Darryn Keiller & Kylie Horomia: AgTech and Sustainability
[MUSIC] [MUSIC] [MUSIC] Hello, everyone, and welcome to The New Normal Speaker Series. My name is Gjoko Muratovski and I'm the director of The Ullman School of Design. Climate change degradation of ecosystem and COVID-19 have reminded us that versions we need to develop new food security systems and decentralized food supply chains. As the global population is projected to rise to close to 10 billion people by 2050. We will need the natural resources of almost three planets in order to sustain our current way of life. This means that we will not only need to change our lifestyles, but we will also need to do more and better with significantly less and this will become a new normal.
My two special guests there, Darryn Keiller and Kylie Horomia. Darryn is a CEO of WayBeyond highly innovative company in the area of sustainable agriculture technologies, or AgTech is this industry is often called. Kylie is the Head of Industry Transformation at WayBeyond where she helps to facilitate new initiatives and new strategic partnerships. WayBeyond develops new technologies related to smart and sustainable farming and their work is aligned with the UN sustainable development goals.
The company operates in New Zealand, US, Europe and Malaysia. Darryn and Kylie, welcome to the New Normal Speaker Series, great to see you. >> Thank you. >> Thank you Gjoko >> So, by leveraging big data, smart sensors, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, the architect sector can make agriculture far more efficient, precise and resilient. And these are not the only benefits that this emerging sector can provide.
Darryn, can you tell me a little bit more about the architect sector and how companies such as yours can help provide global food security. >> Sure so look, I think I'll start by defining ag tech first, so there are many traditional companies that are in agricultural technology supply. If you think about. Companies like John Deere, they been around for many many years and they are more traditional technology companies. Typically when we think about agtech we are talking about new innovation companies. That are employing more contemporary technologies, whether that's cloud, artificial intelligence software.
And this is important to understand because the industry itself is still very much one that is driven by mechanization and being analog being manual. And that's probably quite shocking to most people. To hear that when you consider how mature we've become in areas like consumer technology and financial technology. There's probably an assumption that farming and food production are in step with that but they are not. They're around 20 years behind everybody else.
So agtech is a relatively recent ann emerging area maybe over the last 10-15 years. That's arising to help transform the industry and move it move it forward into the future. >> What would you say are the biggest problems of traditional farming? >> Some of the biggest problems Well, if I think about the ecosystem as a whole, there's massive disconnect between, how governments are looking at food security and food production and the framework around that.
And that includes things like countries that still provide subsidies. Farming and those that do not and the ones that that do continue to do that continue to foster and efficiencies in the farming system. Then you have the disconnect to the food producers, the people who take the raw materials from the farms and, either passed it through as fresh produce to us as consumers or. Process it as an ingredient into finished foods that we eat. And then you have the challenges on the farms themselves.
So there's actually quite a few moving parts that make up what is a $7 trillion food and agricultural sector globally. Some of those things are macro factors around your house climate change. Impacting farms, how it's the lack of available water and labor.
And now in the pandemic world that we're all finding ourselves in, those closed borders are making it even more challenging. If you distill it down to farmers themselves, I think the biggest risk is the age of farmers. So The average age of a farmer is between 58 to 60 depending on on country, and they are getting close to retiring and all the knowledge about farming practices in their heads. And this is a real risk, I think to the food system at the very time that we need to produce more There's fewer people who know how to grow. >> Hmm, interesting. Kylie.
Let's talk about sustainability. The work that WayBeyond that she's aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Can you tell me more about this? >> So there are 17 un sustainability goals and I am super proud to say that our company can support at least nine of those goals. And we do that through obviously the technology that we produce that helps growers grow smarter, you know, you mentioned earlier around the fact that, the population is growing, recent figures show that we're going to have to increase food production by at least 70 percent by 2050. >> There is no real way we can do that unless we do it smarter. I mean, we want to produce more food but we don't want to destroy the planet at the same time to do that.
And that's where technology comes into play. The nine ones that were keen to support us some of those big ticket items like zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities, climate action. You know, you just, when you look at zero hunger alone, the numbers show something like, every year 11 million children, younger than five years old, die from hunger and hunger related disease.
