From earth to sea, from farm to store, one common theme that agrotech startups grapple with is...food.
Come 2020, poised innovations include how to grow produce with increasingly fewer laborers, how to extend the shelf-life of that produce, how to commercially deliver food faster than fast, how to feed nine billion people 50 years from now, and how to save Earth. (Also read: The 6 Most Amazing AI Advances in Agriculture.)
Here are the top seven Agrotech developments.
The 2020 New Year’s Gift Worms
December, 10, 2019: Pheronym, a bio-AgroTech pest control company, sent a 2020 New Year's gift to three Americans, two Russians and one Italian stranded at the International Space Station (ISS): A cargo load of worms.
These roundworms, formally called nematodes, have naturally occurring bacteria in their gut that kill crop-harming insects but are safe for beneficial insects like honeybees.
Pheronym developed a pheromone extract (called Nemastim) that propels the nematodes to disperse more frequently to find insects to infect. Nematodes treated with Pheronym’s patent have been found to be three times more effective in attacking agricultural pests than untreated worms.
"These pheromones are how the nematodes talk to each other - telling them that it’s time to move, find an insect, and infect it," explained Dr. David Shapiro-Ilan, co-project director and research entomologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory.
Without Pheronym's pest control, farmers can lose 30–70% of their crop.
Why send nematodes into space?
Over the coming year, the project wants to see how the worms will navigate in microgravity — if they’ll be able to latch onto their prey, enter an opening, find the insect’s bloodstream, and release bacteria. NASA plans to possibly colonize Mars and the moon.
Cultivating nematodes in low gravity could help astronauts grow their own food in a sustainable way.
Aside from that, the researchers want to see if nematodes can move through the soil without gravity. Such findings could help them enhance the worm’s ability to dig deeper into the soil back on Earth.
As the SpaceX Dragon capsule, with its box of 120,000 nematodes, took off from the Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Fatma Kaplan, Project Director and CEO of Pheronym, tweeted her delight.
"It’s a scientist’s dream come true… We thank the USDA, NASA and the ISS for the privilege and opportunity to move our science forward for the benefit of agriculture on our planet and beyond."
First Restaurant Drone Delivery
Imagine ordering a Domino’s pizza from your home and two minutes later seeing a drone swoop from the sky to drop it in your yard. That was Meng Yu’s experience with the Lanzhou beef noodles delivered to her door by a Project Vesper Mk1 cargo drone, end of November, 2019.
Meng Yu of Guangzhou, China, was the first person in history to receive a commercial drone restaurant delivery. Her noodles took only three minutes to reach her, as she later reported:
"We do not have a company canteen so my colleagues and I order takeaway every day. Deliveries could never be sent upstairs in the past, but this time it just comes to me from the sky right to our roof terrace!”
The partners developed delivery drones that weigh less than 25 kilos, carry up to four kilos, and fly no higher than 400 feet at up to 12 meters per second.
Now, XAG & Airbus tested their drones to see whether they could give customers in Guangzhou their pre-ordered noodles from a nearby noodle restaurant in less than five minutes.
The first consumer, Meng Yu, ordered her noodle snack from the Drone Cargo WeChat application; her packed dish was loaded onto the waiting drone and flown to her terrace.
Meng Yu later enthused:
“Usually, I had to wait for up to an hour during peak lunch hour and often the food was cold. [This time] my noodles were hot as I like them and it took under 15 minutes from ordering to enjoying!"
For the coming year, commercial drones, hampered by logistical and cost issues, will take up only one percent of the U.S. commercial market and exist only in business-to-business applications. These include Flirtey for electronic defibrillators and, possibly, convenience stores such as 7-Eleven.
"20 years from now, we could very well all be eating synthetic meats or algae based products, dusted with locust powder and delivered by drones, flown to our homes in fully sustainable packaging," Matt Peskett of Food and Farming Technology detailed.
Pizza deliveries from Dominos will have to wait.
The App that Helped 34,000 Farmers
For the past four years, nine-year-old Aesha from the village of Choppadandi in India's Karimnagar district would wake up at 4.00am and watch her father leave the hut to turn on the pump in the fields. She’d beg him:
“Stay here... Mom and I are worried about the snakes out there!”
And he’d tell her he couldn’t leave the pump. He had to be there to turn it on and off before it swamped the fields, destroying their lush land and crops.
One day last week, Aesha’s father told her to dial a number on his cellphone. This is what she heard:
“Thank you for calling KisanRaja’s number. Currently your motor’s running. If you wish to turn it off, dial 1... To turn it off, press 2.”
Aesha did as instructed.
The pump turned on and off remotely, keeping one more family from starving.
Inventor of the KisanRaja app, Vijay Bhaskar Reddyvijay is an India-based software engineer who grew up on Aesha’s type of farm in a rural village. To date, he’s helped more than 34,000 farmers monitor their pumps and save their farms from flooding.
Matt Peskett, author of Food and Farming Technology said:
I had an Indian web developer in 2002 who had to travel each year to worship a snake-god because his great grandfather once killed a snake in a field by accident (which is very unlucky). This same developer regularly had his power diverted to agricultural water pumps which prevented him from working online twice a day.
Over the next year, Vijay plans to supply another two million farmers with his device, as well as innovate other high-tech solutions.
