Our work in Agriculture
A working thesis as we seek to understand and build in this area.
Agriculture is eating the world, and it’s not a good thing. As the largest element of the human bioeconomy, modern agriculture bites into a vast natural bioeconomy, which provides energy and calories from wild organisms or converts productive habitats towards agricultural potentials.
The human capability to mobilise calories from nature into human systems is primarily based on extractive technology regimes that are misaligned with the limits and needs of natural systems. An ongoing imbalance in the “calorie equation” between systems has accelerated since the 1950s to now threaten the bedrock natural bioeconomy. With tipping points threatening to be breached, reform in agriculture needs to solve real market problems, whilst also delivering on larger issues of food security and sustainability at local and planetary scales.
We see opportunities to create companies that have the potential to reset the calorie equation. By shifting agriculture away from extraction of calories and other inputs/outputs, we can move towards achieving restoration and coexistence with the enabling natural systems. We believe that efforts to increase the productivity of a production modality have the potential for exponential returns for companies and societies that can tap into this.
There are four broad principles we will use to guide the creation of our new agriculture companies.
1. Develop an ecosystem service model for agricultural customers through an evolving and iterative feedback process, whilst reinforcing the fundamental ecosystem metrics.
2. Work towards closed-loop agriculture systems with increased independence from natural environments that unlock alternative sources of protein and other biological macromolecules
3. Develop mutually beneficial relationships between agriculture and species that act as auxiliary supports to optimise production and pay into ecosystems.
4. Provide meaningful alternatives to the fishing industry by tackling bottlenecks associated with scaling aquaculture systems, especially towards ocean-based sustainable farming.
On the basis of these principles, we have identified three critical areas to focus our immediate attention for venture creation:
Around the world, seafood producers are recognizing the need to shift away from overfished wild-stocks and towards more efficient and scalable aquaculture.The right kind of aquaculture not only has the lowest environmental footprint of all animal protein sources, but also regenerates the surrounding environment. Multi-trophic aquaculture systems demonstrate exceptionally useful cycling of waste between organisms and the ability to produce many different food product outputs and minimise waste. However, aquaculture is still firmly an extractive industry with an overreliance on wild inputs for feed. Most facilities are deployed into environments with highly limited flow waterways that are easily affected by pollution, waste buildup and competing users. There is potential to scale the farming of various plant and animal species with new aqua- and mari-culture systems and progress deployment into vast oceans as critical bottlenecks in engineering and feed production are overcome. There are numerous opportunities to leverage contemporary science and knowledge of fish feed, and probiotics to manipulate microbiomes. Beyond food security, aquaculture also offers sustainable alternatives to petrochemical-based fuels and fibers as scalable farming and collection of novel seaweed strains are developed.
The global shortage of pollinator services is truly astonishing and continues to worsen as wild insects die off and managed honeybees lose ground to disease, climate change and habitat loss. More than three-quarters of leading global food crops are dependent on, or have their yields enhanced by, pollination, a key ecosystem service that is easily overlooked. Despite its pivotal role in supporting the production of food on Earth there are so few companies and methods able to deliver or improve on this service. A lack of effective pollination seriously hinders regional crop yields from reaching their full potential. The prospect of actively deploying pollinators and restoring ecological systems to support more insects is an exciting opportunity for new companies to provide a profitable way to reinforce agriculture and nature in a mutually beneficial relationship. Improving the resilience and range of managed insects, domesticating new species, and improving habitats are well within reach using emerging insect husbandry techniques, in conjunction with novel monitoring technologies, automation and knowledge of pheromones.
Emergency on Planet Farm – Why Align Agriculture to Biodiversity?
Early agricultural systems revolved around a deal humans made with nature to obtain calories. The fundamentals involve land clearance to make room for crops, which in turn was meant to feed livestock and people. In theory, this deal fed everyone and supported a larger produce and distribution economy — with a calorie surplus enabling a larger and more efficient society to ideate inventive methods to further extract and generate calories.
This agreement relies on borrowing (extraction) from “The Bank of Nature” to invest in calorie harvest opportunities against a budget of ecosystem services which are otherwise dedicated to providing the bedrock infrastructure for all of nature and agriculture. Those services include topsoil generation, pollination, freshwater and other things that are initially easy to overlook. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the deal hides an unfortunate fact— the “Bank of Nature” requires time to regenerate and therefore, the debt accumulates.
