Agri-biotechnologyAgriculture Policy

More than Digital Agricultural Start-ups, India Needs Applied Research Enterprises in Transformative Agrifood Life Sciences

Researcher at Mahyco India. Photo by Vivian Fernandes

My email inbox is filled with press releases from digital start-ups in agriculture and requests for interviews with their founders. These are platforms where farmers can sell their produce or buy agricultural inputs. There are many that offer farm enterprise resource planning solutions. A few have ventured into near-infrared spectroscopy (NIS) and together with artificial intelligence and data science allow buyers of agri-produce to quickly determine their protein or oil content or the proportion of active ingredients like curcumin in turmeric or capsaicin in chillies. There are digital solutions that allow you to operate a farm remotely.

They are all addressed at making existing farming operations more efficient and profitable.

Not in transforming agriculture.

In an in the Indian Express of 15 December, 2021, Mark Kahn, the Managing Partner of Omnivore, a venture capital fund, Venky Ramachandran, a writer and Renuka Diwan, the Co-founder and CEO of BioPrime,  a start-up that focuses on agri-biologicals, say that digital technologies cannot help farmers stand up to the full force of climate change. That can happen only with research in agri-biotechnology, novel farming systems, bio-energy and biomaterials and innovative foods.

By agri-biotechnology, the authors mean transgenetics and gene editing technologies, microbiomics, molecular plant breeding and research into animal health.

Novel farming systems include indoor farming, Recirculating Aquaculture systems (RAS) and the production of insect and algae proteins.

Bio-energy and biomaterials include agri-waste processing, biomaterial production and feedstock technology.

Innovative food refers to alternative proteins – plant-based, fermented, cell-based, functional foods and other novel ingredients.

These are neglected areas, the authors say. Partly, it could be due to regulatory bans on genetic modification and gene editing technologies. Partly, it is also because of the failure of the government to create an ecosystem where talent in agrifood life sciences can thrive. So, at the first opportunity, it tends to flee abroad.

But India’s start-up culture has rarely invested in deep technology and hardware. It prefers the lower-hanging fruit that digital technologies help reap in e-commerce or fintech. Out of the global venture capital funding of $6 billion in 2020, India’s got $10 million. Indian VCs prefer to invest in digital start-ups because they are trained in it and have global exposure to it. But abroad, agrifood VC firms are a breed apart. They are populated with PhDs who have experience in the life sciences industry.

The authors say that the public sector has done its bit to support entrepreneurs in agrifood life sciences. They name the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) of DBT and National Chemical Laboratory. But universities and institutes, including the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research rarely commercialise their intellectual property, oppose exclusive technology licensing on principle, and have failed to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship among their professors, graduate students and researchers, the authors say.

This needs to be corrected. Domestic talent must be encouraged to stay at home and NRI talent must be actively recruited. Infrastructure in the form of laboratories must be created. India cannot remain a global outlier, when the US, Israel, Europe and China are building unicorn start-ups in agrifood life sciences, the authors assert.

(Top photo of researcher at Mayhco India by Vivian Fernandes)