By Frank Buhagiar on Friday 17 March 2023
Ever wished you could just listen to one podcast to learn about a wide range of hot ag/foodtech topics, such as precision fermentation, metagenomics, robotics, vertical farming, plant biotech and alt-proteins? Well, wish no more for all the above topics are discussed in the latest instalment of FFF’s podcast series.
In Episode 17, FFF’s David Stevenson picks the brains of Alastair Cooper, Head of Venture Investment at Cibus Capital, a specialised boutique/asset manager focused on investing across the food value chain. That means Cibus invests in anything from high-value production and processing operations to companies working on game-changing technologies. It also means that Alastair is able to draw upon a vast array of companies his boutique has come across or invested in to provide real life examples of how agtech promises to transform the way we grow our food and more.
In the world of precision fermentation for example, Alastair cites Perfect Day, a company that “has engineered yeast to secrete…the proteins that are in milk. So now we are producing dairy products without the need to raise cows.” Then there is The Every Company which “has used yeast to secrete albumen…so we can produce eggs without chickens.” All good stuff. But is it scalable? Alastair says yes: “Precision fermentation is scalable anywhere in the world, you need very little land mass, you recover all the water, you recover all the heat and you’re feeding microbes literally waste products.”
Moving on to metagenomics, for those not familiar with the space, Alastair provides a quick overview – it is “the study of genetic material recovered from the environment around us”. And there is a lot of this material we don’t know about: “a spoonful of soil may well contain 100 billion organisms (and) a million different species. This provides a vast amount of DNA of which only a small fraction we know and have only ever genetically sequenced before.”
All well and good but, as David asks: “What do you hope to find in that soil?” Alastair points out that by using the “latest analytics techniques at scale, we’re able to identify segments of DNA within…metagenomes such as soil…that have never before been sequenced or seen…and we are then able to predict a whole new range of proteins and protein structures that…is allowing us to develop a whole new range of new solutions for food…”
No need to run through the ins and outs of robotics, so leaping straight into Alastair’s eyebrow-raising examples of what robots have to offer: “We’ve got robots now that have ultraviolet light mounted on them that go up and down the rows of grapes or strawberries at night and the UV light kills the mildew…this is a way of significantly reducing for example fungicide use.” Then there is precision spraying: “Spray today is done at scale totally indiscriminately…now we have visual recognition technology that identifies weeds from crop plants that allows targeted sprays…This enables you to use high-value nutrients or biological products which you could never use before because you’d have to use so much of them.”
Alastair doesn’t just have an encyclopedic knowledge of agtechs of all shapes and sizes, he also has some considered views to share on some of today’s most pressing issues in the space, such as what the future holds for previous market darlings, vertical farming and alt-meat. Have a listen to hear what he has to say but, as a taster, here’s what he thought about the products of Believer (previously Future Meat): “I’ve eaten Believer’s new chicken product and lamb product and I can tell you it was indistinguishable from the real thing, and this is 50% soy protein and 50% cellular muscle and fat.” Sounds like a true Believer.
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