Automated Agriculture for the New Climate Era

At FYTO, Dr. Jason Prapas and his team are blending agriculture, robotics, and biology to grow nutrient-dense, non-GMO aquatic crops using automated cultivation, and harvesting systems. These crops empower farmers to feed their animals with improved nutrition, better price stability, and a drastically lower environmental footprint than ever before.

I want to start with some doom and gloom, but won’t stick on that for too long. We’re in a bit of trouble as a species. Over the next couple of decades, we have to produce around double the food that we do today to meet the projections for the growth of our population. We must do this with less and less available water, and with at least a 70% reduction in emissions from the food system if we’re going to meet anything close to our climate goals in order to continue to survive as a species.

This map shows that with the inevitable temperature rise we’re going to have— whether it’s one degree, two degrees, or three degrees— the available land for growing crops is going to get harder and harder to find. This is a pretty big set of problems that we’re focusing on at FYTO. You could call it the Venn dire-gram, because it’s pretty dire. Yeah, I like puns.

What we’re looking at is how we could subtly change agriculture in a way that doesn’t feel like we're changing everything about agriculture. We’re starting with the foundational ingredients— things like protein and starch. Things that feed our species and the species that feed our species. We look for crops that have the nutrients that are important to supporting life, and that are really productive. They need to grow fast on less and less land, with less and less water, and with fewer and fewer resources. They need to be able function in ways that don’t feel like massive changes to what we’re used to. That’s hard, and it takes time, and as I tried to point out in the first slide, we don’t have as much time as we’d like to make these changes.

At FYTO, we think this is a great place to start. We grow crops— all aquatic plants— that are really special. We do it using much less land, almost no labor, (if you can automate it, which we’ll get to in a second), and we do it with entirely renewable energy: zero fossil fuel inputs. If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because it’s really hard to do. I like our chances, but there are some things we still have to do to make this work.

The key is scale. The plant does a lot of the work for us, so we have to keep the plant happy. It’s an organism, it’s a bioreactor, but it’s also just a farm. It looks a little different than the farms you’ve been to— unless you’ve been to our farm, which a few people here have. Tyler Mincey said it reminded him of going to Jurassic Park, which is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received! We had this vision early on that if you have a crop that lends itself to automation, why wouldn’t you try that? It all comes down to CapEx and OpEx. If you can grow a crop in a way that allows you to reach scale more quickly, without having to spend money to train specialized labor, and you can add that to the cost of goods that will ultimately come down to the consumer, then you should really go for that.

We are a bunch of mechanical engineers who like to put motors on things, but that’s not why we did this. We did this because it enables us to reach scale more quickly. What this does is, it serves as a digital farmer. We have these plants that have certain needs— they need to be fed the right nutrients and they need to be harvested frequently. They reproduce vegetatively which is a fancy way of saying they split off as clones of one another. You don’t need to plant seeds. The plants just keep splitting and multiplying and you have to thin the herd, so to speak, so that they can continue to have that area grow. You have to give them the nutrients they want to be able to keep sustaining that growth. What that leads to is potentially year-round growth, where you’re having to harvest every day, having to feed them the nutrients they want every day. If you were to do that with manual labor (and trust me, I’ve tried that), it’s not very scalable. So this robotic system, and the software that goes along with it, that our team has been developing, enables us to scale the production of these types of plants.

FYTO feed
FYTO feed

We’re focused on the feed side of the market right now because it’s a really important problem. It’s also a massive market that’s ripe for disruption. FYTO doesn't believe that all you should be eating is aquatic plants. I agree with Kate (McAndrew) that I don’t want a future where somebody tells me exactly how I have to do things in this prescribed sci-fi life. I’d rather leverage what we can to allow for diverse diets and cultural differences with what people eat. I think we have to preserve that because it is part of being human. By showing that we can grow lots of different crops on a plant in a much more efficient way, you can really start to imagine how we can preserve a diversity of diets.

The quiz question is: “What’s a 200 billion dollar market?” The hint is: It goes “moo.” Cows are arguably the largest crop consumer on the planet. In the state of California, which is its own amazing agricultural production center, the largest crop under cultivation is alfalfa. And it goes to cows. Alfalfa is also the largest water user in the state of California, out of all human activities. Almonds get a bad rap; they use a lot of water. Alfalfa uses about 30% more per year. And why is that? Why would we set that up? Well, it’s because dairy is actually the largest dollar value agricultural product in California. It’s an incredibly important industry and employs tens of thousands of people. It equates to at least $8 billion in economic activity in the state alone— a massive, massive market. And it’s an incredibly important ingredient the world over. So while we really support the developments that are happening in alternatives to animal products (I 100% support those and have personally been a vegetarian since high school), I think this has almost no relevance to what we’re doing at FYTO.

I look at the trends, and I tend to believe that animal products are important to the survival of the species, and that this will continue to be the case. I have had the luxury to be able to choose my diet, but over 90% of the vegetarians are so because of economic necessity. I think, again, to preserve diversity of diet and choice, we have to make way for livestock as an important part of our diet.

A little bit more on where diets appear to be headed: Our population growth is increasing steeply, as is disposable income, which is a good thing for a lot of emerging market economies. People in places like India are trying chicken for the first time. And in China, the production of swine and chicken is going through the roof. It’s a very difficult ethical thing to say, “Hey, sorry, you need to turn off that spigot because we messed up over the last 50 years in other parts of the world, and now you need to eat powder that’s made from peas.” It’s just not realistic. You could pretend that’s the way it’s going and keep working on something else. But we’d rather not pretend. We’d rather meet the moment.

We got in front of our potential customers early, and this is something the Baukunst team really helped us with. You’ve got to nail the product market fit as early as you can, because otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time developing something that might be close, but actually isn't quite what anyone wants. We haven’t nailed the product, but we’ve spoken to a lot of dairy farmers, and we’ve had some very exciting pilots in the last year. A nutritionist (gatekeeper to what cows eat), said FYTO is “highly palatable.” It’s like the chef’s kiss, like we got our Michelin star. It’s really exciting!

As much as we like cool tech and we see a large addressable market, you also have to zoom in and ask, “What is this going to do for a single farmer? How is this going to help somebody? And does it make sense to do this?” And we think it does. We can make a superior product that costs less, that uses a lot fewer resources.

The only input we need to feed our plants is cow manure, so we solve two problems with one solution. We also address the stress of not knowing where feed is going to come from. Each high-producing dairy cow needs to eat the caloric intake of a human running two marathons in a day. It’s a huge amount of feed. A huge amount of nutrient density is required. If we can solve that, and offer a little bit of predictability by putting the resources closer to the farm, and support reliable production year round, that stress reduction is monetizable.

Our massive goal is to take at least two gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere. We have very real plans for how to do that. The way animal feed is produced now is not good enough. If you look at soy production, it requires at least 5 million acres of deforestation every year. We’re knocking down trees to grow soy to feed cows. We want to reverse that trend by actually making it economically easier to switch to a FYTO crop.

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