“A system is never the sum of its parts, its the product of their interaction.”
– Russell Ackoff
Fresh is on a mission to build systemic ventures that can transform the food system. We’re commonly asked what that means and, better yet, if we could point to existing ventures that embody the qualities we’d like to see in the ventures we build. We see a need for many more organisations and teams to contribute to the transition to a regenerative food system. However, we also recognize that we are joining a fast growing movement that already has great pioneers shaping a regenerative food system. In this blog we will point to some of the ventures we hold up as worthwhile examples, what they’re doing, and why we like them.
We will dive much deeper into how we see systemic ventures in another post, but essentially it boils down to:
Because Fresh is starting with a focus on cultivation (both on land and in the water), you won’t find pure examples of alternative proteins (see Memphis Meats, now UpsideFoods), other bioscience-driven commodity alternatives (see c16 Biosciences), food waste solutions (see Inspira Farms), or strictly market approaches (see Rahandel).
For the first few years, Fresh intends to focus our efforts on the cultivation side of the chain. For us, that means:
1. Regenerative (on-land) agriculture
2. ‘Landless’ Farming systems
3. Regenerative Aquaculture
Challenge: There is plenty of finance moving around the system, but it’s not easy to obtain for farmers who wish to make the transition to regenerative agriculture. Banks don’t understand the risks, it’s a relatively new space for investors, ecosystem service payments are in their infancy, and government subsidies are primarily built around traditional, high-input agriculture. Even for farmers who can access the necessary capital, transitioning to truly regenerative agriculture is a knowledge-intensive process, requiring expertise in a broad range of fields and crop types.
Solution: Mad Agriculture understood that not only was there a huge gap in farmer-friendly financing, but the systems around that financing to provide farmers the support they need as they implement ecological practices that genuinely regenerate soil health and biodiversity. They provide debt-capital to farmers on favorable terms and match that capital with regional specialists who can provide critical support during the process. Whether the business model can work out in the end, and how they’re going to raise both enough capital and enough demand from farmers to scale significantly, are still open questions. But Mad Ag is taking a very user centric approach and providing an integrated solution that has exciting potential, while putting their own skin in the game of the farmers’ success.
Challenge: Unlike organic farming, there is yet to be a widely accepted certification scheme for regenerative agriculture (although Patagonia is trying, see reorganic.org). It’s not even clear that a certification scheme is truly desirable, given the typical expense to farmers and because regenerative agriculture will look differently depending on the location it’s being applied. There is also yet to be a robust and credible market for ecosystem services, especially beyond carbon, that can offer extra compensation for farmers engaging in these practices. This creates a gap; how are farmers going to be financially rewarded (or at least compensated) for that up-front investment with some degree of certainty? How can they hope to find new and reliable markets for their products that pay for their real value?
Solution: Grounded views the solution to this problem as an “off-taker”--essentially a new middle man that buys what a regenerative farmer produces and sells it onto bigger buyers. Grounded sets up companies (for now mostly in South Africa) that serve as these new connecting tissue between farmers and the market for their goods. With some products, like rosemary, the offtaker set up by Grounded also does some processing (in this case into rosemary oil) to create higher value goods. There are some good questions to explore around how Grounded scales such a model efficiently, how it balances global buyers vs. local markets, and how it invests in its role as an “offtaker” as opposed to investing in its own brands or even in “lighter touch” strategies of connecting market actors. But we view Grounded as addressing some of the more critical, market-side challenges of transitioning to regenerative agriculture.
Challenge For the transition to regenerative agriculture to happen swiftly, we will need more than improved access to capital, knowledge, and markets. We need projects that other farmers can visit and learn from. And we need demonstrations that not only prove the business case but also serve as living labs for improving ways we produce the necessary inputs, bring products to market, and conduct effective research and education activities.
Solution New Foundation Farms has a vision to build large scale demonstration farms across the UK, giving farmers in every region a nearby location to experience what regenerative farming can mean for them. The plan is for these demonstration farms to have robust business cases of their own and open up market channels that nearby farms can join--once they make the transition, at least. Layered on top of each location will be research and education programs that enable international collaboration, technical advancement, and the capacity to train new farmers.
Challenge As our demand for food and biomaterials increases, so will the pressure on arable lands to produce what we need. If we can produce food and materials elsewhere, we help relieve this pressure, enabling us to give some farmland back to nature and reduce the necessity of intensive, unsustainable practices. Yet optimizing urban farming practices can be challenging; land is valuable, making a business case difficult and creating a debate about how we should allocate land. And the iterations of vertical farming that use intensive LED lighting still involve energy requirements that make it a questionable alternative.
Solution Enter Lufa Farms, based in Montreal, which essentially builds large greenhouses atop of industrial infrastructure like factories and distribution centers. Lufa’s greenhouses are not technical marvels; they’re no more complex than the average greenhouse, which is a controlled environment operating primarily on sunlight. But the company executes well, and as it turns worthless surfaces into revenue generators for the current landlord, they’re creating energy efficient farms with a good business case within the city limits. Lufa Farms shows that you don’t have to do something fundamentally unique to do something valuable. Sometimes you simply need to execute well.
Challenge One of the less understood global challenges is the imbalances to our nutrient cycle. t’s a complex topic, but essentially there are way too many nutrients flowing through the system, and the system is way too linear, resulting in very serious impacts. As humanity becomes increasingly urbanized, part of creating a truly circular economy will mean utilizing human waste streams and putting those nutrients back into productive systems.
Solution Biopolus has been working to re-imagine urban wastewater treatment to integrate it with high value production of food, feed, and biomaterials. Their aim is to close water, energy, and nutrient loops through a network of decentralized urban metabolic hubs--all while bringing nature into the city. The business case remains a challenge given the influx of subsidized nutrients in the system, but Biopolus proposes a strong vision backed by strong technical expertise.
Challenge: Due to a combination of increasing population and economic growth, by 2050 we will need to come close to doubling our food production. Past efforts to increase global food supply have been met with intensification of production, but environmental trends make it clear this route is untenable. Vertical farming offers promise to alleviate pressure on arable lands while increasing resource efficiency and avoiding the need for pesticides. However, the industry is still in its infancy and faces challenges in scaling up, particularly due to technical complexity and energy use.
Solution: Growstack takes an open-source approach to vertical farming, making vertical aeroponic systems accessible to a wider audience. The company organizes collaborative hackathons and R&D trajectories to push the boundaries on vertical farming, resulting in a growing community experimenting with vertical farming technology. Growthstack’s efforts lower the barriers for others--individuals, organizations, and entrepreneurs--to engage with promise and challenges of vertical urban agriculture.
Challenge: Coastal ecosystems and habitats are in need of regeneration. Pollutants from land and habitat destruction from sea activity have decimated marine ecosystems in recent years. The lack of diverse organisms like seaweed, oysters and mussels within these ecosystems deprives them of ecosystem services of carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation and habitat creation.
Solution: Greenwave has created a polyculture farming system that grows a mixture of seaweed, shellfish and molluscs without requiring any inputs. The system they deploy provides habitat for local marine life, sequesters carbon & nitrogen, and can dissipate wave energy therefore providing storm surge protection. As a result these farms can provide high yields with a small-footprint. The organisation also serves as an educational platform, helping individuals retrain to become an ocean farmer by providing skills & knowledge through an online toolkit.
Challenge: Aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing food production sector. Currently for every 1 kg of farmed fish, more than 1kg of wild-caught fish is used to feed them. Supply of wild-caught fishmeal has been declining for years, caused by worryingly declining fish stocks and leading to increases in feed prices. As the aquaculture industry continues to grow, and the world obtains more and more of its fish through aquaculture farms, the need for alternative fish feed is becoming critical.
Solution: Protix is tackling this problem head on through producing insect-based proteins that can be used in fish feeds. The company takes fruit and vegetable waste and feeds it to insects, which in turn are converted into fish feed. This feed can be used from the hatchery stage to grower diets for salmon, shrimp, and trout. By reducing the need for wild caught fish in feeds, Protix brings us a step closer to sustainable aquaculture.
Challenge: Seaweed is an integral part of the food web. It offers habitats, nursery grounds, and shelter for ocean species. The farming of seaweed can be converted into a variety of products (food, feed, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics, and fuel), while providing a stable form of income for farmers. However, especially in Europe, the majority of seaweed forests have disappeared. This disappearance of seaweed from coastal areas has had a knock-on effect on local biodiversity, removing crucial ecosystem services. It also comes at a time when Europeans are importing increasing volumes of seaweed from abroad. There is thus a need for production systems that can meet increasing demand for seaweed while providing ecosystem services to coastal areas.
Solution: The Seaweed Company focuses on creating the infrastructure required to scale-up the industry. They do this by partnering with existing local farmers, or individuals looking to get into seaweed farming, creating employment opportunities in the coastal regions in which they work. The team leverages local knowledge to retrofit farms to meet the specific context of the site. Once the farm has been established, they process the seaweed into sustainable materials, bio-growth stimulants, pharmaceutical products, and animal feed. While we have some uncertainty about their ownership model and scaling strategy, the way they work with each stage of the value chain, from hatchery to final products, offers an impressive and comprehensive solution.
We love to hear about and learn from inspiring organizations. Know of one you think we should know? Give us a shout! You can email me at: email@example.com
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