Engineering a Well-Fed Future: An Interview with Arcadia Biosciences
As a member of the Research team here at Cleantech Group, we are constantly intrigued by new, emerging technologies and embrace opportunities to interview highly innovative companies making headlines in their respective industries. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Rey, CEO of Arcadia Biosciences, about his company and the broader Ag space. Arcadia is a plant-genetics company focused on breeding more environmentally friendly strains of many staple crops including, but not limited to rice, corn, soybeans, and wheat. With investment in the Ag & Food space carrying on at a blistering pace, interviewing Eric Rey was a great opportunity to get some perspective on Ag & Food from a leader with decades of experience in the industry.
Q: Arcadia was founded in 2002. There are some companies that have been in the ag-genetics space for over a hundred years, what was the impetus for getting into the space?
The real impetus for Arcadia was fundamentally around the opportunity to use technologies of various types to try and affect positive changes in the environment. So we really originally and still come at the whole question from a perspective of trying to make agriculture simultaneously more efficient, which we think has economic consequences, while helping it also have a lower footprint on the environment. The aim is really about affecting the interplay between the economics and the environmental footprint of agriculture.
Q: What are some of the technologies which Arcadia is working on to address the issue of Ag’s large environmental impact?
There are a number of different technologies which we have developed. Nitrogen use efficiency, which is analogous to increasing fuel economy in cars, getting the same yield with less fertilizer. Water use efficiency, salinity tolerance, abiotic stress tolerance, heat tolerance and herbicide tolerance are all technologies we are working on. This is the list of traits which we feel goes straight to the heart of improving productivity and lowering the environmental footprint.
Q: The water use issue is very pertinent here in California. Could you go describe the drought resistance technology a little more in depth?
If you take crop yield over water input, it’s about increasing the value of that quotient. The background to this is that when crops encounter stress there are a lot of different biological mechanisms which are activated. And so what happens is that in the presence of stress, plants begin to trigger these reactions which hasten the onset of senescence.
So what happens with the water efficiency technology is it’s a great example of signal buffering technology. The early onset of stress signals our technology to trigger a gene for the production of a plant hormone, which in turn triggers a weak reversible promoter to give the plant a “shot” of the hormone capable of buffering out the stress signals. So this technology reduces the senescence response which is normally triggered by stress. This means if it’s a transient stress, as water stressors often are, our technology is basically a time dependent buffer that stops the plant from unnecessarily dedicating resources to senescence.
Q: Do you feel confident in the rate of agricultural innovation to feed 9-10 billion people by 2050?
The objective is certainly daunting. Can we feed that many people without promoting further environmental degradation; which is really what our core mission is here at Arcadia. I’m reasonably confident that it can be done. It’s a challenging goal and there are a number of different variables which can impact it including economic factors and public perception and acceptance of technology. I think it’s doable and I think there’s a broad recognition that we need to do so something.
Q: Do you see developing countries playing an important role in this global challenge?
I think there’s a critical role for them to play. Generally speaking, farmers in these countries are often engaged in a subsistence style of agriculture. Given this, it becomes even more important that this type of farming have the smallest environmental footprint and the highest possible efficiency in terms of crop output as a function of the various crop inputs. Here at Arcadia we dedicate a large amount of resources and time towards addressing issues and developing products specifically for application in the developing world. One example is the work we have done with the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Q: You briefly touched on public acceptance of technologies, which clearly includes GMOs. Where do you see the current debate around GMO crops going? Will it run its course or do you think this resistance will continue?
It’s an interesting area and there are a lot of different perspectives. The first thing I would say is that I definitely respect everyone’s right to question or challenge new technologies. In the case of this particular question, the broad level of concern is relatively low. I think that we live in a world where when someone does ask questions, they should be prepared to accept answers based on data and not some non-data based belief system. I find it perplexing that in an age when data is more broadly available than any time in the history of mankind, there seems to be an increasing number of decisions being made while ignoring what this data says. There’s a bizarre sort of disconnect between the availability of data and the views that some people hold. If you look at the data around this particular issue, what you find is that with any substantiated studies there’s nothing that suggests there has been any kind of a problem with regards to the environment or human health over the two decades these products have been on the market. Yet, there’s this view that it could be dangerous or harmful in some way; and its persistence seems strange to me given the wide variety of data points seemingly refuting this argument. If you look at the data around the number of people who have gotten sick or died eating organic fresh greens, it’s a significant number, but no one seems to care. If you took those same results and said it was from some other sort of process people would be up in arms about it.
