Financial Times Covers Startups Using Microbes in Food and Agriculture.

In a recent piece “Entrepreneurs hope microbes hold the key to a food revolution” the Financial Times covers recent developments in how startups are using bacteria and fungi to generate protein or improve crop protection. From the article:

 

The rise of microbial research in crop production also comes amid heightening worries about the environmental impact of the overuse of synthetic chemicals. Pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers used in intensive farming have been blamed for the decline in soil fertility, while the run-off of nitrogen-rich farming waste water into the sea has been widely accepted as the cause of “dead zones” along the coastline.

“We want to make the products we need biologically rather than from petroleum or fossil fuels,” said Sarah Bloch, senior scientist at Pivot, whose microbial fertiliser offers farmers the potential to reduce greenhouse gases and chemicals leaching into the waterways.

Investment into crop microbial start-ups rose almost 40 per cent in 2018 from the year before to $511m globally, according to PitchBook, the data provider.

Meanwhile, the microbial focus in food and agritech comes as the shale boom in the US has led to lower biofuel demand, forcing many plant biologists to use their knowhow in other areas. Traditionally this has mainly been in pharmaceuticals, but the talent has been moving to the burgeoning food and agritech sectors along with investors’ funding, driving R&D into microbials.

“The global implications of feeding people and the nutrition side — to be part of that as a scientist has become really exciting and challenging,” said Mr Miille.

But for all the excitement, the use of microbials faces challenges. In food, these include the higher cost of production as well as consumer acceptance. On the agricultural side, new products and technologies need to overcome scepticism from farmers who have been disappointed with the low efficacy of microbial fertilisers in the past.

Microbes in soil and plants tend to be specific to certain conditions and to an area. Finding the right microbes that will work universally takes time, as well as collecting data that will convince growers that a product will produce equivalent yields to a synthetic chemical, say agricultural experts.

The time taken to get products to market can be “more pharma than farmer,” said Arama Kukutai, co-founder and partner at Finistere Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on agribusiness start-ups. “You need patient capital.”

Nevertheless, food and agricultural industries are facing increasing investor, consumer and regulatory pressure to reduce environmental impacts.

“There are a lot of people trying,” said Mr Kukutai. Especially in crop production, there is “pushback from consumers and regulators”, and with the cost of launching new synthetic chemicals rising exponentially, investment is only going to increase. “People will continue to put money into microbials,” he said.

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