Don’t Ever Short Human Ingenuity: Part 1

This article by Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., was first published May 6, 2021, at Forbes

Is anyone else just a little tired of hearing about doom and gloom and an impending apocalypse? It’s been hard to avoid with media focus on the pandemic, its impact on the economy, and the tsunami of hardship, depression and anxiety swirling across the nation. We’re bombarded with daily images of bankrupt, dismal malls and empty big box retail sites repurposed into mass testing sites and now mass vaccination centers.

Even in conversations with friends and family, the repetition of comments about endless Zoom calls and despair about indistinguishable days blending together can accumulate into a sort of reinforcement of a dystopian view of life. After the last 13 months, apocalypse, collapse and chaos feel normal, right?

Except we’re forgetting some amazing facts.

Common mythologies

Let’s explore a long-held scenario in the fresh light of recent data. In agriculture and agtech ecosystems, nearly everyone has heard the prediction that the global population would reach 9 billion by 2050. It is referenced in virtually every pitch deck, noted in every presentation, discussed at every conference (disclosure: I admit to it too). The population growth scenario translates into global food demands, with less arable land and clean water, increasing climate change and rapidly expanding diseases. Something’s got to change and it’s up to us to act.

This scenario has been used so many times it has taken on a veneer of immutability. And in fairness, it has been used to stimulate investments and innovation in agtech, biotechnology, genetics and animal health, all with the intent of creating alternative outcomes. That’s positive, leading to innovation and novel approaches, many of which are still in development. No apologies for that.

But the reality of actual data is a little less bleak than the original projections. The global fertility rate, for example, is on a steady decline, dropping from women having an average of 4.7 births in 1950 to 2.4 in 2017. When the rate dips below 2.1, the size of the population starts to fall – as is already happening in dozens of nations. A recent study from the University of Washington published in The Lancet predicts the rate will cross 2.0 in about 10 years and reach 1.7 by 2100. This does not lower the urgency to innovate but does describe the difficulty in complex modeling over longer periods of time. Error bars get really big, really quickly. 
Efficiency: Can it go global?

Another facet of the scenario looks at food production, where we can find truly amazing performance. Consider row crops. The USDA, which has been tracking production since about 1870, shows generally stagnant production from the first measurement until about 1930. Since then, the trendline looks like the proverbial hockey stick.

My colleague Mike Rohlfsen used to work his family farm’s corn harvest in Minnesota as a boy. He recalls his grandfather would be ecstatic to count 100 bushels an acre. Those same acres now can produce more than double that amount. Yield trendiness for soybeans, wheat, rice and other major row crops show the same near-double increases. 
Credit: R.L. Nielsen, Agronomy Department, Purdue University
Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor in Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, gives a similar story in the dairy industry. In the 1950s, the US had 25 million cows. Today, there are 9 million cows and they produce 60 percent more milk. More milk, and roughly a third of the carbon footprint of dairy industry of the 1950s.

If the rest of the world could match these efficiencies, we’d be swimming in milk and grain. He notes these production levels could be achieved with the infrastructure of “a veterinary system, better feeding, better genetics, better reproduction rates.” He’s quick to say he’s not talking about exporting our Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) throughout the world, but applying basic vaccinations, treatment of parasites and improved nutrition. 

Expand your gaze a bit more and you will find incredible efficiencies across an array of categories, including:

• Automation: seed to feed, for example, Tortuga AgTech.
• Health and nutrition monitoring in animals: see SomaDetech’s AI-based in-line sensors.
• Field advances in precision agriculture, greatly reducing fertilizer and chemical use. This includes startup companies like Pattern Ag’s soil mapping and microbial measurements and traditional equipment manufacturers, like Deere & Co., with autonomous ground and aerial sprayers and tractors, with AI guidance systems. Others, like Farmobile, provide live agronomic and machine data from a mixed fleet of farm and ag retail equipment, as well as services to evaluate the collected data.
• Indoor agriculture, vertical agriculture, including urban ag like Gotham Greens.
• Lab-grown meats, like Memphis Meats or Impossible Foods.
• Increasing shelf-life of products, avoiding food waste. One is example is Mori, which extracts protein from natural silk to create a film layer that slows spoiling in fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.
• Increasing novel uses of products, reuse of by-products, such as Re-Nuble platforms, which use food waste streams as the source for new biostimulants.
• Development of safe, specific biopesticides. The Danish company BioPhero ApS, for example, creates insect pheromone solutions for pest control.
• Application of RNAi technology in aquaculture, animal health and pest control, like RNAissance Ag (a TechAccel subsidiary).
• Ongoing genetic improvements in plants. An example is EpiCrop Technologies Inc., which has an epigenetic technology applied to improve crop yields and stress tolerance. (Note: TechAccel is an investor.)
• Increasingly ubiquitous access to very comprehensive knowhow for the producer, such as Grower’s Edge, which brings data science and deep learning algorithms to crop and risk management.

This list doesn’t even address the nascent advances using genetics in animal health, the microbiome and soil health. It also doesn’t begin to tally the incredible advances technology has accomplished in a short few years in other areas – like production of a human mRNA vaccine in record time. (Stay tuned for Part 2 of Don’t Ever Short Human Ingenuity to learn more about how basic research discoveries long ago – and very close to home – had a dramatic impact on the mRNA vaccines and even my company’s RNA-interference biopesticides).

Not perfect, but not dystopia either

Now I am not saying that all is right with the world. Not by any stretch.

Those global projections raised awareness and prompted actions in the scientific and agricultural communities – exactly as they were designed to do. And plenty of work remains to address environmental, water, energy and climate challenges, not to mention complex issues in food security, disease surveillance, biodiversity and human and animal health. These all feed into larger universal issues of equity, justice and human rights.

Yes, there’s work to do. But we have the means to solve our problems, and that’s exactly what agtech and animal health innovators should do. That’s the purpose behind my work: demonstrating that science and technology advances will get us greater efficiency and productivity, leading to a cleaner, greener, healthier world.

That’s where I’m placing my chips. You may not agree; you may prefer to lean into doom hedges. But at least heed one dictum: Never bet against human ingenuity. Never short the potential to solve it – if we choose.

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