That's ridiculous. Those are ridiculous numbers. And the fact that food producers. Are also not directly related to but when you look at the fact that we have one point three billion tonnes of waste food waste every year, the numbers don't add up one point three million tonnes of waste. 11 million children dying from hunger. So the system is not right, the system is inherently broken and those are the things that I think we need to be addressing and why I think all companies should be successful at supporting the UN sustainability goals.
>> So when it comes to educating people on the importance of sustainable food production and smart farming Where do you think that we need to start? >> I would go for quite a holistic approach I think you really need to go back to the children and like way back in the early stages about how food is grown educating things. I know that in Ontario, there's a private member's bill that is being passed right now to look at food education as part of the curriculum. That's fantastic, that's what all governments should be looking to do.
Because then when you go through, then once you start appreciating fruits and vegetables, then you need to start looking at how is it grown? What are the things that go into producing the food that you eat? So absolutely, I think we need to start sooner rather than later. And then implemented through education, absolutely through education, and then it will just as those generations grow in knowledge will also grow. >> Mm-hmm.
Millennials and Gen Z are particularly attuned to issues related to climate change and ability. Why is it important for them to engage with the tech sector? >> Well, the other future workforce, but they're the ones that are actually going to be growing our food. You know, as I get older, I'm gonna be eating the food that's grown by the gen Z's and the millennials. And so we actively need to engage them now, we need to use their passion that they have for technology. Foster that passion, bring them into the industry and really make it something that's going to work for, businesses for that generation and extra for the planet because yeah. They are the future workforce for us >> Definitely there is a lot of opportunity there and there is no other company actually In this sector that actively tries to engage these demographics so good on you.
It will set pretty much the long term success of the company given that aging markets and shifting demographics. And all that is gonna happen over the years. Darryn, a few years ago, you started the Crop on Mars Hackathon in Silicon Valley in California. Why was this important event for us, what were your takeaways from the challenge? >> Well, I mean, it was a very creative idea, and Kylie will remember that that most people thought I was completely mad about doing it.
But I mean really what it was about was this idea that. That mass is kind of like st by many people is the next logical place for us to migrate to as a species. So I think that's what's driving certain players people like Ilan musk and others. And then when I started thinking about there I started thinking about on earth. Because of climate change, we're getting this exaggeration of conditions within which people are having to produce food.
And then I related that to the fact that Mars has these huge extremes of temperature ranging from, 200 degrees. Heat and then going 200 degrees negative during the nighttime. And that if we were to go there and survive as a species we would need to figure out how to produce crops. And if, and so we came up with this kind of summary line which says if you can grow it there you grow it anywhere. Meaning that if we could create solutions.
To help us survive on Mars, we could repurpose that technology to help us improve how we produce on Earth, that was basically the story. And so, we got together with a bunch of partners in Silicon Valley. And then the next crazy thing I did was that I wanted to have NASA involved and the hackathon, and we managed to get them on board. And we also got on board IBM, and we got on board the Climate Corporation and all these big players in the industry sent representatives to be sponsors and mentors and coaches and so on. The upshot of it all was that we were also, just on the Gen Z millennial thing just to connect back to that. Is that the majority of the teams that signed up, so we had 45 people competing and 10 teams over the weekend.
And they were predominantly sort of aged between about 18 to 25, that made up most of the participants. And they were a cross-section of students from MIT, from Stanford From Berkeley, and they were hybrid teams. So they weren't just plant scientists they were technologists, engineers, entomologists.
Like and because what and what that showed also is that solving these problems is multidisciplinary. It's not, trying to solve the food issue is not throwing software developers at it. Well throwing geneticists said that it's actually a collaboration between all sorts of different skills to help us move forward.
The cool thing was that, these young thinkers you know, who are free of a lot of the kind of siloing that goes on as you get older and life. Wherever to think outside the square, you know, in terms of what what type of solutions could we create. The winners ended up basing their solution on a pondweed called Duckweed which is highly dense in nutrients.
