"Precision agriculture" is the trend to watch at this year's Ag Innovation Showcase at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
The Danforth Center’s Chief Operator Officer, Sam Fiorello, said that's a change for the international gathering.
When the Showcase started in 2009, most of the participating start-ups were using genetic engineering to develop crops that could resist pests, drought or other agricultural stresses.
This year, none of the products presented involve GMOs.
Now the main focus is on “big data.”
“Some people call it Ag 3.0,” Fiorello said. “Looking at how to use technology and information and data that’s acquired at the farm, to better deliver seeds, nutrients, water, to get more output in agriculture.”
In all, 20 emerging agricultural companies from countries including the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand are getting to present their products ― or ideas for products ― to potential investors and partners.
Those include venture capitalists from Silicon Valley and Boston, and large agriculture sector corporations like Monsanto and Cargill.
The earliest-stage start-ups are vying for funding. Other companies are looking to form strategic partnerships: to work with another company whose product or service complements theirs. Still others are hoping to get their product or company acquired by one of the big players.
Although many participating companies are working with "big data," and how to make it easier for farmers to use all that agricultural information, others are working in a field called biologics. In this case, they're taking naturally-occurring microbes that make crops more efficient at nutrient and water use, or that protect crops from disease, and then producing those microbes commercially to increase crop yields.
Fiorello said another area of interest at this year’s conference is food distribution. “Close to half the food in the world is lost through waste,” Fiorello said. “So more and more companies are trying to track from the field to the plate.” The goal is to pinpoint where that waste, or spoilage, is happening ― whether it’s in the field, in transport or in a warehouse ― and eliminate it.
Fiorello said having access to detailed information about distribution chains would also help with food safety, allowing large food corporations to quickly trace the source of a contamination.
Still other companies are working on next generation biofuels. That includes the St. Louis-based start-up Arvegenix. That company is working to commercialize a non-food crop called Field Pennycress, an oil seed plant in the mustard family that could be used to produce biodiesel and jet fuel.
Arvegenix co-founder and CEO Vijay Chauhan said a big advantage of Field Pennycress is that it’s not something people eat. “Because today, most of the crops that produce renewable fuels are corn and soybeans, and they create a food versus fuel debate,” Chauhan said. “So while they are renewable, they’re not sustainable.”
Field Pennycress can also be crushed into meal that could be used as a component of cattle feed. Arvegenix is currently conducting animal feeding studies to determine its safety.
Chauhan said turning Field Pennycress into a commercial crop will not involve any genetic engineering. Instead, Arvegenix is using genomics ― information about the structure and function of the plant’s genome ― to guide traditional plant breeding methods.
Field Pennycress is a winter crop that would be planted after corn and soybeans have already been harvested, when fields would otherwise not be productive.
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience