, and now they can’t see how they can live without it. Niemann summed up his remarks saying, “Agriculture is bigger than the farm – it is leveraging technology to improve safety, quality and efficiency with automation, analytics, and digital tools.”
This year’s Innovation Forum featured four panel discussions: Promising Projects in the Pipeline; New to Market Technology; Financing New Initiatives; Searching for Long-Term Solutions.
Promising Projects in the Pipeline
Nikki Hall, Corteva Agriscience, moderator
• Dr. Bob Hutkins, professor of Food Science & Technology, University of Nebraska, described partnering with companies that produce and sell advanced probiotics and prebiotics. He noted 60% of Americans complain of gastrointestinal issues. At $136 billion a year, digestive healthcare costs, are higher than heart disease.
• Kevin Kimle, director of Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative, Iowa State University, talked about creating an investment fund in a university setting for ag startups.
• Dr. Jared Decker, associate professor of Animal Science & Wurdack Chair of Animal Genomics, University of Missouri, said in the age of genomics, phenotyping is key. “We don’t need more data, we need more of the right data.”
New to Market Technology Gary Wheeler, Missouri Soybean Association, moderator
• Matt Crisp, CEO, Benson Hill, focused “on empowering breeders, farmers, ingredient and food manufacturers, retailers and consumers to develop a better food system from plant to plate.”
• Karsten Temme, CEO & Co-Founder, PivotBio, detailed how his company makes microbes that allows food crop growers to produce their own nitrogen, replacing nitrogen fertilizer.
• Naeem Zafar, CEO, TeleSense, noted that “the quality of crops never gets better once they are harvested,” which is why his company has developed sensing technology to reduce spoilage in stored grain.
Financing New Initiatives
Chris Simpson, Polsinelli PC, moderator
• Renee Vassilos, director of Agriculture Innovation, The Nature Conservancy, said her group was seeing a lot of new players that want to invest in the agriculture space, citing such giants as Microsoft and Google, as well as industry incumbents like John Deere and Syngenta. She added ag needs new tools and innovation to get to where it needs to be.
• Kerryann Kocher, CEO, Vytelle, called it a “rapid explosion of companies” looking at agriculture as an opportunity to invest. She noted an inflow of “coastal money” into the farm belt and described coastal investors as “experienced and serious” about the ag business.
• Spencer Stensrude, executive director, Ag Ventures Alliance, mentioned that ag tech does not have enough dollars coming into the space, and the money that does come takes its time. Established farming operations and tech innovators resent having to spend up to half a year away from businesses to court investors. He stressed the ag industry needs a bigger population of investment groups willing to bid against others to partner with ag tech developers. “That’ll move investors to move quickly to a close.”
Sustainability Gardner Hatch, Woodruff, moderator
• David Darr, senior vice president, sustainability officer, Dairy Farmers of America, described DFA’s sustainability goals: 30% greenhouse gas reduction through the science-based target initiatives by 2030; committed to industry-wide goals for the U.S. dairy industry to be net zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
• Dr. Jason Clay, senior vice president- markets, World Wildlife Fund, warned that “whatever is sustainable today, won’t be tomorrow.” The challenge for farmers is to produce more with less land, less water and less pollution. He remarked that agriculture has to tell a better story of its achievements so far in improving sustainability. He pointed out that positive actions like regenerative agriculture have to be more than a practice; it has to have results.
TechAccel was lead sponsor of this year’s Ag Innovation Forum, and two of its executives presided over the event as masters of ceremonies. Tony Simpson, head of business development, welcomed attendees hinting that the Forum would offer a look at what the Post COVID-19 era would look like. Simpson said the need for good technology and innovation to feed and care for both people and animals has never been more important. “It is incumbent on us in the ag industry to band together like this,” he said, “to talk about new technology so we can stay on the cutting edge of innovation.”
TechAccel’s chief commercial officer Mike Rohlfsen opened the afternoon session on financing and investment, remarking about how bifurcated the world has become overall, but specifically in how people decide what they want to purchase and what they want to eat. The “haves” can afford to consume food via all sorts of production methods, preparation, packaging and so forth – and these preferences can drive innovation. “However,” he said, “half the world simply wants to have more to eat and have a better mix of calories.” The ag industry needs to take into account all of these factors as it goes forward in advancing technology. Rohlfsen suggested that relying on models that look too far into the future can be daunting to the point of creating panic that could stifle ingenuity. But not for long. He stressed: “I never bet against ingenuity.”
— Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City
For more Missouri news, click here.