Howard-Yana Shapiro began his career as a university professor aged just 21, he soon became dissatisfied with teaching and yearned to learn more about agriculture directly himself. After taking a research position, he later founded several companies which, after a successful buy-out, saw him join multinational FMCG, Mars as Chief Agricultural Officer. Since leaving his position as CAO, he’s been heavily involved in a number of projects supporting individuals and organisation to make headway in the sector. We sat down with him to find out a little more about his interests, his background and what he’s looking for on The Top Innovators in Agriculture List.
Can you share a little bit about yourself and what inspired a career in agriculture?
It’s very simple. I was in and around farms from around the age of five onwards. I had relatives who had come through the Second World War in Europe. They came to the United States and all they wanted to do was produce food and never be hungry again. Many of these family members became very successful farmers and on weekends/holidays we would go and work on these farms. That was just something we did – I assumed everyone did this when they had time off.
Subsequently, I was always interested in plants. I would spend a lot of time at New York Botanical Garden absolutely mesmerised by all the plants. I remember going to the big greenhouses and all these plants were flowering and I’d just stand and stare at them. They weren’t your typical household flower; they were exotic flowers from all over the world and were as astonishing to look at as their scientific name. I learnt about pollination and reproducing plants long before I knew anything about the birds and the bees with humans. This fascination has just stayed with me forever, I never got it out of my system, and I’ve farmed pretty much my entire life until I moved to California.
I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate working in the fields, then as part of the Ford Foundation working with poor communities in the South. These communities had seeds that they could trace back to their relatives who were forced onto boats and moved to the U.S. as slaves. I found this so astonishing evolving my passion for seeds specifically within agriculture.
Can you share a little more about the projects you’ve worked on that have been impacted by innovation during your career?
I’ve always been interested in maize. In 2018, work that I started 35 years ago was proven, showing that a maize plant could make its own nitrogen. While I suspected this back in the 80’s and theorised it, there was only so much that I could do to prove it – the technology simply wasn’t around at this point. This knowledge will hopefully enable us to develop less nitrogen-dependent yet commercially viable maize varieties, reducing costs for farmers planting maize in nitrogen-depleted soils and helping farmers produce more of the crops we’ll need in the face of the upcoming food crisis.
There are a lot of innovative ways people are working to combat the food crisis. A perfect example that I’ve been involved with is the research into Aflatoxin. This can be found in many plants and in the soil, it’s carried to the seed/storage and chronically impacts 4.5 billion people globally. The problem was to really look into this and understand what can be done to combat the problem, we’d need hours, weeks, years even of research. Time that we just couldn’t dedicate to this problem alone. So a few years ago a colleague and I came up with an interesting idea, we created an online puzzle that challenged people to spot patterns – little did they know they were looking at proteins. It’s called Fold.It, since we started it more than 500,000 people have played the puzzle to try and create proteins that would detoxify Aflatoxin in storage. This game has hugely helped our research and we’re now close to having solutions that we can put into the public domain so they can be made.
A lot of science in agriculture, or at least in my field of work, has been in spotting patterns. That’s what we’ve been trying to achieve in the game, asking people to spot the patterns that we, as scientists, can use to inform our work. I’ve been looking at nature for more than 50 years and often spot patterns in things that other people don’t. It’s great at this point in my career to be talked about by other people, to have other people asking your advice on topics, to help find funding and develop solutions by sharing my knowledge and insights.
You almost knew your calling from your earliest memory, feeling this passion and a keenness to understand it more and then be able to do it better and working with other people to do it better too.
Yes, my other background outside of biology is anthropology. I find it fascinating studying crops and plants from an anthropological viewpoint. How did the three sisters (squash, maize and beans) of traditional American peoples come to be? I’ve always been curious to understand why people eat what they do eat. In some cases, it’s simply the only option but in others it’s influenced by other things. Did you know that all apples came from Kazakstan originally? Or that all maize originated from a small area in Mexico? Look at how this spread around the world, what it meant and how we think about it. I suppose this is what fed my wanderlust for life, not wanting to sit at a desk but to explore the world through Agriculture.
