Innovation in the agricultural sector
By Ingemar Pongratz
Food and the agriculture are a critical for society. Well-functioning, robust and stable food production and distribution infrastructure are key for societies worldwide. disturbances in these services can have major negative effects for societies worldwide. In fact, recent events show that the food chain is not as robust as many of us initially thought. During the Covid pandemic, travel restrictions hampered travelling and transport across countries became problematic. This severely affected the food and feed transports. This led to higher prices and also affected availability of food, animal feed, fertilisers and other important commodities required for a functional food and feed sector.
In addition, there is a strong push among consumers to address the environmental and climate problem associated with agriculture. In fact, recent estimates from the World Bank suggest that agriculture produces between 19% to 29% % of the CO2 emissions worldwide. These figures include both meat and plant production, production of chemical for agriculture, transportation and refrigeration.
Clearly, better and more resilient agricultural practices are required to optimize the food producing sector and reduce its impact on environment and climate.
Innovation in the agricultural sector is thus an important societal priority worldwide. New products and services are required to increase output, reduce environmental and climate impact and increase resilience to current challenges.
It is not easy to overstate the critical role for a knowledge driven transition of the agricultural sector. One sobering example is Sri Lanka. In 2021, Sri Lanka banned the use of agricultural chemicals and announced its transition to organic agriculture. However, crop yield plummeted, production of certain crops fell with over 50%. This transformed Sri Lanka from a crop exporting country to a food importing country, with widespread civil unrest, economic problems and widespread malnutrition. According to Sri Lankan scientists, one of the main problems was that the ban on agricultural chemicals used to increase yields was not based on scientific information. It is well known that organic agriculture is associated with lower yields and this critical piece of information was completely overlooked.
Clearly, this is a dramatic example regarding the key role for research-based knowledge in the agricultural sector and the need to bypass extreme public opinion and public pressure.
But it is important to recognize that public pressure is there and serves as a driving force. Consumers want, cheap, safe, and nutritious food that does not harm the environment or the climate. Consumers (at least in the EU) are also sensitive to unfair commercial practices such as the practices applied in the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) market.
In Europe, public opinion is strongly against use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in crops. This includes modifications introduced through new methods such as CRISPR. Nevertheless, EU scientists regularly complain to the European Commission about the current ban on GMO. They claim that Europe is lagging behind in the field of agricultural research
But agricultural research is of course not only GMO focus research. Innovation in the agricultural sector includes much more. Innovation such as new methods to grow plants, new strategies to feed animals, digitalisation, and development of new products such as bio-stimulants to improve yields. These are only a few areas where EU researchers active. Agricultural research in Europe includes so much more, including areas that do not involve genomic modification of crops and animals.
It is thus clear that the research needs to take consumer opinion into consideration. Clearly, consumer information and communication needs to be included to ensure consumer uptake of new products. This is something that was overlooked in the GMO case. But, agricultural research is a large area and European scientists are active in other research areas as well.
As an example, we established Letavis AB. Letavis AB aims to develop new solutions for the agricultural sector to improve yield and reduce climate and environmental impact. Our strategy is to apply knowledge from the human / medical area into the agricultural sector.
We have developed a new solution that offers a substantial increase in yield in greenhouse farming. In fact, our industrial pilot tests show that we can increase yields. In industrial settings we increase yields with as much as 15-20% depending the herb or spice tested.
This example shows that there are possibilities and that EU researchers can develop new products outside the GMO sector.
Ingemar Pongratz is founder of Fenix Scientific AB / Pongratz Consulting. Through Pongratz Consulting, we support universities and enterprises to apply for EU funding to finance research projects, for example from the Horizon Europe funding scheme.
Ingemar Pongratz is also co-founder of Letavis AB. Letavis AB develops climate and environmentally friendly solutions to improve animal or plant production.
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