Will startups feed us?

Bernardo Montes de Oca

9 billion. That’s what we predict the world’s population will be in fifteen years. And how will we feed all those people? An intricate part of the answer is farming. Efficient agriculture is essential to get massive amounts of food to large populations. Still, it faces many challenges, some of which might be too challenging to solve, starting with ourselves, the growing population. As part of the solution, startups are racing to feed us before the world begins to starve. 

Currently, climate change is one of the most prominent challenge agriculture faces. Our weather has become unpredictable. For centuries, we understood how the seasons worked and could predict which crops would survive in which weather conditions, but all of this has changed. Now, we face more intense natural disasters that happen more frequently. So, there's no way of knowing what will survive. 

Unfortunately, the problem doesn't end there. One of the most critical aspects of farming is soil quality. As temperatures, precipitation, and pollution change almost daily, natural cycles are becoming scarce. Thus, the soil can't recover adequately. Without nutrients and water, soil degrades quickly, faster than anyone could've predicted; farming might be impossible soon.  

Soil is so vital, but the damage is happening far too quickly. It's estimated that, by 2050, 90% of the earth's topsoil is at risk of degrading past usable levels. So, PunaBio, an Argentine startup, decided to tackle such severe problems using equally extreme solutions. The company decided to go back billions of years to study tiny creatures called extremophiles. These are microorganisms capable of withstanding the harshest conditions out there. Not only that, they thrive in this adversity.  

PunaBio uses these extremophiles to create a very concentrated bacteria juice that farmers can apply to their seeds. Then, the creatures work their magic, giving seeds nitrates and phosphates to grow faster. Since extremophiles are experts at balancing conditions, the supply of essential nutrients lasts longer, thus increasing the chances of crop success. It's a fascinating approach that might solve many problems with crops. Still, like many problems with agriculture and farming, it only tends to one aspect. Plus, it doesn't solve one of farming's main problems.  

This startup is working to ensure that soybean - one of Argentina's prime exports and an essential grain for the entire world - grows better and survives adverse conditions, but soy isn't perfect. For it to grow, it needs vast amounts of land and water. In fact, in the very essence of farming lies the most significant problem to solve: water. 

Farming and agriculture are two of the world's highest water-consuming industries, consuming 70% of the world's drinking water. They account for 80% of habitat loss and 25% of the world's carbon emissions. This problem worsened in 2022, far more than in any previous year, with geopolitical conflicts increasing it to a point in which the amount of acutely food-insecure people tripled. There's a race to change that; one of the hurdles is data, or the lack thereof. 

To ensure success, a farmer needs to understand as many variables as possible, from humidity and temperature to crop prices and pesticide production. Unfortunately, only the biggest companies could fund the research to understand all these variables for years. It wasn't until eight years ago that one startup, the Farming Business Network (FBN), focused on opening this up to everyone. The founders spoke to farmers about their issues and realized that many were working blind. So, FBN started harvesting data, and now the company has a network of 33,000 farmers sharing knowledge and enabling them to use pesticides better and buy crops. The idea was so successful that FBN is on its way to an IPO estimated at $4 billion. 

At the same time, this process also feeds data to other startups to solve other farming issues. For example, many farmers use more pesticides than needed to ensure quality. Still, the excess material lands in the waters and soils nearby, expanding the damage. So FBN partnered with the Israeli startup Greeneye to use data and advanced technology to reduce pesticide use through AI analysis and better equipment. One of the most significant benefits of this partnership is that Greeneye can work on existing technologies, which allows more farmers to access them. 

The more research we have, the more we understand how the traditional way of doing things needs an urgent change. For years, we've known that dairy farming and beef production are both extreme pollutants. Still, it's only recently that we've understood their sheer magnitude. Livestock likes to burp, and that's a problem. 

Bovine digestive systems are complex systems. With four stomachs and a lot of grazing, they tend to burp a lot to aid in their digestion, but these noisy expulsions contain so much methane that, when you add up the 1.7 billion cows and buffalo on the planet, you have reasons for concern. Livestock accounts for 15% of the world's gas emissions, and startups found a solution in the ocean. 

It's not about reducing the number of burps. That'll be unfair and uncomfortable for cows and buffaloes. Instead, it's time to give them algae. This way, burps contain 90% less methane. Furthermore, what's fascinating is that we don't need much of it. Adding a cup per day to cow feed means massive reductions. Small and large companies alike are already putting the technology into good use. Danone, one of the world's largest dairy companies, began using algae and hopes to reduce emissions by 30% by 2030. 

Funding is flowing to these startups, and many solutions are in sight. Big names, such as Bill Gates, have promised massive funding to reduce how much we emit, but from now on, this will be a discussion that we will continue to have as years pass by. We tend to look at farming from the perspective of emissions and how we can improve crop production, and that's great, but we must remember who we are doing this for. Though population growth has slowed down, it's still growing. By 2050, we could reach 10 billion and keep growing. No one deserves hunger, so we must ensure everyone has a meal.

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Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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