When Walmart dives into the middle of an issue you can be certain it has, or is about to, go mainstream. Sustainable agriculture is not a phrase that leaps to mind when one thinks of the US retail behemoth, but the company actually employs a senior director of sustainability.
Beth Keck, writing about Walmart’s efforts for the online eco site Treehugger, says her company was “galvanized by the fact that food production must increase 70 percent by 2050 to feed our projected world population of 9 billion people.”
Turns out Walmart’s newfound policies are not unique, even to Fortune 500 companies. This week, in fact, is the tenth anniversary of The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, an group founded by Danone, Nestlé, and Unilever that now includes forty of the world’s largest food companies.
One emerging technology these food giants may soon be looking at comes from Burnaby-based Clean Seed Capital (TSXV:CSX). Clean Seed, which sprung to life just two years ago, has developed a patented technique in the field of “No-Till” farming that minimizes exposure of the fragile, nutrient rich topsoils that eventually lead to the depletion of organic matter in the soil. Recently, Cantech Letter talked to Clean Seed CEO Graeme Lempriere.
Graeme, can you tell us a bit about the corporate history of Clean Seed Capital?
Clean Seed was incorporated in 2010 and went public at the end of September 2011. Our goal is to become a technology based catalytic agent in the sustainable agriculture industry. The Company is ready to commercialize and deploy its proprietary No-Till precision planting agricultural technology and has an innovative approach to the agriculture industry where it creates Agricultural Research & Innovation Networks comprised of public and private strategic partners, (such as universities, farmers, associations, equipment manufacturers, agro-processors, and others) to help participants facilitate progress and sustainability in the global agriculture industry.
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What is your background?
I have held corporate and financial roles with many years of senior management experience in both the public and private sector. I am the founder and CEO of Marvelle Capital Group, a private business development and venture management company that invests capital and management expertise into innovative early and mid-stage companies. Prior to founding Marvelle, I was responsible for company restructuring, marketing, primary financings and market development for mid-tier companies. I have held senior executive positions and served on the board of several public companies dealing in the international market, including mining, engineering groups, leisure industry and real estate development. In 2006 Marvelle founded Clean Seed (formerly Vesco) Agricultural Technologies Inc. and acquired the worldwide exclusive rights to a unique patented no-till seeding technology.
Can you tell us a bit about Dr. Kwesi Opoku-Debrah, who joined the board last November?
Dr. Opoku-Debrah is a highly accomplished scholar, educator and entrepreneur. he holds degrees in agricultural economics, international agriculture, and adult, continuing and extension education from Cornell University, USA, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana. Among his many achievements, career highlights include serving as the Agricultural Team Leader of Evaluations for World Vision and USAID, local consultant to the World Bank and the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development, and he has worked in similar capacities with a number of other major NGO and governmental institutions that specialize in providing development aid to African nations.Prior to joining Clean Seed Capital and Clean Seed, Dr. Opoku-Debrah’s most recent assignment was Regional Technical Advisor at the Central Africa Region Office for Agriculture and Environment of the Catholic Relief Services. In this role, Dr. Opoku-Debrah was part of an agriculture proposal review team and was responsible for the coordination and implementation of a No-Tillage Agriculture program funded by the Howard Buffett Foundation. Dr. Opoku-Debrah has been a strong advocate for No Tillage Farming and Sustainable Agriculture for more than 30 years and has extensive practical experience in Africa and North America. Dr. Opoku-Debrah has played an instrumental role in our developing nations plan we are about to roll out in Ghana.
What is Clean Seed’s No-Till precision planting agricultural technology, and how does it differ from what farmers are doing today?
Our technology creates horizontal soil slots (for seed and fertilizer) plus a vertical slot below the seed shelves for deep banding of fertilizer and soil conditioner isolated from the seeds whereas most other openers create either vertical or slanted slots and most are for seed only. Vertical and even slanted slots are very difficult to close, especially in damp soils. With our equipment the seed is tucked under a horizontal flap of soil at the time that the slot is created, ensuring the seed is always covered whilst at the same time the vertical fertilizer slot is covered. They ensure that the seed micro-environment can be controlled, almost regardless of soil conditions, and they permit fertilizer to be placed in bands that are separated horizontally and/or vertically from the seed. Seed-soil contact is often not enough under no-tillage and is why no-tillage has often fallen short compared with tillage. On the other hand it is also why no-tillage, undertaken with our openers is more failsafe than tillage. For those who are interested in learning more about this, I would suggest visiting our technology website.
What is sustainable agriculture and why is it growing?
Sustainable agriculture is the practice of farming using principles of ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. It’s no secret that we’ve been depleting our soils ever since the advent of modern farming. This depletion has a direct impact on our ability to produce enough food to feed us all. The potential solutions are the subject of much debate, with big agriculture on one end and mom and pop organic producers on the other. One of the main culprits is a practice called tilling. Simply defined, tilling, or tillage, is the agricultural preparation of the soil by mechanical agitation. This includes digging, stirring, and overturning. It turns out it’s not a good thing. Of course there are many other factors that play a role in soil depletion, including: fertilizer use; herbicides and pesticides; and mono-cropping.
Around the world, water is becoming a more valuable commodity every day. How does your technology help address this problem?
Due to the narrow vertical opening in the soil created by our openers, there is minimal surface soil disturbance. Extensive testing of our closing system has demonstrated that the technology effectively and efficiently opens less than 310 percent of the surface soil and completely closes the narrow opening slit. In some surface and soil conditions, observers have noted difficulty in determining where the opener had passed through the ground. The complete closing of the surface soil ensures maximum retention of soil moisture and maintenance of the optimal growing environment for a longer period during dry conditions. The University of British Columbia recently completed their soil disturbance test and the overall assessment of the Company’s patented Smallholder/ Developing Nations No-Till seeding equipment was exceptional. The results concluded the Company’s technology performed exceptionally well across all soil and cover crop conditions used in this trial and produced an exceptionally low percentage row disturbance value of 0.21%, a value below other no-till planters in the RUSLE2 soil tillage intensity assessment program.
How large is your immediately addressable market?
Well, I can tell you that farm equipment sales are forecast to rise to US $91 billion by 2015, but if you look at the global agriculture market as whole, the number would be many many multiples of that. We recognize we have to walk before we run, however our deployment plans for Africa as well as our local markets will yield positive results.
What kind of intellectual property does Clean Seed possess?
Clean Seed Agricultural Technologies has developed an advanced precision no-till planting system comprised of individually patented technologies. These technologies include All-Cast opener assembly systems, in-ground openers, proprietary seed and fertilizer metering, and electronic control systems that combat soil erosion, reduce seed and fertilizer use, and nurtures the subsurface biodiversity vital to producing healthy and sustainable crops.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next twelve months?
Our primary objective over the next twelve months is to close the transaction with 3K&A Industries, a private agro-processing company based in Ghana. Upgrade and expand the existing infrastructure of 3K&A, rebrand the company as Clean Seed Ghana and begin the deployment of our Developing Nations technology on the ground in Africa. Furthermore, begin the implementation of commercial and out grower no-till agriculture programs that will be producing soy bean crops to supply our agro – processing facility. At the same time, we will also be launching and demonstrating our advanced precision no-till planting equipment designed for the North American markets.
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