A (2nd) Conversation with Soren Schroder

 

Good morning, Soren. Could you please tell us what you have been doing since you left Bunge?

I left Bunge in June 2019 after six years as CEO and after 36 years in traditional agricultural trading and processing with Continental, Cargill, and Bunge. I am now trying to use my experience to help emerging companies across the full spectrum of the agricultural value chain.

What areas have attracted your attention?

I have focused on optimizing existing agriculture using modern technology: indoor agriculture, digital data around agriculture and food, natural rubber, micro-biological products that improve yields, carbon capture, and remote sensor equipment to monitor grain quality.

Aquaculture is perhaps also a piece that deserves special mention. Next to cultured meat grown in fermentation tanks, aquaculture is probably the most efficient way to transform feed into protein. It can make a very positive environmental impact as feed, sensor and data technology evolves further.

So too will indoor controlled agriculture, starting with leafy greens and quickly evolving into vegetables, fruits and berries. It is a sector undergoing a massive technological revolution, and it brings production closer to the consumer.

Over the past 75 years, the focus has been on increasing agricultural yields while at the same time reducing costs. It has been about growing enough calories. We still want to produce enough calories, but we now want to develop the right kind of calories in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, repairs the soil, and produces nutrient-dense food.

It is a new revolution: using technology to improve existing production techniques and regenerate soils. The goal is to harness the power of ‘Production Ag’ without all the adverse side effects.

The world is working to decarbonize the economy. Is that driving this new agricultural revolution?

Decarbonization is part of this new agricultural revolution, but there are other forces at work, all pointing in the same direction. For example, the demand for alternative proteins is driven by consumer preference for healthier food and concerns over animal welfare; it’s not just about carbon.

But it’s all moving in the same direction. Alternative protein was not created only because of a quest for decarbonization, but it’s part of the equation. You see this with new initiatives from the USDA and the new Green Deal in Europe. Both support the transition to the next stage of precision farming, where agriculture contributes to carbon capture or reduces farming’s negative impact on the environment. At the same time, it allows farmers ways to differentiate between the crops and products they produce.

I put indoor farming, genetics, data management, artificial intelligence, and robotics in the technology bucket. Am I missing something? 

I would certainly include soil health; it is almost a bucket on its own. Soil health is the key to unlocking many carbon initiatives and finding better ways to deploy and create plant nutrients.  The USDA and many companies are trying to figure out ways to monetize carbon captured under different farming practices and protocols. We must develop carbon capture standards. The USDA is best placed to do that, especially if it means financial incentives to allow farmers to change practices.

Carbon farming comes under the bullet of soil health. It is already happening but not yet at scale.  The scale will come with standards.

It seems that regenerative agriculture has a significant role to play.

There are – at least – two schools of thought on regenerative agriculture.

The first is where you let nature do its work, and you learn from the best practices that have been proven over the centuries. You don’t till. You plant cover crops.  You have farm animals that fertilize the ground, and you thoughtfully rotate them. It’s an integrated system where, over time, you create a healthy soil microbiome. Using modern equipment and data results in similar yields and possibly better profitability than you would get using traditional technology, chemicals, and fertilizers.

There’s another school of thought where regenerative agriculture means using all the tools in the toolbox. One tool might be CRISPR technology for seeds. Another might be advanced micro-ingredients for nutrient build-up in soil that can substitute for chemical fertilizers and eliminate some pesticides. It is about using technology to its fullest extent to improve soil health and capture carbon in a turbocharged way.

I think the result might be the same, but how you get there is vastly different. Big Ag is going for the second option, using every tool in the toolbox.

Big Ag faces a problem with consumers’ apprehension over and understanding of technology.  Consumer attitudes in the western world could ultimately prevent farmers from efficiently producing enough food to feed everybody and do it in a sustainable, healthy way. We need to find a way for the consumer, the farmer, and the technology providers to communicate and establish trust.

Thank you, Soren, for your time and input.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

This is a short extract from my upcoming book Commodity Crops & The Merchants Who Trade Them.

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