This post is part of our Future of Agriculture series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with Brian Valentine, CEO, Board Member, and Lead Investor of WISErg.
1. What’s the history of WISErg? Where and how did you begin?
BV: WISErg was formed in 2009 in Redmond, WA. Like most startups, we started with an idea and began to innovate and adjust quickly. Originally, we focused just on reducing food waste. We quickly learned that we could reduce food waste with new technologies and use the food waste to create much higher value products than traditional waste management, composting, or anaerobic digester companies. Our team of scientists and engineers came up with the novel idea of creating a liquid organic fertilizer using a patented in-house aerobic biological digestive system. It took five years to develop, but we now have a fully sustainable product line that produces no waste, no harmful greenhouse gases, and doesn’t use pasteurization or other high energy processes to remove pathogens. With this method, we retain all the nutrients in the food waste, and the result is a highly effective fertilizer and soil health stimulant.
We have evolved into a biotech company focused on recovering food waste, while not losing any of its value in the process, thereby enabling us to create high-value, sustainable products using patented technologies that we develop in-house and through our partnerships.
2. What specific problem does WISErg solve? How do you solve it?
An estimated 40 percent, or 133 billion pounds of the U.S. food supply, is wasted annually. Discarded food waste constitutes the largest part of our landfills and its decomposition is the third-largest source of methane emissions. Globally, if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter. Additionally, food production must double by 2050 to feed the expected increases in population. The production increase is going to be difficult, considering the USDA anticipates a 15% drop in U.S. crop yields because agricultural soils are depleted of nutrients. Not surprisingly, converting food waste into a nutrient-rich fertilizer, rather than letting it rot in landfills, has generated a considerable amount of interest as a solution to the food waste problem.
To date, WISErg has diverted over 13 million pounds of food from the landfill. This equates to over 13,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions based on California and University of Texas’ greenhouse gas calculators (range ~13,000-20,000, respectively).
In addition to reducing waste sent to the landfill, WISErganic fertilizers provide significantly improved environmental benefits over competition, such as fish and petroleum-based fertilizers, while preserving the nutrient value that is lost through other food recycling methods. WISErganic helps to restore soil health, reduce greenhouse gases, and water use, while producing higher quality food, increasing yields, and improving plant tolerance to environmental stressors.
The Reality of Alternatives:
Traditional organic farming methods have relied upon manures and fish-based fertilizers. Manures have already had the majority of the nutrients consumed out of the material by chickens and cows producing the manure. Manures also create food safety concerns. Because of the lack of alternatives, manures have been a popular fertilizer for organic growers, but luckily, companies like WISErg are now producing much more effective and safer alternatives at scale.
Fish-based fertilizers are no longer a great solution given that we can create more effective fertilizers from food waste. Specifically, fish-based fertilizers that are stabilized using acidulation – which involves the use of acidification with phosphoric or sulfuric acid – is highly unsustainable.
Fishing stocks around the world are in decline and the resulting price increases highlight the lack of sustainability and future availability of fish-based fertilizers. According to the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Department Food Wastage Footprint, “the climate impact of fisheries is dominated by carbon dioxide emissions from onboard diesel combustion, which is directly related to the amount of fuel used. The second major favor is the leakage of refrigerants from on-board cooling equipment, if the refrigerants used have a high climate impact.”
WISErg’s process does not utilize diesel or refrigerants. Fish fertilizers also have pathogen risk; WISErganic is traceable from Grocer to Ground with a validated pathogen eradication program. Finally, there are higher valued markets for fish byproducts, such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, pet food, fish oil supplements, etc.
The non-organic fertilizer alternatives are chemical based, and many are even derived from petroleum. If used excessively, these products can have serious environmental consequences, specifically pollution of waterways, lakes and coastal areas. Regulators inspect farms looking for excess nutrients from the fertilizer that may have leached into waterways and will cause algal blooms.
Organic alternatives like WISErganic help to protect the groundwater supply and avoid the chemical runoff that can destroy waterways and poison aquatic life. WISErganic helps growers manage increasing regulatory pressure by improving the effectiveness of their fertilization program, by accelerating the stored potential in the soil (such as carbon, non-soluble NPKs and micronutrients) and by increasing microbe activity that accelerates the conversion of the stored potential in the soil into forms that the plants can uptake.
Reducing Greenhouses Gases:
Nutrient value is lost in recycling food waste through methods such as composting, anaerobic digestion, and especially when it is landfilled. WISErganic retains three times the nutritional value of food than compost and is therefore more productive in improving soil quality and feeding plants.
