The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests. Plant diseases cost the global economy $220 billion each year and invasive insects about $70 billion. But the solutions most commonly employed aren’t working.
Typically, farmers find out too late that their crops have experienced the type of stress caused by an insect or fungus and by then, large swaths of fields have usually suffered. Historically, the solution has been to apply pesticides to vast amounts of acres in hopes of containing the infestation but this approach has been shown to be ineffective—and potentially harmful.
For starters, it doesn’t actually fight off the diseases in many cases. More importantly, indiscriminate application of pesticides depletes the soil of nutrients, contaminates waterways, and has been linked to cancers in humans, especially for the people who come in close proximity to the pesticides. A 2021 study published in Nature Geoscience found that 64 percent of agricultural land around the world is at risk of pesticide pollution. Another study, in Nature Plants, found that 42 percent of total pesticides could be slashed without negative impacts on productivity or profitability.
One of our portfolio companies, InnerPlant, has a better way. The company aims to alert farmers to stresses suffered by crops early on, so they can address just the affected plants before infestation spreads to the entire field.
InnerPlant does this by injecting biosensors into individual plants and recoding their DNA to produce a protein in addition to the distress signals that plants naturally give off. Satellites pick up these signals and relay them to farmers, pinpointing which fields—even which specific plants—are experiencing stress, explains founder and CEO Shely Aronov. As a result, farmers can target their treatments with precision and vastly reduce the amount of chemicals they use and boost crop yields. Ultimately, farmers will be able to reduce how much farmland is dedicated to crop production, because each acre can be more productive.
InnerPlant plants to target five common stresses—insect, fungus, nitrogen deficiency, phosphorus deficiency and water loss—that plants experience. But for now, Aronov says InnerPlant is focusing on insect and fungal infestation, which are more straightforward and easier for farmers to address.
InnerPlant is slated to hit the market later in 2024. A proof of concept product, InnerTomato, came out in 2020, which demonstrated that plants could indeed become biosensors that send out signals about the distress they are experiencing. But given the sheer size of the soybean and corn markets, Aronov says that InnerPlant’s first commercial product will be biosensors for those.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The world’s population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, which will require a 70 percent increase in the number of calories available for consumption. At the same time, the cost to produce those calories is growing. What’s more, there will be less available water supply and arable land, according to a report by McKinsey. The solution, McKinsey concludes, is using technology to do more with less.
I sat down with Shely recently to talk about InnerPlant’s game-changing technology and the major disruption to traditional farming that is under way.
What’s wrong with the way farming is done today?
We have been farming for 10,000 years, but we have no idea what plants need.
Our current farming system is using a huge amount of chemicals indiscriminately in fields and on our foods because we have no understanding of what's really going on in the field. We can't really say when a plant is experiencing stress. So instead, we take corrective measures through the blanket application of chemicals with the hope of preventing those stresses. About 50 to 75 percent of pesticides are currently misapplied and 30 to 60 percent of nitrogen and nutrients are over applied. That’s a huge amount of waste, and it’s actually reducing the crop yields, while also increasing the cost and the harm that we're doing to their environment, not to mention human health. It's an incredibly inefficient system.
So what we want to do is reduce the amount of land we dedicate to farming but still have much higher crop yields. When farming understands and optimizes every individual plant’s needs the industry will not need to use as many chemicals or as much land as we will be able to transition our farming systems to just applying chemicals just to those plants that need them so we get a higher yield.
What have you learned about plant health as a result of the data that InnerPlant collects?
When a plant is being attacked by a bug, they try to make themselves less tasty which is really smart. Also, when crops start to feel that there’s going to be a deficiency of nitrogen, which is the primary thing they need to eat, they mobilize their roots differently to be better positioned to extract what they need from the soil. And finally, plants communicate with one another. They share this information and try to work together, kind of like an army, to protect themselves. They send out volatile compounds through their leaves, they send out wavelengths of noise through their roots. They communicate what they’re feeling to the plant next to them.
What do farmers need to make their jobs easier? How can InnerPlant help?
We’ve talked to farmers. The feedback we got was really simple: “We want things that make farming less risky, more profitable and easier overall.” The problem today is not the infrastructure. The infrastructure exists. The problem is data. In the data that’s currently available, there’s a lot of noise, but not a lot of value. And it comes too late so it’s not actionable.
The right solution is an affordable, scalable biosensor. Biosensors are at the core of what we do. We make plants that are the biosensors so they can tell us what they need.
Explain how InnerPlant works.
Plants are immobile, but they’re actually very active in their environments. We tap into what the plant is already naturally doing. We start with seeds that are engineered with biosensors within them. When a plant is being eaten by that bug and it starts to produce the protein to make them taste bad, our technology teaches them to produce an additional new protein alongside it that we engineered.
That protein gives off a fluorescent signal, which we can see through satellite imagery. These signals are really tiny. We measure the reflected light and all that light has a specific signature on the light spectrum. Insect infestation has its own spectral signature and so does fungal stress. And even though those lights are tiny, we can separate them from the rest of the light. This lets us tell the farmer what is happening with the plants.
What has been your experience as a woman founder?
What I’m concerned about now is that for years we’ve been in an environment of hyper growth, but markets are turning. When markets were so positive everyone was nice. Now I think we’re going to start seeing people’s true colors and prejudices.
When you’re talking to VCs as a woman, you get asked about risks, but men are asked about opportunities. Risk is the price we pay for the opportunity. It’s very rare that I meet a person who doesn’t tell me that InnerPlant is one of the most amazing things they’ve ever heard of. Yet I get asked more about regulatory approvals and things like that than how the world is going to look on the other side or how much damage to our planet this technology will be able to prevent.
On the flip side of that, I work with teams who are mostly men and they do get it. I can sit in a room with 20 of them and they want to hear me talk about what we’re building, so I think we’ve moved into a different world in many ways, which is very gratifying to see.
About Bee Partners
Founded in 2009, by operator-turned-investor Michael Berolzheimer, Bee Partners is a pre-Seed venture capital firm that partners with revolutionary Founders working at the forefront of human-machine convergence across technologies that include robotics, AI, voice, i4.0, and synthetic biology. The firm leverages a singular approach to detecting new and emerging patterns of business as well as inside access to fertile but often overlooked entrepreneurial ecosystems to identify early opportunity in large, untapped markets. Bee’s portfolio companies consistently realize growth at levels that outstrip industry averages and have secured more than $1.5 billion of follow-on capital from the world's top VCs.
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