Global food production is in a crisis, but is there a solution? We talked to Gregg Steinberg, CEO of Growcentia, about their innovative approach to agriculture.
The global production of food is a serious business. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimated that the global population will increase to 9.6 billion by 2050. This increase, combined with changing diets, means that the world will need to produce 69% more food calories in 2050 than in 2006.
And global warming is adding to the problem, creating desertification and growing stress on water availability.
The WRI argues, however, that we can’t produce food as we’ve always done, with agriculture contributing to 25% of greenhouse emissions, using 37% of landmass and 70% of freshwater taken from rivers, lakes and aquifers.
So, what can be done? Growcentia, an up and coming agricultural company based in Colorado, thinks it has the answer. Here’s Gregg Steinberg, CEO of Growcentia, talking about the company’s new and ecologically-friendly approach to growing.
Welcome, Gregg. Can you tell me a bit more about the business of Growcentia?
Growcentia is a tech transfer from one of the leading agriculture schools in the US, Colorado State University. CSU is a top tier research institution for soil ecology, soil microbiology and agriculture in the US and one of the leading ones in the world.
We received grant money through the US Federal government’s National Science Foundation to do research identifying biological solutions to increase crop yields and increase crop health and crop quality. My co-founding partners are threePhD research scientists who conducted their research at the university in 2014. In 2015, we brought the technology off campus through a technology transfer and got the company started. One of the inventors of this technology, Colin Bell PhD, left CSU at that time to co-found the company and move our now patented organic phosphorous (“P”) solubilising microbial technology from the lab to commercial scale.
Is the technology an important challenge to GM?
It’s very different to GM because it is 100% natural. We take naturally occurring beneficial bacteria from soil and isolate them, and we look for the functional capability of each microbe to perform a certain task. In the case of our first technology solution, solubilising phosphorus and making nutrients more bio-available to plants and crops. For this first technology, we identified four strains of microbes that make up a co-culture consortia. When fertilisers are put into the field for any crop or put into a greenhouse for controlled environment growing, we’re able to increase the efficient use of those fertilisers, making them more bio-available to the plant. It’s about bringing nature back to agriculture.
In most situations where fertilisers are used, up to 70% of that fertiliser doesn’t end up in the plant because the nutrients stay in the ground, bind and over time, build up. This causes long term issues for farmland, creates leaching into waterways and does not allow crops to reach their full yield or quality potential.
Our solution was to find a sustainable way to grow crops with natural microbial solutions that both improves crop yields, health and quality, and which are environmentally-friendly.
That’s really positive. Have you had any test crops yet and are you launched in any markets?
We have. When we were at the university, we tested on a broad range of crops like corn, wheat, basil, cut flowers, turf grass, tomatoes, strawberries, other berries and so on.
During this time, cannabis was made recreationally legal in Colorado – the first state in the US to do that – and so we also took a look at the cannabis and the hemp market. We found that our products had great efficacy on this crop, increasing yields by an average of 16% while also increasing crop quality. As such we ended up launching into that crop first in 2015.
Since then we’ve taken a market-leading position with our Mammoth P® product in the cannabis and hemp space. Our organic patented microbial phosphorous solubilising product is sold across the world. We have active sales in the US, Europe, South America, Australia and Japan.
Since 2015 we have continued to conduct trials on crops like strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, hops, corn and wheat. We are working with the US Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University, as well as other leading institutions like the University of California at Davis, North Carolina State, the University of Florida, and a few others.
We’re now poised to be able to go to market in a couple of speciality crops like tomatoes and strawberries in the near future, and at the same time, we will continue to be a market leader in cannabis and hemp
In addition, we have a very strong R&D team. Through their efforts over the past few years, we will also be launching in the near term additional microbial-based products that focus on different key functional areas than our current P technology, and which will also increase plant yield, quality and health.
We also plan to bring to market a line of Biocontrol insecticides and pesticides that work to prevent and correct various plant pest and disease stress issues.
How big could this be, because obviously, the production of food is a very contested issue? There are a lot of vested interests involved. So how challenging is your process and do you think you’ll encounter much opposition?
The challenge is, globally, how we’re going to feed a couple more billion people by 2050. There’s the degradation of arable farmland that’s decreasing pretty substantially year after year. And then there’s global warming, which will have profound effects on food production.
Biological solutions have to replace and augment chemical solutions that currently exist. They’re not going to replace them entirely, but what we have to do is to bring natural processes back to agriculture so that we can handle feeding the world’s population.
Chemical solutions have hit an apex in many ways, and so the next evolution in enhancing yields, improving crop quality, increasing cropland, helping to bring sustainability back to agriculture and do it naturally is through biological solutions such as our biostimulant microbial additives and plant extract biocontrol products. It’s not just us – all the big agri-chemical companies and many start-ups are looking at biological solutions too. And a healthier plant will help draw in more carbon from the air into the soil, and that will also help with global warming.
On your website, you highlight the importance of the core values of your company. Why are these values so important?
Our core values are value creation, education, health, integrity, consistency, linked communities and the environment. They are all interconnected. Let’s look at one example – health.
We think about health as work/life balance for our employees, health concerning environmental impact, the health of our products regarding how they impacts soil and crops, the health of food and increasing nutrient capabilities. Paying attention to our core value of health (and all our core values) creates value for our employees, the farmers that utilise our products and society.
Our values are important because they are what guide our hiring choices and workplace culture. They ensure that our team can work together to grow the company, and ensure that everybody’s aligned concerning how we think about our impact on society, the positive impact of our products on crops, and our impact on each other.
Looking at ten years or twenty years in the future, do you think your technique will revolutionise agriculture? Also, where do you hope that your company will be within that?
I think we’re part of a number of companies that are looking to revolutionise agriculture in this way. We certainly expect and intend to be a leading enterprise within this paradigm shift, from an agricultural perspective, to deliver healthy and nutrient-rich foods to the market with natural, sustainable and innovative microbial solutions.
It sounds really exciting, and I hope you’re successful.
It’s a big vision for sure. We need big visions to make a difference. There’s a great quote I love by Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We, Growcentia and our Mammoth Microbes team are a small group of committed people with a common interest in making a difference in the world and bringing nature back to agriculture.
Hopefully, our microbial solutions and natural biological innovations, as well as those of other like minded companies, will spread across the global community of farmers and growers who will adopt biological products and technologies into their growing regimes and protocols. Thus, these techniques will advance our ability to meet the world’s agricultural supply demands in a sustainable manner.