In recent decades, the continuous scaleup of extraction has altered the robust, self-sustaining biosphere called Planet Earth and turned it into the more fragile state of Planet Farm. Critical baseline functions are failing, which is evident through the high rate of topsoil depletion and dust bowl formation, mass wildlife extinction, ocean dead zones and runaway forest-to-grassland conversion or desertification. Without a restorative input to pay off the debt, this resource drain will only grow worse and ecosystems will shift towards an increasingly less complex state which threatens the agricultural model designed to feed off the complex state that it was designed for.
While the intensification of agricultural practices over the course of the last half-century has exacerbated impacts on the natural environment, it has also contributed to an immense amount of good — mortality rates have plummeted and a billion people have come out of poverty. However, Planet Farm’s managers are relying on the remaining natural infrastructure to support 10 billion hungry humans expected by 2050. This, of course, is unsustainable. In light of the extreme climate events, diminishing groundwater and other consequences of environmental degradation accelerating these shifts, the resources required to achieve planetary food security will instead diminish further. Agricultural production would have to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to support the increase in world population and average food consumption. A similar outcome is destined for the oceans, as overfishing continues to deplete fish stocks, ocean dead zones expand and the food chain is decimated. This leaves some unhappy questions about how we will be able to produce more food in thirty years than we have in the past eight millenia.
Mitigation & Restoration with Agriculture
We need to reassess our agreement with the Bank of Nature and agricultural powerhouses that develop and deploy a methodology that makes sense in a commercial paradigm. Our ideal strategy takes a three-pronged approach to updating the caloric equation by decoupling agricultural development from its historic dependence on extractive-only thinking, whilst developing and maintaining profit incentives for growth of new actors (companies) to serve the market. This approach includes:
1. Mitigating the amount of borrowing from natural ecosystems in terms of habitat conversion and harvest, so that agricultural systems shift towards a net-zero impact on biodiversity
2. Directly restoring an ecosystem service in order to benefit both nature and an agricultural system, developing methods to ensure that agriculture can more effectively pay back into the ecosystems that support it
3. Creating agricultural systems that are orthogonal to natural systems so that production can occur independent of nature and mitigate against further agricultural decline
A general shift of the equation away from an extraction-only paradigm requires us to combine bold ideas from biodiversity conservation, traditional agriculture, biotechnology and numerous other domains. It also allows us to fully realise a vision of scalable, technologically-driven permaculture for a sustainable bioeconomy that has the potential to deliver results in climate change, biodiversity and food security. Companies that deploy this shared value approach, could feasibly unlock impactful business opportunities that gain wide acceptance.
However, the awareness of the challenges ahead, which is at an all time high, has not been met by sufficient deployment of radical thinking to enable that paradigm shift. Agriculture is an imperfect system on an imperfect planet, underpinned by a highly complex market, with many actors. Despite the size of the sector and its value to human societies, agriculture has always remained under-innovated compared to other domains. Competition has been limited by regulation, slim margins, capital intensity, and rigid consumer attitudes and business relationships. This lack of competition has allowed oligopolies to grow to occupy almost every step of the supply chain and marshal their superior size to aggressively control new technologies.
Success Is a Partnership Between Reformed Agriculture and Ecosystems
At DSV, we want to advance science and build companies that can move Planet Earth towards the form of a more meaningful and valuable network of agroecological interactions. Ideally, this will enable a shift towards a regenerative agriculture paradigm that can restore complex ecosystems and create incentives for humans to act as stewards of the planet and their communities.
DSV is building high growth, high impact companies and partnering with a consortium of NGOs, research centres and corporations in the agriculture sector. We have already built and deployed successful agriculture companies through our investments in soil, bioproduction and insect protein. We continue to hire Founding Analysts to build innovations in the opportunity areas of focus.
If you have a strong opinion about what we should be working on, or want to join our team as a Founder or Advisor, shoot us a line.
Our first mission
The Food & Agriculture Science Transformer
Deep Science Ventures (DSV) and the University of Edinburgh have partnered on the Food & Agriculture Science Transformer (FAST) programme to build a venture studio around the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh’s world-leading animal research facility.
The FAST programme will bring together DSV’s market-led approach to creating science companies, and the Roslin Institute’s expertise across genomics, veterinary biosciences, biotechnology and agriculture.
Read more about FAST here.