Perspectives on the Food System and Organic Agri-inputs
Apr. 5, 2021
Especially Agri-inputs suppliers should think step over - growers - food consumers - smartphone connected consumers
Readers of AgroPages are likely well versed in the market for organic agriculture in the USA and Europe. Both are sizeable and both continue to grow annually at double digits, driven by consumer demand. Late last year, I heard a talk at a conference sponsored by Agri-Pulse titled the “Nextgen Consumer” by Brett Scioto, CEO of Aimpoint, a consumer market research firm. This multiyear project on the agriculture and food value chain mapped out dynamics that will impact farmers over next decade. One thing is for sure: consumers become more important! Younger smartphone-connected consumers are more empowered & actively engaged with brands. These consumers make value-based decisions. They want a good price, but from a company and product that share their values. Typically, facts are not as important as values. From the inputs farmers use to product that is on the table, they need to be consistent with “what I believe.” This drives the agriculture industry and farmers crazy as we focus on data and science.
These trends apply to ALL generations not just the younger consumer. Consumers want a right to complete transparency. Consumers try to connect with where their food comes from, but they often do it imperfectly. Generation is not the trigger on this, actually. It is demographics. More educated urban populations with more economic security across all generational groups is a global change so you can understand why the trends are here to stay. This then drives investment in entrepreneurship because you can change the system through innovative new products that connect to consumers versus the old brands.
Consumers are looking for “clean labels”, chemical free, and less processed. Today’s food products are underperforming on the things consumers value. They are willing to switch products so that is why innovation is happening at a rapid pace with new startups and smaller companies which can gain market share more quickly than old brands. Children outside of the USA have less processed alternatives. Policies that made processed food cost effective & efficient traces back to the Depression + New Deal agriculture policies. In the USA, subsidies of corn and soybeans played the largest role to drive processed foods, with the intention to ship affordable food everywhere to the masses. Europe subsidizes a broader range of crops, including fruits and vegetables that are not so subsidized in the USA. 60% of the USA population eats ultra-processed food but only 30% of those outside of USA do so.
Therefore, it is no wonder that organic agriculture and hence organic food is growing quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the weaknesses of our centralized supply chains in the USA compared to local regional food systems elsewhere, especially in Europe. 89% of Americans reconnected with the kitchen and family and we liked it! That also drove organic food sales as consumers don’t like chemicals, want to eat foods perceived to be grown in a more environmentally friendly way. Organic is now more mainstream and the price premium is less. Those that eat organic are resolute.
As young generation gets older will they go back to traditional patterns? Not likely. Value-based eating is here to stay. As you are increasingly food secure, you want food choices. Poverty is declining globally so trends are global. By 2040, 60% of world will be urban. 80% urban in USA by 2040. Interconnected global world will continue despite backlash of globalization. The long-term implications of this global food consciousness? Make what the market wants and get a premium. Every single year crop yields get better, but the market does not want more corn & soybean! Nutrient density is the new mantra! If agri-inputs continues to be defensive, we will see food companies and retailers vertically integrating. Consumers do trust farmers. But food companies control the consumer relationship. Chemicals & pesticides continue to increase as a nemesis. We will see more disruption from startups. The building blocks of agri-food 2030 are different from today.
Given that overview, along with an urgency to bring down the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture, NGOs, regulators and food companies are helping farmers convert to organic and/or adopt regenerative practices that enhance soil health to sequester carbon and reduce synthetic inputs. These soil health initiatives are second nature to organic farmers. Organic farming is based on practices that enhance soil health, which leads to healthy plants. But it is heartwarming to see these practices becoming a necessity for conventional farmers.
Where does all this leave organic input suppliers?
Many organic growers I know do not like to use purchased inputs. That is actually a major tenet of organic farming. But despite all the best practices, sometimes pest and plant disease outbreaks occur and bioprotection products can help without disrupting pollinators and other non-target organisms and without harming soil health. Furthermore, in calls with more than 160 customers that I participated in as an advisor to the biocontrol startup Pheronym, we learned that despite all the chemicals conventional growers apply, they still have many unmet crop protection needs, such as thrips (a global problem on nearly every crop). Thrips are also a bane for organic growers. Both conventional and organic growers need better tools to control plant parasitic nematodes. Cannabis growers need solutions for root aphids. All types of growers need replacements for chemical fumigants that are heavily restricted or banned.
The new genomic and DNA-sequencing tools (used by companies like Trace Genomics and Biome Makers) allow farmers to see what the inputs are doing to the soil after treatment. Marrone Bio showed that their fungal-based biofumigant reduced plant pathogens while enhancing beneficial microbes. The company’s Bacillus nakamurai in one of their biofungicides recruited other microbes to the root. One of their bioinsecticides enhanced root hairs formation. Three of their bioprotection products reduced carbon footprint by 60-80% compared to competing synthetic chemical pesticides. Chonex bionutrient company recently received data to show that their product increased soil carbon fixation, nitrogen metabolism and beneficial fungi that are known to suppress plant parasitic nematodes. I have seen interesting data for another company in Spain, Bioiberica (published in Agropages) showing that their amino acid-based product statistically significantly improves tolerance to salinity, enhances anti-stress microbial enzyme (ACC deaminase) and Fe mobilization (production of siderophores) in addition to improving the indices of carbon, nitrogen and potassium and several micronutrients.
Organic farmers are continuing to seek ways to more efficiently manage their nutrient needs. Like chemical fertilizers, organic fertilizer can be a source of unwanted nutrient runoff, and many growers are looking at microorganisms and other organically listed natural products that enhance nutrient uptake and can even fix their own nitrogen in monocots. There are some exciting microbial-based innovations suitable for organic growers that claim to reduce nitrogen by 25-100% (e.g., Azotic, Probelte). In my experience, organic growers are usually the early adopters of newly introduced biologicals. They seek out new technologies because they cannot use GMOs or synthetic chemical inputs. So, for a bioag company looking for a “beachhead” customer, a medium to large organic grower is a good place to start. Many growers in California have both organic and conventional farms side by side and will try a new biological on the organic farm first. If it works well, it is likely to be even more effective on a conventional farm when it is integrated in a program with chemicals. Note that both organic and conventional growers need training on how to use biologicals. I have seen both organic and conventional growers wait too long to address a pest problem, letting it get out of control and then expecting the biological will knock high pest populations down. Instead biologicals are best used early in the season before pest or pathogen populations build up, and also in season for resistance management and before harvest for residue management.
Three final thoughts:
1.You cannot get around & ignore the consumer.
2.The world is changing quickly. Technology is changing quickly. We must innovate at a faster speed to adapt and address.
3.It is a great time to be a bioag innovator to offer novel solutions that fill unmet needs and help both organic and conventional farmers become more regenerative and adopt ecologically based IPM.
Read the complete article in AgroPages' magzine 2021 Certified Organic Agri-inputs Guide.
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