FoA 412: 'Biological' Is Not A Category (it's the future of agriculture)

Headstorm: https://headstorm.com/

AGPILOT: https://headstorm.com/agpilot/

ELO Life: https://elolife.com/

Pairwise: https://www.pairwise.com/home

New Leaf Symbiotics: https://www.newleafsym.com/

Harpe Bio: https://harpebio.com/

"Biologicals are ‘economically unfeasible’ According to Report: The Shortcomings and Opportunities" by Upstream Ag Insights: https://www.upstream.ag/p/biologicals-are-economically-unfeasible

I considered a title for this episode that was something like “The Biological Revolution Coming to Agriculture”. 

I decided against it, and not just because it’s over-dramatic and the word ‘revolution’ is tossed around way too much, but because it would give many listeners the wrong idea of what this episode is about. 

This is not an episode about biologicals, which has become a catch-all term for things like biostimulants, biopesticides, biofungicides, and bioherbicides. I’m not a fan of trying to categorize things as “biologicals” for the following reasons: 

  1. The term “biological” doesn’t tell a farmer customer anything about what the product will do for them. Is it effective? Is it profitable? What value does it have? In fact, in some cases calling it a “biological” is used to almost justify that it’s not as effective. Which brings me to my second point. 
  2. The term “biological” comes with a lot of baggage. Decades of new products emerging with promises that at best don’t work in all cases, and at worst appear to be snake oil. 
  3. Some of the benefits of a biological don’t have incentives in place to actually return value to farmers. Meaning, if for example, a biological can improve quality or boost the marketing story of a commodity or reduce emissions, how will the farmer see the money back from their investment? 
  4. There are products that aren’t purely a biological or a synthetic chemistry, but deliver great outcomes for farmers. They get lumped in at times with biologicals because they have nowhere else to go. We’ve heard this on this show with Sound Agriculture’s SOURCE that uses chemistry to improve the performance of natural microbes, or Vestaron who has peptide products for pest control, and today will add a natural chemistry company to that list in Harpe Bio, which uses formulations from plant extracts for a suite of herbicides. 
  5. Lastly, the entire industry is looking for ways to reduce reliance on synthetic chemistry whether that’s due to resistance, regulation, or other factors. So being a “biological” is just becoming less and less of a differentiator. 

With all of that said I do believe that advancements in biotechnology will have the single biggest impact of any technology on the future of agriculture. And that’s what I want to talk about here in this episode and highlight four companies that are doing some fascinating work driven by biology, that I had the chance to sit down with at World Agri-Tech this year. 

So that intro might sound like I’m both criticizing biologicals and calling them the future of agriculture. Let me clarify: my point is that we need to stop lumping everything into this biologicals category and making judgments about a vague category and instead look at how companies and products can stand on their own merits and the value they offer to farmers and consumers.

In today’s episode, I’ll feature two companies in ELO Life and Pairwise that are using biotechnology, specifically gene editing, to change the game on certain agricultural products and ingredients. What they can do it mind-blowing - they are like the Willy Wonka’s of agriculture. 

Then we’ll dive deeper into a New Life Symbiotics, which is more of a biological company in the classic sense of the word in that they sell microbes used as biostimulants and biopesticides. This is will give you a great look into some of the challenges and opportunities of these types of products. 

Finally we’ll take a peak into what Harpe Bio is doing with their natural chemistry made from plant extracts to provide a new suite of herbicide products. 

All of these examples are enabled by advancements in our understanding of biology combined with the data science and other tools that I think will accelerate innovation in agriculture faster than just about anything else out there today.  

But let’s not evaluate these stories on how the products were developed, but what problems they solve what value they can offer.

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Tim Hammerich

I share stories about agriculture, agtech, and agribusiness on podcasts and radio.