And it grows very quickly and that would form the back not very appetizing, I'll be honest, but it would provide. Get enough nutrients to feed for people for six months on Mars, that was the goal. So that was what the hackathon was about, it's a very cool thing and we learned a lot from it. And we would love to do another one, I think that's fair to say. >> What you can learn from growing Food in such extreme environments is something that you can use on earth to combat food deserts. >> Yes, >> It's in urban environments, but you can also do that in parts of the world where just the soil and climates He's not susceptible to growing like in other parts.
So yes, it's very interesting. >> I think what we learned from it is that actually any effective solution if it's going to be if you think about Sub Saharan Africa, for example, parts of India or Latin America. Where the topography of those environments is very extreme as well extremes of altitude. That there's there's not a lot of flat land available and a lot of places and when people think of agriculture they tend to think of big sweeping vistas of corn. But actually the solutions for a lot of these things are smaller, modular systems that can be dropped in to lots of places. And then you can just build on those like Lego bricks.
So if you wanna expand it and support a bigger population Just keep adding more of these modules. And that was very much the kinda approach by a lot of the teams for the Mars solutions involve that. But that to me was one of the technology takeaways, but how do we apply them on earth into these extreme environments.
Because you just literally can't just drop them in and no I have to worry about how are you gonna install this massive physical infrastructure to feed people. So that's the type of thinking that we need to have about the future of agriculture, food production. >> In addition to this, what else is in the Future of actec what else we can expect to see from this sector? >> Well, the really cool stuff is is like knowledge based systems so things that connect people and connect players in the ecosystem. And that's all done through, you know the cloud and it's powered by data and information and knowledge. So I think the really fast moving thing is going to be the idea that the systems become open, that there's a lot of connectivity between systems with their systems and government. NGO-based food providers or resellers and the farmers themselves, I think connections, how do we connect it all? And how do we connect it all digitally? So make the transport of information and knowledge very much real time.
And I think that will accelerate the way the food system works and also it'll create transparency. Because I think one of the biggest challenges of the food system is it's not transparent. And to be blunt, there's a lot of corruption in the system, especially when you're looking at developing countries. And it goes back to the point that Kylie made earlier, and the UN has talked about it a lot.
But part of the issue with food the imbalance and food distribution is also because of corruption in the system. And by that I literally mean if you send things to parts of the world where there is political unrest, those resources do not find their way to the population. They're routed off somewhere else. Because of profit, profiteering and that doesn't get to the people. So these are some of the more complex things that we could solve by very advanced actech systems that are integrated around the world. That's my vision of how it would work anyway.
>> I think if I can add to the one of the sort of big ticket items that are also gonna be there as water and water usage. So agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of water use globally. And I think there's going to be a real shift if it hasn't already, it needs to be in terms of what companies are doing. To either, you know, scientifically look at the genetics of plants with the requirements for water, look at the technology they're using, you know, look at everything to do with water because that's the biggest. That's the ace in the hole for a lot of growers is what access to water and having potable water to actually even sustain you know, populations.
So I think yeah, water is definitely going to be one of the biggest things that that everyone's going to be involved in. >> Looking at this sector. I could see that most of the active companies are trying to convert traditional farmers and move them over into this sector. The modern master and so on. But actually, I wonder whether the future farmers will be completely new entities, completely new type of farms that are not connected to this old ones. What do you think about this conversion rate between traditional ones moving to become more sustainable versus completely new players coming to the market? Because now this is completely different field.
>> Yeah, it's an excellent question. I mean what we're seeing emerge is expressly in relation to new ways of farming. Is indoor vertical farming initiatives.
So if you look at companies like aerofarms out of New Jersey or plenty other San Francisco they are right at the bleeding edge of new types of farming systems and those under lights then you have high tech greenhouses being invested in. So, in the US, the most recent one that's had a lot of high profile is harvest and Kentucky 60 acres of high tech, greenhouse production, all designed to be more efficient, more sustainable, more renewable. And the way that they and the way that they operate. The challenges is that the the footprint of the farming system globally is huge.