Your Coca-Cola Bottle From the Sea
This year we can expect your next bottles of Coca-Cola to be made from used plastic containers, trashed toys, bottle caps, and shopping bags, among 350 types of items — all trash retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea and beaches.
October, 2019, the Coca-Cola Foundation introduced the first ever plastic bottle made using 25% recycled marine plastic. The new bottle was made in conjunction with Indorama Ventures, one of Coca-Cola’s suppliers of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic and packaging solutions.
Coca-Cola, the world's largest beverage company with stores in 200 countries across five operating regions says so far it’s produced about 300 sample bottles. And now in 2020, it plans to dive full speed ahead, using this method of “enhanced recycling” to roll oodles of new plastic bottles off its conveyor belts for consumption around the world.
“The technology,” Coca Cola said, “is young but we believe it can achieve great things. Coca-Cola has made a global commitment that all bottles will be made from at least fifty percent recycled plastic by 2030.”
Meanwhile, teen-aged volunteers crawl 84 beaches in Spain and Portugal for debris, while fishermen haul in trash from 12 ports across the Mediterranean Sea, as part of the Mares Circulars or “Circular Seas” project, financed by the Coca-Cola Foundation to combat sea waste.
The 16 tons of waste collected so far become your new Coca-Colas for 2020.
The Vegetable/Fruit-Stretching Paint and Sachet
Several years ago, Apeel Sciences Founder and CEO James Rogers heard a story on the radio about global hunger and suspected that the real culprit wasn’t insufficient labor and lands but food spoilage.
Shortly after, James and his team developed a lipid-kind of substance, which they either spray on fruit or dip the fruit in, and that prevents initial water-loss, by locking in moisture and keeping out air. This "paint" extends the lifespan of an avocado by almost a week and doubles the window of ripeness of those same avocados from two to four days. Mold comes - later.
Innovative biotech companies such as California-based Apeel Science and Chicago-based Hazel Technologies work to extend the shelf-life of vegetables and fruit.
Hazel Technology created a "sachet" with an enhancing vapor that, when tucked in boxes of harvested produce, extends the shelf-life of that produce by as much as three times longer.
There are 10 other startups and products innovating in the shelf-life enhancement space, according to ReFED’s Innovator Database. In 2020, many of these startups plan nationwide expansion so that they’ll be able to reach the goal of the USDA, which is to cut U.S. food waste by 50% by 2030.
Most AgroTech start-ups that wrap their heads around producing more food, focus on labor shortages. Food waste startups, like Apeel, reason that in the United States alone, about 30% of harvested food decays due to spoilage.
Keeping produce fresher also decreases the need for post-harvest treatments, like pesticides, as well as reducing the amount of packaging needed to prolong shelf life.
It’s a win-win-win all around!
Your Hamburger’s Going to Come from this Weed
Late 2019, Swiss food manufacturer Nestlé partnered with Dutch ingredients supplier Corbion to produce microalgae-based "next-generation" sustainable, tasty and nutritious products.
Now in 2020, Nestlé/Corbion plans to develop and commercialize the functionality, taste and nutritional profile of this tiny seaweed plant for use in different types of food products that include pizza, hamburgers and fake meat.
Microalgae bursts with benefits. It contributes more than half of the oxygen you breathe. It gives you more proteins than most other plants, including wheat, beans, and soybeans.
It’s also rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, so it increases your good cholesterol levels and improves your immune function, among other benefits.
You can already buy microalgae-based products in health bars and snacks like spirulina bites, spirulina chips, pizza crust, wraps, and banana crisps.
You'll also find it in green smoothie mixes and in a range of powders and pills, including vegan omega-3 supplements and liquid chlorophyll supplements.
Expect to see it in new food products like a new DiGiorno pizza and Stouffer's lasagna with its microalgae plant-based ground beef alternative coming out in stores in the U.S, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.
Berry Picking at Its Best with AGROBOT Technology
It’s early morning in the Andalusian town of Huelva, South Spain. In the greenhouse of a large scale strawberry farming company called Agrobot, automatic harvesters glide up and down rows of strawberries using their cameras to decide which berries to pick.
“Agrobot,” according to its website, “has developed the first pre-commercial agricultural robot for gently harvested strawberries, no matter where and how they are grown.”
Strawberries are possibly the most challenging fruit to pick. Unlike apples and bananas, they can only be picked at one particular point in their growth. At that point, even the smallest amount of squeezing may destroy the berry before it arrives on the supermarket shelf.
For that reason, strawberry harvesting remained a manual process, until Agrobot introduced its robots saving the company manual labor and freeing those laborers for other tasks.
In an email interview with Juan Bravo, Founder and CEO of Agrobot, Juan said he expects the Agrobot to go into commercial use in late 2020 if the field trials meet acceptable performance standards next season. One Agrobot is expected to harvest around twenty acres of fruit within three days.
“Also in 2020,” Juan emailed, “We’re looking beyond strawberry picking at other crop harvesting solutions and plan to sell our machines but the specifics are confidential.”
So far there are robotic machines for vegetable and fruit picking — but for berries this is the first.
Juan expects a huge demand among North American (particularly Californian) and European farmers.
A single Agrobot machine can be used outdoors in a field to harvest ground level strawberries or in a greenhouse for raised plants.
With strawberry picking 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you’d think Juan would be fed up with strawberries by now but as he said:
“Oh no! I love strawberries. I can never get enough!"