Today’s episode has some really important perspective, especially for those of us who do not see the effects of persistent hunger and poverty on a daily basis. I have on the show Paul Winters, who is the Associate Vice-President of the Strategy and Knowledge Department of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
IFAD is part of the United Nations and is the only UN agency or international financial institution that works exclusively in rural areas. They work in around 100 countries with the aim to eradicate rural poverty and hunger through agricultural development.
Paul is an Agricultural Economist by training and holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Resource Economics from the University of California at Berkeley.
The first half of our conversation focuses on what agricultural development looks like in practice, and Paul shares examples from several different countries.
The second half of our conversation focuses on some of the major challenges to global food security, including the fact that global poverty was improving until about 2015. Since that time it’s actually been getting worse. We also talk about the catastrophic effects the Coronavirus pandemic and climate change can have on global food security in the future.
For starters though, I’ll drop you into the conversation where Paul is talking about some of the challenges of trying to solve these complex problems.
The idea for today’s show happened as I was working on another podcast I produce for NDSU Extension Soil Health called “Soil Sense”. I was interviewing a farmer named Mark Olson about strip tillage. It was a fascinating topic, but what really piqued my interest was the way he spoke about the company behind his strip tillage equipment. He kept talking about his SoilWarrior guy that had been so helpful. I believe he said something to the effect of “I just can’t say enough good things about SoilWarrior.”
So naturally, I wanted to learn more about this SoilWarrior company. It turns out that SoilWarrior is the product and the company is called Environmental Tillage Systems based in Minnesota. Today’s episode is about this SoilWarrior equipment, but also about strip tillage in general, and what it takes to become a farmer’s favorite company.
Brian Ryberg, who is a farmer in Minnesota and a SoilWarrior Evangelist - one of over 500, I have since found out. And Brent Brueland, VP of Sales & Marketing at Environmental Tillage Systems - which again, is the company that makes SoilWarrior.
If you’re new to the idea of strip-tillage, I’ll start with an oversimplified explanation: it’s a process where instead of a farmer tilling an entire field, he/she only tills a strip wide enough to plant into. That way, most of the ground is undisturbed which has benefits for erosion, compaction, trafficability, and overall soil health. However, the tilled strips provide benefits such as warming up faster in the spring and placing nutrients right in the root zone. There are many other benefits that Brian and Brent will discuss.
Even if soil conservation doesn’t interest you - which it should - I still think this is a worthwhile episode for you to learn more about a farmer’s throught process and what it takes to be the type of company that creates evangelists.
Many of you know that I am endlessly interested in water and water-related topics. Today’s episode is another installment in my exploration to better understand realistic solutions to our water problems.
We have on the show Dr. Wim Bastiaanssen who is the Founder of IrriWatch. The company is very new, I think less than two years old, but it’s the culmination of decades of Wim’s research and consulting on water, irrigation, and remote sensing.
Now if you think irrigating a crop is just like irrigating your lawn - sort of set it and forget it - you are WAY oversimplifying. There are a lot of variables at play, such as: changing moisture availability in the root zone, changing evapotranspiration rates, changing crop needs with the type of crop and its stage of development, then taking into consideration the forecast, and how likely all of the above factors will be different in the coming days best on weather. And these are just a FEW factors.
There are many companies trying to help with this complexity. Wim’s approach with IrriWatch is to use satellite remote sensing to basically let each plant signal its water availability. If that sounds far-fetched, hear him out. He’s got the data to back up his claims.
Wim Bastiaanssen grew up on a farm in The Netherlands, which is the country he still calls home. Growing up 5M below sea level (the land was reclaimed by the sea), he was always around ditches, canals, and levees - which developed an interest in water and irrigation from an early age.
We are back with another Fulcrum Global Capital portfolio company this week. The company MicroGen Biotech has produced a microbe that can help encapsulate and precipitate heavy metals in the soil. This process results in a gradual cleaning of soil pollution and reduces the amount of heavy metal uptake by the plant which in turn will reduce the amount of heavy metals consumed by the public. MicroGen recently won the award for the agtech category at Samsung’s Extreme Tech Challenge. Founder Dr. Xuemei Germaine was also recognized as the top female founder of the year.
Heavy metal toxicity in the food chain is a concern being recognized around the world. Forbes published a report from the USDA that described “95% of all baby foods consumed in the United States have heavy metal content levels that are harmful to the development of organs and brains in infants and children, et cetera.”
“We are probably just a couple of years away from not potentially being able to export some of our food ag products to Europe because of that. I think the United States frankly is lagging a bit in this….Food companies are going to have to begin to demand and expect solutions to the products that are going into the foods that they are selling to the consumer.” - Dwayne Cantrell, Fulcrum Global Capital Venture Partner
Dr. Germaine explains how naturally occurring minerals and chronic use of fertilizers and pesticides all contribute to increased levels of heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and lead in soils. The crops that are grown in these areas will have increased levels of these metals which are then introduced into the food chain. This is especially a problem for individuals eating a plant based diet and children that are more susceptible to heavy metal toxicities.
“It’s all about how do you block (heavy metals) to make the food safer and also at the same time improve the soil health and that will be environmentally sustainable, economically sustainable, is good for farmers, good for the government and is good for every consumer. It will impact every one of us.” - Dr. Xuemei Germaine
As an added benefit, reducing the heavy metal absorption by the plant will not only benefit the consumer of the plant but also the plant itself. The microbe has been shown to increase the crop yield and has been specifically selected to also serve as a natural bio-fertilizer to the crop. Increased yield and being able to charge a premium will entice farmers to use this product with little risk to their profitability.
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