And about 80% of farming is small farms, family farms, subsistence farming. Most people if you speak to people in China and India and anywhere where there's, you know, billion plus people, most families have to sustain themselves and then hope or produce enough surplus to then sell that surplus, produce to then pay for other things that their family needs. That's the reality of a lot of people in the world.
When we're in the West, our perception of these things is governed through the way that we live. Which includes the fact that most of us just experience food through going to a supermarket. That is not the way that it works for half the planet. And I think that we need to, there's a lot to figure out but it's not Necessarily new food systems. It's kind of going back to Kylie's earlier point. It's about education and knowledge and bringing them on the journey and introducing new technologies that can then bring them forward.
It's the type of thing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation kind of things to look at as an NGO is what resources and technology and approaches can they bring in to those areas of the world? So I think we're going to be thinking that there's actually two worlds. There's the developed world and how its food system works. And then there's the underdeveloped world where how it system works. And so the. Bring them forward. We actually, it's not one solution.
There's no silver bullet. We have to look at different approaches for different across the world. >> Yeah. That's interesting.
You also are one of the few companies in the sec that pays a lot of attention to design, and user experience. >> Yeah. >> Tell me a little bit more about that.
How do you, where do you see the value? Why is this important? Where do you see the importance? >> Well, I mean, I think that the importance is making it easy for farmers to adopt new technology and adopt new ways of doing things because change is one of the biggest factors are resistance. Nobody likes change, none of us like change. So the thing is when you're when you're taking farmers who've been doing things a certain way, for their whole lives, you know, change is a very confronting thing.
And the food system itself doesn't want to change that quickly. So you've got to make it easy for them to want to do it. And and a lot of agricultural technology has been typically developed by engineers. An engineer is great at building products but not very good at building user experience.
Right. So the thing is that you could bring in professional designers to help think about what is the optimal intuitive way for somebody to work with technology that gains them a benefit. And so we think a lot about making it easier for our customers to be able to use new technologies and new practices. So that's what really drives it is that and if you think about what's happened in consumer experience with mobile devices.
We're trying to replicate that same type of simplicity where someone can use a piece of agtech and not have to read a manual. That it's just natural to use. >> I think as well if you look at the fact that again the future workforces the gen Z's and the millennials that's who we are also designing for the ones that are going to be using the technology that we creating now.
So you know, we find out what are they into what how are they using it, what's going to work for them, what can they bring to the table. And we do an annual controlled environment agriculture census every year. And one of the most interesting things to come from that is every year we have something on nearly 30% of new growers have into the market.
And also 60% a large proportion are younger than 30. So it is there is a whole new generation already coming through that are bringing with them their expectations of what they want to see and how they want technology to be. So it is up for us it makes sense absolutely to engage with this generation. And it is interesting in our own business because we have just gone through a recruitment phase at the time of this, this, this call, where, you know, we have bought in 15 new people and most of them are aged between 22 to 35. I mean, and so they, by having that kind of bias in their own business, it actually helps us create solutions that are more in-tune with Gen Z and Millenial, because the people developing them are also Gen Z and Millenial. So they got a natural orientation to wat to try and embed the way They would do things into the software that they develop, for example.
So I think thatis quite important. That is not to say that people who are, you know, Gen X or boomers do not have something to contribute to that, but but you kind of need to line up A culture in a business that also fits with the audience that you are trying to appeal to. >> I love that your future proofing your sector by creating an entirely new generation of farmers. It is very impressive. Kylie. What kind of challenges and opportunities do you expect to encounter in the near future? >> [LAUGH].
Gosh, even when there is not a pandemic or. [LAUGH]. >> [INAUDIBLE].
Post pandemic world, let us say well. >> [LAUGH]. >> One set of challenges after this will be another one. Just generally in terms of where do you see the sector going next and the type of obstacles that you can expect? >> My think, I mean It is no secret probably in the last 1020 years that the biggest challenge for any grows labor and and i do not see that changing anytime soon especially with obviously restrictions for for travel.
