Buying organic food is great for the environment, and even better for your health. Right?
Sort of. Organic food is grown or made without man-made fertilisers and pesticides—which is certainly better than spraying crops with toxic chemicals. But it doesn’t mean that pesticides are eliminated from the process altogether. Even with the organic label, it’s possible to shower food with as many naturally-occurring compounds as the farmer desires—and that’s why your supermarket apples are likely covered with various blends of spider venom.
Vancouver company Semios Technologies, however, thinks it’s found a way to eliminate pesticide use altogether.
“Farmers are always environmentalists,” Michael Gilbert, CEO of Semios, tells the Straight on the line from his office. “Because they really care about the planet, often one of their least favourite jobs is spraying chemicals. At the same time, the customer has zero tolerance for imperfections. If there’s an apple in the supermarket that has a tiny hole, no-one is going to take it. Farmers are stuck with the dilemma of how to manage that. That’s why we developed our technology.”
A chemist by trade, Gilbert spent much of his career looking at naturally occurring compounds and figuring out how to make them work in a positive way for humans. It was in that capacity that he discovered pheromones. A type of chemical used by insects to communicate, pheromones affect the behaviour of other members of the species. Hypothesising that tapping into that communication network would allow him to control the actions of pests on farms, Gilbert discovered that he could minimize damage to crops without having to kill insects.
“Despite the fact that the nature of pheromones is well-known, they were being deployed on less than one per cent of the farms that could be using them,” he said. “We wanted to change that.”
Digging into why the practice wasn’t widespread, Gilbert realized that the issue lay in the delivery system.
“How do you get pheromones into the field?” he says. “With more toxic chemicals, you can spray it in two weeks, everything’s dead, and nothing survives for another two weeks. With pheromones, you have to spray them two to three hours every night. A farmer isn’t going to go and do that himself every evening, so we had to find a better way of doing things.
“I approached the Canadian government and said, ‘If I can figure out a way to have a wireless network that can communicate across these large farms, I can probably figure out a way to deliver pheromones more effectively’,” he continues. “They agreed. We approved a $10 million project to develop and show how this would work. It took about two to three years to figure out how to communicate between the different trees in an orchard, and we launched our system three years ago.”
Erecting tens of thousands of sensors within each field, Semios can effectively disseminate the biological chemicals at each necessary location—but that’s not all the company is able to do. With its comprehensive wireless network, Semios can collect data to monitor temperature, soil moisture, pest pressures, water, and other essential factors. It can predict when frosts will occur to help direct planting and harvesting, and sense when anti-fungals should be applied to prevent disease. In short, it provides enough big data that farmers can throw away their almanacs.
“Everything in nature is happening for a reason, and it may not be immediately obvious to us,” Gilbert says. “If you happen to have a disease on your tree that you need to spray with antibiotics, why is it occurring? Typically it’s driven by some combination of humidity, water, temperature, and what we do is monitor as many inputs as we can, and then get the farmer to tell us what happened. We put all that data into our machine learning services, and then we’ll look for relationships—like how many farmers experienced an uptick in disease after it rained, for example, so we can determine if that impacted anything. We’re trying to figure out what the key elements are to these trends, and remove the guesswork from farming.
“Our biggest market is California,” he continues. “We only do things like apples, oranges, cherries, pistachios, almonds—anything that grows on trees, because that is where our network has the biggest advantage. Wireless communication is most difficult when there are big trees, and because we’ve solved that issue, that’s our niche. California has over 2 million acres of that. By contrast, the Okanagan valley has about 12,000. We had 100% customer retention in California. That state to us is worth just over $400 million a year in potential revenue. Some of the Honeycrisp apples they grow are worth $25,000 an acre.”
Despite doing a lot of their business internationally, including hosting 40 sites in Europe in eight different countries, Semios is proud to be a local company. As well as Canada's federal budget injecting $1.4 billion to help green technology companies like Gilbert’s grow, develop, and export, Vancouver is fast becoming a supercluster of startups in the cleantech industry.
“I’m really excited to build a tech businesses in B.C.,” he said. “Too often our companies can’t expand because they get bought out, often by a U.S. competitor. I’d like Semios to grow here. It’s important for our city, and it’s important for the environment.”
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