The way we eat needs to change. Agriculture accounts for around ten per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions in both Europe and the US, with little improvement over recent years. From more efficient crop management to chemical-free weeding, the fields are ripe for innovation. Here are four startups trying to put their sustainable spin on an ancient practice.
In 2011, French engineers Aymeric Barthes and Gaëtan Séverac began collaborating with farmers to design, manufacture and market electric robotics capable of weeding, which is a laborious task to do by hand. Not only do Naïo Technologies’ machines minimise dependence on potent chemical weed killers, they also address a shortage of farming labour. “Even in the poorest countries, it’s becoming difficult to find people to work in the fields, because it’s just too painful,” Séverac says.
Around 200 of Naio Technologies’ robots are deployed across Europe, North America and Japan. There are currently three models, beginning with Ted, designed for vineyards. Oz, which is designed for small farms, and Dino, for large-scale plots, tackle vegetable crops. The machines are equipped with mechanical weeding arms, machine learning to identify weeds, and precision GPS navigation, all of which can be integrated into other robot models, leaving the door open to diversification into different crops and functions. Once the farmer has created a map of each bed, the machine will do the rest – at least, until it needs a recharge.
In January 2020, Naio Technologies raised a €14 million funding round to aid its expansion. Besides sales of its robots, it hopes to grow its weeding services and rentals. “In the next ten years, there will be robots in every field of Europe and North America,” says Séverac.
To optimise their yields, farmers must monitor weather forecasts and soil moisture data, track inventory, and protect their crops against pests and disease. AGRIVI’s cloud-based software allows them to manage all of this through one central application, and provides in-depth analytics to help them make timely decisions based on agronomic insights rather than historical experience.
AGRIVI was founded in 2013 by Matija Zulj, a Croatian communications technology expert. With the world’s population growing, he recognised that farmers need tools to run their farms more efficiently and sustainably. AGRIVI’s line comprises basic Farm Management software for individual growers, delivered as a self-service platform on subscription, as well as Enterprise Farm Management for larger companies, and a Farmer Network Management tool for organisations that oversee networks of farmers. Kimberly-Clark, Driscoll’s (which produces berries) and Nestlé all use the software, while governments also use it to raise national agriculture production and acquire data for policy-making.
The company recently secured €4 million in funding to expand into key European markets and the US. “The market wasn’t ready until now,” Zulj says. “Because farming is traditional, we needed the generation shift for innovation and data-driven solutions.”
RootWave’s technology zaps weeds from the roots upwards, boiling them inside out. Against a backdrop of herbicide-resistant weeds and growing awareness of agrochemicals’ dangers, the Warwickshire startup hopes its systems could have an impact on safe and sustainable weed control. “The world desperately needs an alternative [to agrochemicals] that is energy efficient, highly efficacious and scalable,” says RootWave CEO Andrew Diprose.
RootWave doesn’t generate the heat externally; instead, its method applies electricity directly via a probe, causing a current to pass through the plant, destroying its cells. Not only is this cost efficient because the energy is targeted, it is highly effective as it kills the roots, meaning regrowth is low and, importantly, it doesn’t disturb the soil. Its system has been made possible due to advancements in modern electronics; in particular, inverter technology that controls the frequency and amplitude of the generated electricity.
RootWave is currently only available as a hand-held device, but will soon be used on a larger scale. It is partnering with experts in identifying and targeting weeds, including German agricultural engineering company LEMKEN, SFM Technology and farm robotics startup Small Robot Company; after experimenting in controlled environments, they will move to trickier plots, where cameras and robotics will distinguish between “wanted” and “unwanted” plants.
Israeli startup TIPA has developed a range of fully compostable packaging solutions to minimise our dependence on cheap, flexible plastics. Over 40 per cent of products in the UK are packaged in flexible plastic, but only four per cent of these are recycled, and the rate is even lower globally. Eight out of 11 million tonnes of plastic pollution in the ocean comes from flexible packaging. “There is no doubt that plastic packaging is a broken system,” founder and CEO Daphna Nissenbaum says. “While we save on material costs, we pay the full price of the damage plastic waste does to our ecosystems.”
TIPA’s products, including films and laminates, break down under compost conditions – high humidity and temperature, and the presence of microorganisms – within 180 days, returning to nature without harmful impact. While they’re made entirely of compostable materials using both bio-based and fossil-based derivatives, they have the same functional and optical properties as regular plastic, and they do not adversely affect product shelf life. The technology “imitates nature’s packaging,” says Nissenbaum. “Like an orange peel, it protects what it packages before degrading safely in compost, leaving no harmful residue.”
The startup manufactures packaging for products including fresh produce and apparel. Supermarkets Ocado and Waitrose are customers, as are Google and fashion retailers Stella McCartney, Gabriela Hearst and Mara Hoffman.
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