Q: Having brought up organic farming, do you think that and other recently “trendy” processes such as vertical farming and container farming will be the future of agriculture or simply continue to serve an important niche?
I’m very supportive of those endeavors, however, they serve a particular market and at least, I don’t think, that they are a sustainable answer to the challenge of feeding a billion undernourished people on the planet. They do have a certain place in the industry but these technologies are not going to replace traditional pastoral farming.
Q: On the topic of nutrition, is there a benefit to producing not just crops which are better for the earth and higher yielding but are more nutritious and healthful as well?
Absolutely, in addition to the things we are doing on agricultural productivity and environmental footprint we have a number of efforts underway to do things like make healthier oils and also making healthier grains. Arcadia works quite actively to make healthier food including one technology which is called high-resistance starch wheat. This type of wheat will allow companies to make white wheat bread without losing any of the nutrition, as is typical today.
Q: Are there any AgTech areas outside of the genetics field which you have an interest in?
I think there are a number of interesting technologies, including the remote sensing capabilities of outfits like Planet Labs. There are a number of companies doing similar things with drones, airplanes and even crop-dusters. I think at the end of the day there will be a set of solutions that will be a combination of genetics, these new technologies like robotics and remote sensing and good old fashioned agricultural best practices. I don’t think there are any silver bullets; there are a lot of good bits and pieces and I think the real challenge is integrating them into a comprehensive solution.
Q: One component of the changing diets of rapidly developing countries is a general increase in demand for meat. Do you see the same types of productivity efforts being done in the livestock feed arena as you are for humans?
One area of work is around basic productivity, so if you increase the productivity of soy and corn then you’re clearly making an impact. On the other hand, and ideally married up with that, if you can reduce the feed conversion ratio then that will have a parallel and synergistic effect. I certainly think there are a number of opportunities in the area; we’ve got a joint venture with an Argentinian firm that is working on improving soybeans with regard to improving output and efficiency and also with regard to quality. We are definitely going after some of these challenges.
Q: In Arcadia’s most recent funding round, there was participation from BASF. Do you see corporates playing a large role in helping address this global agricultural challenge?
Yes, absolutely. There is definitely participation and interest from large companies in some of the things that we and others in the market are accomplishing. It’s not even a hypothetical question, there is lots of room and willingness to participate with like -minded corporates. Some corporates, especially those in the space, do have a deep knowledge about these topics and won’t hesitate to make an investment when they see a big opportunity.
Q: When you talk to people about these types of large scale issues, who might not necessarily come into the conversation with much background knowledge, do they generally come around quickly or need some convincing?
Everybody gets it that the number of people on the planet is increasing along with their standard of living. All you have to do is look at what’s going on in China right now; you look around and see it happening in a variety of commodity markets. What happens when they start going to the international market for food inputs? I think everybody can get it on that macro level that food production and security are big issues. I think people have a bigger challenge trying to figure out the challenges and opportunities around addressing those issues. However, in my experience people generally get it pretty quickly.
Q: Does your company have any other strategic partnerships which you’d like to mention?
We work with lots and lots of different organizations globally. I think in our history we have probably more relationships and have done more outbound license deals (70-80) than most other companies. We have a joint venture for technologies in wheat with the world’s largest wheat seed company. We actively work with a number of partners globally, including ones in China and India. We also have relationships with foundations in Africa to improve food security. From the largest Ag biotech companies to seed level start-ups and foundations working in food security, Arcadia has relationships with folks in every category.
Interested in learning more about Arcadia and other entrepreneurs in the Ag & Food sector? Please visit i3 for the most comprehensive information on innovation activity across 18 sectors in cleantech.