WISErg’s patent-pending process ensures that products are pathogen-free by stabilizing the material rather than degrading it. Degradation of food in the landfill creates carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) – greenhouse gasses. CH4 can hold 23 times more heat than CO2 and N2O is almost 300 times worse than CO2. Holding more heat means that these gases contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions. While composting is better than landfilling food waste, the process still produces greenhouse gases. In contrast, WISErg’s process produces much less CO2 than composting and does not produce any CH4 or N2O.
Preserving Our Valuable Resources:
Recent Food Wastage Footprint research indicates that agriculture is the number one impact on the global water footprint. It indicates that that consumption of agricultural products is responsible for 92% of the water footprint of humanity (Hoekstra & Mekonnen, 2012). The organic acids in WISErganic aid water and mineral acquisition and help protect against drought stress.
For example, the organic acids in WISErganic provide binding sites for minerals and they help form soil aggregates for improved porosity, allowing growers to use less water. WISErganic also provides organic acids which N-fixing bacteria can use to convert N2 to NH4+ for plants. This leads to more available nitrogen for growth and results in energy savings for plants so that they can divert more resources to increasing yield.
Enabling a Sustainable Future:
According to the FAO, 11% of the globe’s land surface is used in crop production. The FAO also reported that food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to support the growing global population. WISErganic is shown to produce significant yield increases over the alternatives.
In a blueberry trial of WISErganic vs. fish fertilizer, WISErganic yields outperformed the leading competitor by 18%. In another trial, WISErganic increased potato yield by 42% when compared to a conventional fertilizer. Therefore, the inclusion of WISErganic in fertility programs will allow the world to grow more food while also repurposing waste into a valuable resource.
WISErganic is also proving to be a great compliment to conventional growers’ fertility programs. WISErganic helps restore soil health on conventional acres with the result being healthier soil full of vibrant microbes, which enables healthier plants and results in reductions of conventional fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides per acre. Healthier soil translates into healthier ROIs for growers.
In conclusion, WISErg’s process converts what was once a waste into a valuable resource. As a result, there are fewer greenhouse gases, more food, and a healthier environment. Our innovative solution – WISErganic – closes the loop from farm to table and supports efficient farming solutions that easily integrate into existing operations. It is truly the platinum standard for use in both conventional and organic farming and sets the standard for sustainable agriculture in today’s world.
3. What’s the future of Agriculture?
BV: Data, Data and more Data. Decisions made with data are always better decisions. The Internet of Things will be used to maximize yields and ROIs for growers. Examples of better decisions using data:
Prediction #1: Real-time collection of weather, soil health, nutrient levels, plant uptake, and potential stressors can only make for better and more efficient fertility programs and timings of applications. Aerial imagery and in-ground sensors can drive exact timing and application rates on an hourly basis to achieve maximum results.
Prediction #2: Big data aggregation across crop types, soil types, and fertility programs will result in optimal programs for any grower using any growing method (field, greenhouse, vertical, hydroponic, aeroponic, etc). The best practices will be available to all and as these practices evolve, the programs can evolve with them.
Prediction #3: On-demand customization of fertility inputs. Those companies, like WISErg, that can integrate their products into the above real-time data collections will be able to fine tune their formulas into a just-in-time ordering process to deliver the highest performing formulations to individual growers based on their current conditions. Taken to the furthest extreme, grower on-site automatic mixing and formulations can be created using the data.
4. What are the top technological trends you’re seeing in AgTech?
Trend #1: Data, as previously discussed.
Trend #2: Measuring, understanding and being able to recover and maintain soil health.
Trend #3: Innovative farming methods such as autonomous harvesting robots that not only harvest, but also pack and ship.
Trend #4: Greater focus on food safety, traceability and freshness delivery promises to the consumer.
5. Why is Agriculture ripe for disruption?
BV: As previously mentioned, there are huge investments being made in sustainable and environmentally-friendly growing methods and products used in these efforts. Consumers are asking more and more about how their food is grown and are making buying decisions based on best practices.
Additionally, new methods are being developed every day to grow the food of the future.
Finally, management of ROI and yield via Big Data and AI will be a huge disruptor that will maximize food production, freshness, and safety for the consumer. We at WISErg are super excited to be one the players on the leading edge of these changes and can’t wait to help shepherd them in and see what the future holds for all of us who need to eat.
About Brian Valentine
Brian Valentine is responsible for successfully launching some of the most prevalent technologies available today. He spent 19 years at Microsoft, leading the launches of Exchange 4.0, 5.0, and 5.5 before moving onto the Windows team to launch Windows 2000, XP, XP2 and Vista. In 2006, Jeff Bezos invited Brian to join Amazon to help the company evolve its software systems into a world class eCommerce system. After building and leading that eCommerce team for 8 years and succeeding in the mission he and Jeff had planned, Brian decided to dedicate his energy towards WISErg full-time, and help the company scale nationwide.