Innovation comes in all different forms, and innovative research is something we wanted to discuss with you.
The way you went around the Cacao Genome project is an interesting example of innovative methods of research, pushing collaboration between organisations that wouldn’t always be working together. It wasn’t just ‘What technology can we come up with?’ it asked more ‘How can we work together to be more innovative?’
Can you tell us a little more about the collaboration in that project?
I coined a term ‘Uncommon Collaborations’, if you look at the Cacao Genome it was people who had never worked together before: Mars, IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The premise was ‘let’s do this genome and put it in the public domain so it can’t be patented.’ This cacao genome was completed in 2010, and was redone in 2020 because new technology developments allowed further discovery. In genomics technology there is always discovery and development which is such fun.
I believe that every cycle of innovation must go through three stages: discovery, translation and scale. There are lots of discoveries made at universities and in the industrial sector that never get translated or scaled for various reasons. As with the aflatoxin research I mentioned earlier and the maize plant producing its own nitrogen, technology can come along and help these discoveries that may have taken place years ago to be translated and then scaled. It’s the beauty of collaborative research.
What would you say is the biggest change in agriculture you’ve seen in your career?
The start of the 20th century was all about physics, then it became an era of chemistry and now it’s an era of biology. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry last year for their discovery of one of gene technology’s sharpest tools CRISPR. This is exquisite technology that couldn’t have even been thought about ten years ago, now we have 50 papers published each week that look at CRISPR. I personally think we could use CRISPR to make peanuts, maize, and nuts aflatoxin-resistant.
Another example of developing technology is as simple as the size of complex technology. The first sequencer I used was the size of a small school bus, using punch cards, I now have a sequencer that fits in my shirt pocket. I can power a very reasonable sequence overnight that can inform decisions – it’s totally changed my life.
The history of innovation in agriculture has always been that the speed of change is faster than our ability to respond. However, in recent years our ability to respond is getting closer to the speed of change which is great for agricultural innovation.
The other amazing development that I’ve loved watching has been artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Do you remember IBM’s Deep Blue computer which learnt to play chess and after three years it was able to beat a grand master chess player? IBM had given all the plays ever recorded to the computer until it could become unbeatable. However, later researchers DeepMind, used the Alpha Zero Paradox and gave the rules of the game to the computer but nothing else, nothing about the history of the games or strategies. Within days it could beat anyone in the world. It only learnt the rules and could beat anyone. This made me think – what are the rules I need to study to make breakthroughs?
What innovations currently going on in agriculture don’t interest you?
I must say that I don’t have a simple answer to what innovations will or won’t catch my eye. There are, of course, things that play to my passions which I’ll always find more interesting than others though I’ll always try to help where I can.
One example is my recent interactions with a Scandinavian plant-based cheese company. Now as a vegan I have very limited interest in plant-based replacements for meat or dairy. It’s interesting for sure, and I’m glad people are exploring it, but other cultures have been eating things they didn’t call meat but provided the same texture for years. What interested me in the plant-based cheese company was how they were going about it. They wanted my support with the Head of Research in recreating the texture of real cheese. So looking at how we trick the receptors into believing you’re eating mozzarella? Fast-forward to today and they’re making phenomenal, chef-standard cheese now. Will I ever taste it? No, probably not but the people using scientific technology that makes the innovation fascinating to me.
I appreciate there are people in the world who need these substitutes, perhaps they are lactose intolerant, but I can’t help but ponder the following – the plant-food market is a multi-million dollar business, what would happen if we took that money and put it into improving nutrition in food – could that have far wider-reaching results?
As I said, I don’t have a simple answer but I’m excited to read the nominations and find out more.
What advice would you give to people coming into the industry with a great idea, but no funding or technology behind them?
My suspicion is that there is a rethink going on. I think people need to focus on the elucidation of a problem that needs a solution rather than the solution that needs a problem. Everything will follow if you’re solving a problem.