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Agritech Could Finally Stop Animal and Crop Disease

Agritech Could Finally Stop Animal and Crop Disease

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Produced in partnership with Bloomberg Media Group

In Brief

  • A disease outbreak halved China’s hog herds in 2019, while locust swarms are ravaging crops in South Asia and the Horn of Africa, threatening food and financial security.
  • New genetic technologies and pheromone-based products may improve the resilience of animals and crops against these perennial problems.
  • Food producers will have to be transparent and actively share information with the public in order to build trust around the safety of new food technologies. 
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Health officials spraying disinfectant on a dead pig that was culled as part of efforts to curb the spread of African swine fever. Photo: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

In a laboratory on the outskirts of Beijing, 45-year-old Zhao Jianguo is on a mission to create the world’s first super pig – one that tastes better, grows faster, and is hardier against the elements.

Using CRIPSR, a gene editing technology, the genomics and breeding researcher has successfully inserted UCP1, a gene that facilitates the production of heat-producing brown fat, into his pigs. The result is an animal that better retains body heat during China’s frigid winters1. Zhao’s next goal: to develop pigs more resilient to disease outbreaks in order to safeguard food security across the nation.

Zhao’s research into pigs comes at a time when African swine fever has decimated more than half of China’s pig herds. The crisis, which began in August 2018, has left the country with a pork shortage of 10 million tons, with analysts suggesting that it will take more than half a decade for its herds to recover. The domestic shortfall saw pork imports increase 75% to a record high in 20192.

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Meat stalls sold out of fresh pork – a consequence of the devastating African swine fever on China’s pig herds. Image: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

The crisis underscores one of the biggest challenges that global agriculture faces: transboundary diseases and pest outbreaks which quickly reach epidemic proportions, such as the Cassava Mosaic Disease and African swine fever. The resulting crop and animal losses often jeopardise the nutritional security of millions and threaten the livelihoods of farmers.

“Pathogens and pests decimate many of the world’s important food crops every year, and this is set to get worse because of climate change,” said Dheeraj Mehta, Director of Agribusiness at Temasek. “We’re losing as much as 40% of wheat, rice, maize, soybean and potato crops to pests and disease at a time when a growing population requires more food.”

Such is the case in South Asia and the Horn of Africa, where unprecedented locust swarms – caused by erratic weather creating unusually fertile breeding conditions – are threatening the region’s food and financial security3.  

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One square kilometre of locusts consume as much food as 35,000 people per day. Swarms measuring 60km long and 40km wide have been spotted in Kenya.

Since December 2019, locusts have ravaged nearly 170,000 hectares worth of farmland in India4, and threaten to destroy Pakistan’s cotton crops and textile industry – the nation’s biggest employer which accounts for 60% of its exports5. Farmlands in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are experiencing its worst locust infestation in decades, stressing the availability of food in a region where around 12 million people already face severe acute food insecurity6.

“Farmers cannot solve a crisis of this magnitude alone,” remarked Dheeraj. “Pest and disease control are perennial problems which require investors, innovators, regulators and food producers to work together in order to deliver sustainable, long term solutions.”

Could embryos and pheromones be the solution?

As pest and disease outbreaks threaten farms across Africa and Asia, India’s Godrej Agrovet is making investments to strengthen the resilience of the country’s dairy industry – the world’s largest milk producer accounting for over one-fifth of global milk production7

In 2018, the animal feed and agribusiness company acquired a majority stake in Israel’s Maxximilk, a bio-agritech firm that produces bovine embryos genetically predisposed to withstand hot weather and produce superior quality milk8. Through this investment, the company says it will be able to help India’s smallholder milk farmers produce the highly-traded commodity more efficiently and reliably, thus securing their livelihoods.

“By impregnating an Indian cow with superior qualities with Maxximilk embryos using in-vitro fertilisation, we get offspring that are high yielding and immune to local diseases,” said Nadir Godrej, Chairman of Godrej Agrovet. “We plan to distribute these to farms, provide the farmers with superior cattle feed and help them market the milk. In this way we can provide a lot of support to India’s smallholder farmers.”

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India dairy industry, which produces 22 percent of the world’s milk, is heavily reliant on smallholder dairy farmers.

Across the Pacific, California-based Provivi is fighting pests by developing pheromones as an alternative to insecticides. The startup says pheromones are a non-toxic, effective and affordable long-term pest control solution unlike insecticides, which may leave behind undesired residues and lose efficacy over time.

“Insects breed very fast and have many generations in one season, especially in the tropics. Over time, new generations develop resistance against insecticides,” said Pedro Coelho, Co-Founder and CEO of Provivi. “Our pheromones are natural and non-toxic – it doesn’t even kill pests. It instead confuses the males to prevent them from mating with females. This disrupts their mating cycle, leading to less offspring and crop damage over time.” 

A chemist by training, Pedro also highlights that pheromones are creature-specific and hence do not interfere with the mating cycles of non-target beneficial insects like pollinators. Founded in 2013, the company is now building up industrial-scale production capabilities to target high-acreage crops such as corn, rice and soy, offering farmers new solutions in the unending fight against pests.

Catering to consumer concerns

While such upstream innovations hold significant potential in abating crop and animal loss, its long-term adoption will require buy-in from consumers who are increasingly demanding natural, organic food.

This shift in consumer preference is driving the global organic food market to grow 11% annually, hitting US$220 billion in 20249. Market growth in Asia is projected to exceed the global average10, with China leading the way due to its fresh memory of past food safety scandals.

Using agricultural technologies, however, does not necessarily come at the expense of consumer safety and nutrition. When deployed properly, such innovations can go a long way in addressing food insecurity that millions around the world face.

“Agritech is neither inherently good nor bad – it’s where and how it is applied that determines its utility,” opines Temasek’s Dheeraj. “Regions that bear the brunt of pests and diseases often face other threats, such as stressed natural resources and turbulent weather. Applying these tools, which are subject to rigorous tests and regulatory approvals, in these areas can have the greatest impact in boosting production in a sustainable manner.”

Acknowledging the emotional connection that consumers have with food, Dheeraj adds that the key to assuring consumers lies with being transparent and forthcoming about providing information.

“Consumers today have the means to make sense of such technologies for themselves. Providing information will build long-term trust and it’s a role that both regulators and businesses have to embrace.”

As a long-term investor rooted in Asia, Temasek is committed to working alongside its portfolio companies and partners across the agri-food ecosystem - to build a better, smarter and more sustainable world.

Temasek is an investor in Godrej Agrovet and Provivi.

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