We recently attended the first annual Biological Summit in Salinas, CA, hosted by Western Growers and New Zealand-based agrifoodtech consultancy, Wharf42. Increased regulations, reduced efficacy, and environmental and health concerns have encouraged large agribusiness incumbents and innovative startups alike, to look for alternatives to chemical-based agricultural products.
The first-of-its-kind summit was intended to convene stakeholders from across the agribusiness supply chain and around the globe to discuss the current state of biologicals and opportunities for progress in the sector. One central recurring theme was that the proliferation of biologicals will require buy-in and collaboration from all stakeholders, and the summit was designed to highlight these different stakeholder perspectives.
Dave Puglia, President and CEO of Western Growers, and Secretary Karen Ross of the California Department of Food and Agriculture kicked off day one with some thoughts on the purpose of the summit. Puglia emphasized the need to work together as a sector to achieve long-term gains, such as moving to a biological focus for crop inputs. Secretary Ross spoke about the opportunity in California to “connect the valleys” and build bridges between agriculture and the biological sciences and venture capital. She also highlighted that the fresh food that comes out of California goes almost directly from the field to consumers' mouths. This creates a huge opportunity to connect consumers to agriculture and the challenges it faces.
Dr. Pam Marrone, CEO and Founder of Chesnut BioAdvisors, then set the stage with an insights-packed presentation on the current landscape for biologicals. We will dive into the biological landscape in a future article, but Dr. Marrone spoke about the balance of having a data-backed product, while also getting it out the door quickly to help growers. She talked about how companies can succeed in this space and what needs to happen to drive greater adoption, namely better education for farmers and advisors, which became a refrain for the conference.
The Consumer Landscape
Sherry Frey, Vice President of total wellness at Nielsen IQ, shared some illuminating insights from Nielsen’s consumer trends research about how consumers think about sustainability when purchasing food. Frey emphasized that for consumers, their personal health and the health of their families is becoming increasingly connected with the health of the planet and the health of others. Consumers are demanding sustainable products, but the smorgasbord of labels and new terminology makes it harder to understand what products are truly sustainable. Frey emphasized that brands have a significant opportunity to educate consumers about what they should look for in their food.
Scott Komar, Senior Vice President of Global R&D at Driscoll’s, provided some insight into how the company thinks about aligning its practices and innovation strategy with consumer demands through its mission to “continually delight berry consumers.” Driscoll’s is always looking for ways to maximize flavor and the consumer eating experience while minimizing resource use and environmental impact. The company has over 19 R&D programs across the four berries they sell and is looking into biologicals to help them meet these goals.
In this panel, Paul Crout, Senior Product Manager and Agronomist at Helena Agri-Enterprises, Francisco Manzano, Director of Business Development at Nutrient Ag Solutions, Mike Wilbur, CEO and President of Cavallo Ventures, and Rachelle Antinetti, Founder of Antinetti Consulting, spoke about their roles in ensuring that the products they are recommending to farmers are effective and meet their needs. Distributors go through their own intensive testing process before marketing a product to maintain their credibility and the confidence of their customers. Panelists also spoke about the opportunities they see to minimize the synthetic footprint in agriculture and increase biological sales, such as rising fertilizer prices and the market benefits of having more suppliers.
Dr. Susanne Sutterlin from the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Mike Mendelsohn, Chief of Emerging Technologies at the EPA, Dr. Ran Shauli, Co-Founder and COO and DriftSense (from Israel), and Keith Pitts, Senior Vice President of Sustainability and Regulatory Strategy at Bioceres Crop Solutions (US-based) spoke to the biological regulatory environments in their respective countries. Panelists discussed the opportunities to improve regulation timelines through better, more comprehensive data and by providing more education for regulators about these products.
Tom Mulholland, Owner of Mulholland Citrus, Mark Borman, President of Taylor Farms, Hillary Thomas, Research and Technical Director of Natureripe Berry Growers, Zach Bagley, Managing Director of the California Tomato Research Institute, and Don Cameron, Vice President and General Manager of Terranova Ranch, rounded out the grower panel. These farmers spoke about their experiences trying biologicals, many of which were not successful and left them somewhat skeptical. But most growers still expressed an openness to biologicals if they could see more data and support from third parties to help them sort through the noise and determine which biologicals would work best for their growing systems. They also discussed the opportunity to build a collaboration model where research trials could be conducted in operating fields.
Audre Kapacinskas, Principal at S2G Ventures, was on a panel with Phil Erlanger, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Aliment Capital, Kirk Haney, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Radicle Growth, and Larry Taylor, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at The Yield Lab, to represent the investor perspective on biologicals. The investors discussed what biological companies need to be thinking about, from creating a clear picture of how these products are working in the field to the opportunity to pair biologicals with new digital ag technologies and rethinking go-to-market channels. They emphasized that while this is a tough time for entrepreneurs, it is also an opportunity to figure out priorities and execute against them, hopefully leading to long-term success.
Gabriel Youtsey, CIO of the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. Helene R. Dillard, Professor and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, Eugenia Saini, Executive Director of Fontagro, and Dr. Alex Cochran, CTO of DPH Biologicals, shared their perspectives as agricultural researchers on opportunities for partnerships with biological companies. In a time when we are comparing systems instead of just individual chemicals, measuring efficacy is more complex than it used to be. All the researchers emphasized the importance of collaboration within the industry between stakeholders in terms of sharing data and resources to further the adoption of biologicals.
Peter R. Muller, Senior Vice President and Global Strategy Lead of Fruit and Vegetables at Bayer CropScience and Prem Warrior, Senior Technical Advisor at Syngenta Biologicals, emphasized that this is an exciting moment for biologicals. But they also noted that they are just one instrument in an orchestra and that we still need to put a lot of effort into training farmers on how to use them and share nuanced messages with farmers about the benefits of these products. They insisted that the innovation is happening in smaller companies that are much more nimble and that we need partnerships between startups and large corporates to scale those innovations.
The Entrepreneur Perspective
There were two entrepreneur panels featuring nine companies who shared their experiences innovating in the field of biologicals, navigating regulations, and working to meet farmer needs. Entrepreneurs highlighted the many factors they need to consider when designing a product, from cost effectiveness to how it fits into the regulatory environment and the ability of the product to integrate into a grower’s system.
There were countless enlightening insights and perspectives offered throughout the summit, but the most iterated message was the need for more collaboration across the sector to progress the field of biologicals and enable meaningful adoption. As the first international gathering of this scale focused solely on biologicals, this summit was certainly a crucial step to meeting that need, sparking countless consequential discussions and relationships. It will take more initiatives like this to enable biologicals to achieve their promise in agriculture, and we look forward to continuing to partake in and promote these convenings. Look out for an upcoming article in which we’ll further explore the biologicals landscape and the challenges and opportunities for growth.