Madrid-based Eatable Adventures – one of the top three food-tech accelerators in the world, has just closed 50% of its €30 million investment vehicle Europe Foodtech Acceleration Fund I SCSp. The new investment vehicle focusses on technology-based seed projects in the agri-food sector, encompassing the Spain Foodtech and FoodSeed acceleration programmes in Italy, with a third programme set to launch soon in Europe.
Some 60% of the fund’s exposure is specifically agri-tech over food-tech related, Cabañero told AgTechNavigator. “After investing in areas like food delivery quite significantly, investors are moving towards more sustainable and more social and more impactful investments. And for us this is taking us more to agri and the need to sustain primary production.”
One huge challenge that Eatable Adventures seeks to address is the issue of ageing farmers. The average age of farmers globally is 65, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. It warns there are not enough young farmers to replace them when they soon retire. “There’s a big problem,” said Cabañero. “Couple that with the fact in many countries agricultural and farming facilities are being transformed into solar farms and energy production, it means the capacity to produce new food in the future is going to be severely jeopardised.”
The ageing farmer timebomb therefore threatens the future of farming at a time when innovation is most needed to address food security and environmental challenges. Fertilisers are increasingly needed as soils are depleted, for example, but this brings environmental effects. Energy costs are rising, while global warming is creating extreme weather events and increasingly unstable growing conditions. “Put all this together and there is a strong need to start taking action into the agricultural landscape and we see that there a number of elements that are needed that will be coming to resolve this situation.”
‘People ask us why we are backing vertical farming’
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is consequently one horse the investment fund is backing. “This is something that is going to become more and more relevant,” said Cabañero. There has, however, been a slew of recent failures in the global CEA and vertical farming market, principally owing to rising energy costs. “People have been asking us why are we getting into it,” he revealed. “But we were very successful with Ekonoke [which grows beer hops] who passed through one of our programmes.”
Eatable Adventures is now championing Spain-based Néboda, an indoor vertical farming start-up which is using automation borrowed from the automobile industry to improve efficiencies. “It’s a very interesting approach to vertical farming that is really helping to get production costs down,” explained Cabañero. “They are incorporating traditional automobile industry lean manufacturing into the vertical farming space. By bringing high efficiency and high yield techniques they can achieve very positive unit economics and produce food literally without human intervention and without labour at very reasonable prices to the market at special quality. They are getting a nice traction.”
“One of the ways we can overcome this ageing farmer situation by incorporating new production methodologies and learning from other industries like the automotive one that has already passed through these phases of automation.”
Growing demand for natural fertilisers
The fund is also eyeing growth in natural fertilisers. “Fertiliser production is one the largest energy consumers in the world. We believe that transforming fertilisers and crop protections to natural ones is something that is going to be critical for our agricultural landscape in the future.”
Eatable Adventures is backing Italian start-up Agreen Biosolutions, which notes that by 2030, Italian (National Action Plan) and European (from Farm to Fork) regulations will reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50% and increase the agricultural area cultivated with biological tools by 60% compared to today. Unfortunately, the market lacks sufficient products capable of protecting plants and replicating common phytosanitary agents, it says, both in terms of effectiveness and cost. The agricultural market, therefore, needs an alternative with the same efficacy and comparable costs.
Agreen’s solution is an ozonized oil with a variable concentration of ozone, to be applied in agricultural fields, ensuring a preventive and/or curative effect. This certified ‘tonic’; oil, with biostimulant and phytosanitary effects, eliminates the use of chemical pesticides and provides significant cost savings for farmers, the company claims. “It’s an amazing solution,” Cabañero said.
It is also supporting transparent supply chains. Pescara-based startup Trusty, for example, specialises in blockchain-based traceability solutions for the agri-food sector, and specifically, for the cocoa industry. Its platform not only allows transparent transactions between responsible producers and the industry but also offers microfinancing opportunities. “That’s helping farmers stay in business which is something very important to us,” said Cabañero. “By providing micro finance and insurance and loans to the farmers we can make sure that global warming is not really affecting their living standards and their operations and can stay in business for multiple years.”
The need for climate-smart agriculture
Precision farming is another growth area on the radar. “Techniques like desert farming are going to become dominant in the areas most affected by droughts and extreme weather like Spain and southern Europe. I also think this type of technology will be very useful to revamp traditional production so we will be able to start gaining back productivity in these areas.”
The Eatable Adventures acceleration programme includes Italian start-up Regrowth which is responding to a lack of adequate tools for extensive livestock farming management. It has introduced a Precision Livestock Farming tool for extensive production farms, allowing farmers to monitor their farms. Regrowth claims to offer a system capable of reducing animal losses by around 60% through early disease identification.
Eatable Adventures is also supporting Soonapse, a start-up based in Rome which has developed AI-based weather forecasts for wine makers, allowing them to improve production quality.
The need to preserve rich gastronomic heritage
The merging of wine production and new technology brings up a current debate – particularly in Italy, where there is push back against technology (and a ban on cellular agriculture) in an effort to protect its world-renowned food heritage.
But Cabañero argues that technological innovations can in fact preserve the rich food heritage in countries like Italy and Spain. “An Italian pasta producer told me the single element that can be improved to get better quality pasta is wheat quality. If we can get better primary production with a top quality with a resiliency to global warming, we will have better food products. We believe that technology is playing a primary role in securing production and quality levels.”
Technology key to attracting a new generation into the industry
He reiterates that technology can both solve agricultural challenges and help retain the new blood needed to implement the solutions: technology is key to attracting a new generation into the industry, he said.
“The average age of the population is a problem for technology adoption in this market. That’s something that’s important to consider. We definitely need technology, and we definitely need to get farming more exciting for the younger generations. One of the ways to do it is transforming agriculture from a blue-collar type of industry to a white collar one. This is where agri-tech is going to be playing a leading role into this transformation and the induction of younger generations into this industry.”