Scientists are pushing the envelope in one of the most exciting frontiers in agriculture today—that of seed manipulation and protection to grow more and healthier crops. We’re not talking genetically modified production but natural bioscience seeds and applications that can help feed a world that will top nine billion in population over the next three decades.
Several companies are especially active in this field and are part of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, a project that helps through grants and consultation to support agricultural innovation from Bangladesh to Peru and points in between. It is funded through USAID, and the governments of South Africa, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The innovators were chosen after a vigorous competition and whittling down hundreds of applicants to a mere handful.
Involved in the seed process under the SWFF umbrella are Lal Teer Seed, a Bangladesh company; AST, a home-grown Seattle startup; SI Technologies, a Dutch company with ambitions to break into the market; and, ICBA, a Dubai-headquartered organization active in making seeds tolerant of salinity.
“There is a growing scientific consensus that improved seed varieties will be necessary to make food production more bountiful to feed the world,” said Dr. Ku McMahan, USAID senior team lead of the SWFF program.”
Lal Teer creates the seed hybrids while AST and SI Tech are topical treatment formulas to make the seeds more resistant to drought, heat, and salinity. ICBA (International Center for Biosaline Agriculture) is a non-profit research center with a goal of improving production in saline environments. Everything in agriculture begins with a seed of varying sizes. They contain high protein, starch, and oil reserves that help in the early stages of growth and development in a plant.
I believe we are headed in the right direction, and I am particularly happy we have these pioneering companies in the vanguard helping show the way
Lal Teer is a mature, expanding company with influence throughout the region. AST is the equivalent of a successful plan scribbled on a napkin in venture capital-rich Seattle. SI Tech has had some hiccups with distribution and other issues but is hopeful it is about to turn the corner. ICBA has been active for nearly three decades.
“Let’s face it. Everyone in this business has huge challenges ahead of us,” said Tajwar, Awal, a director of Lal Teer and the son of its founder. “We need to expand the knowledge that, yes, the climate is changing.
“We are doing what we can to produce seeds in this new and troubling environment,” he added. “This often means trial and error. The good news is experimentation doesn’t take as long as it once did.”
The urgency of changing weather patterns came to Awal’s Bangladesh last spring. Generally, the seasonal cyclones come later. However, the country was hit in a month early, catching farmers off guard. “This means we have to do more with our seeds in less time,” he said. “This spring, many of our farmers’ crops were damaged. Our seeds must be capable of condensing the cropping cycles. Our goal is to reduce the time from 35 days to 20.”
What does this mean for Lal Teer? “It simply means this business innovation never ends,” said Awal. Awal said with the innovation his company had been able to impact the cropping cycle, with two crops during the growing season instead of just one.
“We would like to see three,” he added.
At Lal Teer, there is nothing artificial going into their biotechnological processes. It’s basically the crossing of various varieties of seeds to meet climate conditions, combat soil salinity and produce healthier plants. Where in the past it would take up to three years to develop a new strain of seed, now it can be expedited with the work carried out in a germination lab to see what DNA works and what doesn’t.
In agriculture, it is crucial that seeds have the ability to withstand the varying elements—even too much water. However, seeds can always use a little help. Advances have been made using nature’s elements to aid the seed in surviving and thriving under various adverse conditions.
This is where AST and SI Tech come in.
We talked with Zachery Gray, the only non-scientist on the AST team, who got excited about the idea for an innovative agricultural company when his next-door neighbor—who was a scientist—came over to share a bottle of wine. The afternoon of tippling among friends led to sketching out plans for the future and raising capital for a company that would carry the name Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, or AST.
“Plants simply don’t adapt to the various natural stresses on their own,” said Gray, now the vice president in charge of business development and securing capital for AST to continue to innovate.
In essence, the AST mission is to increase the tolerance of crop plants to weather and salinity stress. The products—currently in a liquid form called BioEnsure—are developed for a wide variety of cereals, vegetables, and industrial crops. The formula is applied using any seed treatment equipment. The company says the product is non-toxic and safe to handle. Since BioEnsure is not genetically modified, it is registered as organic by the Organic Materials Review Institute. During high-stress growing seasons, BioEnsure has been shown to increase plant yields from 30 to 50 percent.
However, AST has done very little marketing to the end-user because the product is generally sold through wholesalers and under various brand names but not necessarily as BioEnsure. In the Netherlands, SI Tech has the feeling that every better mousetrap doesn’t automatically become a hit in the marketplace. The company has developed a product that will produce healthier crops with a minimum of pesticides and fungicides.
But, it apparently takes more.
SI Technologies produces a product called NewSil, a spray that allows plants to absorb silicon, which results in a reduction of water usage of 30-50% while producing the same yield without using harmful chemicals. “It’s a slow-building process,” said CEO Bart AJ de Jonge, the CEO. “It becomes part of the food chain, and every government wants to make sure it’s safe. It takes a long time to get NewSil registered in various countries.
“It’s in a category all of its own. It is not a fertilizer. It has taken up to three years to get registered in India and South Africa,” he added. “Then, it is a hurdle to build a distribution network for a totally new product.” With any new product—particularly one dealing with agriculture—there are numerous hoops to jump through, especially with the controversies over pesticides and genetically modified science.
“NewSil is natural and 100 percent ecological and safe,” said de Jonge. “It was originally developed as a food supplement for humans and animals.”
There’s another significant problem that appears when, as de Jonge puts it, “something new is offered that appears too good to be true. In NewSil’s situation, it is locating and enticing distributors of the product. “A natural distributor ally—the agriculture giants—believe it is not necessarily in their interest to work with SI Tech,” de Jonge added. “They make and distribute pesticides and fungicides, and NewSil reduces the need for such chemicals.”
However, de Jonge said this situation could change over time as more agriculture companies realize that in the next decade, some of their chemical products could be limited by restrictive regulation.
USAID’s McMahan believes companies like Lal Teer, AST and SI Tech and organizations like ICBA represent the front lines of the challenge to provide food with less water in the middle of the 21st Century.
“I believe we are headed in the right direction, and I am particularly happy we have these pioneering companies in the vanguard helping show the way,” he said.
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.