But the thing is, is I think with any any challenge that gives opportunity for innovation And it is a chance for any business to look at alternatives to come up with new solutions. You know, I know here particularly in New Zealand, that you know, there is a mess recruitment on getting, you know, local people and to do some of those harvesting to work in areas that are going to help the industry. You know, we are doing a big push here in the business too. You know, get out and to the universities and educate young people who were thinking about a career to get involved in agriculture. We are looking to, define what agriculture is. It is not the traditional definition any longer.
It is really different. You know, as Darryn mentioned, we have young people in the business that are, you know, software engineers, but for them, they work in agriculture, they agriculturalists because they help people grow food. And so it is a passion for them. They have become even more passionate since working for us. And so I think, you know, we can encourage young people to think outside of. Planting in the soil to you know, helping with technology or helping in other ways marketing or finance or just being involved in the entire infrastructure of agriculture.
So, you know, I think education Absolutely. And looking at some of those labour things to to increase the desire for people to get involved. If there is one thing that annoys me is when people say that agriculture is not a sexy industry to be involved in. I absolutely disagree.
I think it is the most amazing industry to be involved in. We are creating healthy produce for people to eat. Now, what is not to love about it? Yes, >> It is definitely one of the well, not one, the next big industry disruption, I think, the cultural sector and because it has lagged behind all the other sectors so far, but it is an enormous sector, there is you mentioned $7 trillion Yes, it is, it is very impressive industry to be right now.
I think in right at the forefront, I'm also very curious about the specialist that you have on on your team. Can you talk a little bit about how do you how do you bring new technologies And new and emerging technologies simply your business. >> Yes, I think this is a very good question. You know, the, the place where we start is that we are dealing with, you know, biological organisms and I think this is I often draw the parallel with with, you know, life sciences because you know, you would not be developing And you do not develop new solutions for human health without understanding human biology and physiology that would be incredibly dangerous.
And in the same way with production of crops and pastoral farming, you have to understand your subject. And so what we do is we start with how were those crops bred to be grown? What were their characteristics that they were designed to have because every single thing we consume is an outcome of some form of breeding program either either a organic breeding program or an inorganic one. So it is it is what color what shape what what sugar level what how is it designed to to come out? And then so we do this then we look at. So we have a director of crop sciences and agronomy Is one of our PhDs. And he runs that practice.
And basically it looks at all the things to do with the seed companies and the breeders and the crops that we work with. And interestingly touching back on Kylie's earlier point about how do we educate people internally how do we take a software developer make them passionate about a tomato? It is we have them grow them. Right so we run competitions they have two competitions going internally at the moment. One is tomato growing competition, which is a team based thing and they have been grown indoors under lights using soilless. Production. And the other one is a chili competition, which, chili growing competition, which everybody in the business is doing at home.
And, and what people are learning is how difficult it is to grow a single chili plant successfully. And so as they go through the whole process of that in terms of how they care for it and steer it, and when it flowers and when it fruits and We have got a I have got a pest or I have got something on the leaf. I do not understand.
Suddenly, they start getting very engaged and we communicate on these things internally using our own technology. And then they, and we say to them, well, imagine that times 10,000 a hundred thousand, this is the life of a grower. They have got to be able to deal with all of that, but at a massive scale. And so you have to think about what we develop. How does it relate to that reality? So this is very important that we have a director of data science and artificial intelligence.
So that is like, you know, the kind of the fuel of our approaches data. How do we take everything about whether it is the crop the practices that grow The environmental data, how do we use that to basically create a better outcome for the crop and for the grower. And then finally, there is the technology itself, which is more about how do we deliver the service to the grower. So those are the three kind of areas that we that we leverage.
It is absolutely cool. And we are always learning new stuff as we go. It is because the fusion of those three disciplines, I love it. >> I love your methods. Well, this was inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience with me.
Darryn and Kylie, it was really a pleasure having you as guests today. >> Thank you for the opportunity, Gjoko, I really appreciate it. >> Thank you. >> It's been my pleasure. [MUSIC]