Rob Saik is an educator, entrepreneur, innovator and visionary with over forty years’ experience as a Professional Agrologist, entrepreneur, international consultant, and most recently has been named as one of Canada’s Top 50 Most Influential People in Agriculture. Rob sat down with The Top Innovators team recently to chat about his experience of agriculture and innovation over his career, and where he sees the future of the industry.
Can you share with us a little more about yourself, how you started out in your career and why agriculture?
Farming was a huge part of my childhood, I grew up on a mixed farming operation in Canada but I’m not sure how that jumped into the career I have now. I suppose growing up I was always, and still am, fascinated by space. From that I naturally evolved an interest in computers and technology at university. While I never did any programming courses, I’ve always taken an interest in technology and how technology can help join the dots in the challenges facing farming operations.
I am now, and have always been a very curious person but also I would say I’m very stubborn and I am comfortable taking risks. Straight out of university I joined a multi-national company in Crop Protection which gave me great training but it wasn’t long before my natural instincts were pushing me into the entrepreneurial world. Fast forward and I’ve now founded something like 16 companies, with a couple of public exits. Being an entrepreneur I’m able to stand on my own two feet and say what I think without any repercussions. I’m not representing a company, an ideology or a political party so I can speak freely in a public space.
Fundamentally everything that I do comes back to science. I am an agronomist, so I have a deep understanding of plant physiology, soil chemistry and plant nutrition. This technology alongside my passion for connecting the dots between a challenge and a solution is what I’ve built my entire career around.
Not only have you founded these organisations, you’ve also become a published author and public speaker too. Can you tell us a little more about these experiences?
Well, I’ve written two books: The Agriculture Manifesto and Food 5.0. Interestingly my most recent book, Food 5.0, which considers the problem of a global food crisis, starts ‘When you woke up this morning did you think about a plague?’. I wanted to consider how technology and agriculture would respond in the face of a global famine, a global war or a pandemic. Which, considering it was written back in early 2019, is quite prophetic taking into account the last 12 months.
I’m lucky to have had several amazing opportunities to directly address decision makers in politics and business when it comes to agricultural challenges. Just a few months ago I spoke in front of the UN, the FAO and the World Committee on Food Security to bring up the issues on how we can feed the planet when so much ideology around agriculture isn’t grounded in common sense.
One ideology I specifically addressed with the UN was food waste. This is a hugely pressing topic for politicians and the media. How we reduce our food waste is commonly discussed and always raises the question around how we are able to educate the masses on the subject. Something that’s far less known however, is the science behind food wastage, specifically regarding the number one cause of food waste, mycotoxins. Micro-toxins cause millions of tons of food waste in fields and storage every year as well as suspected to be be a leading cause of liver cancer globally – killing millions of people every year, yet still it’s rarely mentioned.
Alongside my work with the UN I was also fortunate enough to spend six hours with Bill Gates, discussing how we can leverage AgTech to increase sustainability and enhance global food security. Bill is very well versed and pragmatic individual; he wants to work with agricultural professionals to leverage technology to make a difference right down to the small landowners.
So Food 5.0 addresses these ideological ‘myths’ and considers what we can do to pragmatically make an impact on the future food crisis. What can the general public do to contribute to supporting the food crisis?
The first thing you can do is educate yourself. This book was written for an avatar, as with most books, I had a target person I was writing for. A 33 year old, single mum living in the city with two kids. She’s busy, she’s distanced from food production but she’s invested in the future and wants to help. The main thing readers can do is educate themselves on agriculture practices and remove their fear of food.
Most of what we’re fed in the media is a spin designed to pull extra pounds out of your pocket. I wanted to make sure that if this ‘avatar’ was able to make educated consumer decisions. For instance if she wanted to buy organically, she was doing so for the right reasons. Buy organic if you want to but make sure that you understand what it actually means first.
The company you are working on right now, AGvisorPRO, can you share a little more about what it is and what it does?
When it comes to farm profitability, agriculture sustainability and global food security, the pinch point is farm access to the right advice from the right expert at the right time, we built AGvisorPRO to address this challenge.
AGvisorPRO is a connectivity channel for agriculture. We provide farmers, growers, ranchers and agri businesses with a seamless way to connect with ag industry experts. It comes in the format of an easily to download app built to combines four basic principles:
- E-Harmony – matching a farmer or help seeker, with an advisor through an algorithm. The advisor might be a technology company, a government representative, a fellow farmer, a researcher, a scientist – literally anyone in the agriculture community.
- FaceTime – How do we integrate connectivity providing instantaneous audio/visual integration and facilitating this communication between the two parties
- Uber – Now fundamentally we’re a transactional facilitator, enabling the transaction to happen inside the application in local currency anywhere globally
- Twitter – Increase the reach of the app and the service through the wider internet
This brings even the most remote farmers access to the same level of expertise as those running huge farms in well-connected zones.
AGvisorPRO is is all about connectivity but how can you do that with rural populations.
Well the good news is that the majority of farmers will have access to smartphones already. So all they need to do is install a simple app and then they’re connected to the shared knowledge of this online community of experts and professionals. The farms that aren’t currently as connected will very soon be. It’s fascinating even the most rural farms are embracing connectivity as quickly as they can.
When you first started out in agriculture what was considered innovative and different but now is standard practice?
The number one biggest change to agriculture over my career has been the introduction of genetically engineered crops. This is the most progressive scientific finding for the sector in a generation. GMO crops require less pesticides as they are bred to be resistant to insect damage and plant viruses. Many GMO crops are bred to be tolerant to herbicides, meaning the farmer does not need to till the soil, this helps maintain soil health, lower fuel and labour use. In my opinion they are the best thing for the sector and the best thing we can do for the environment too. While there are many ethical arguments surrounding this technology, leading to GMO crops being banned in many parts of the world, it has absolutely transformed farming in North America.
Another technology that has come on leaps and bounds in recent years I would say is GPS guided equipment. Hardly any farms operate now with steering wheels, the majority will use satellite driven technology. The other one worth noting is remote sensing which is coming on at breakneck speed. By this I mean drones, aerial or satellite imagery taken over fields. This constant feed of information notifies farmers where there’s a problem, and in some cases it may even identify what the issue is. While it’s incredibly useful technology, we do still need humans to identify why the problem is there and how we fix it.
Outside of this some things will always remain the same. The fundamental foundations of agronomy and agricultural science – however the amount of information available to us as agronomists working with farmers has expanded exponentially.
As with most industries now, I think a huge part of the future of successful agricultural businesses is in algorithms, he who has the best algorithm wins.
What would you imagine farming to look like in the next 30-50 years?
I think the most interesting thing about the future of farming will be the scale of it. We’re predicting a population of 9-10 billion by 2050. So that means, from a food production perspective, we have to grow ten thousand years worth of food in the next 29 years. To meet that demand every jurisdiction on the planet must increase food production by 60-70%, and pressure on exporting nations is even higher than that.
These are big numbers, huge numbers in fact. Can we do it? Yes…agriculture can definitely do it, but will politics and people’s ideologies allow agriculture to do it? I actually did a TEDx talk that addressed this exact question.
Here is a perfect example. As we sit here chatting the EU is passing a law for their common food policy where 25% of all food production within the EU must be organic over the next few years. Sounds good right? However, there are always consequences to these types of ideologically driven decisions. There’s a yield drop with organic food production meaning lower yields. So, with this new rule coming into play we’re looking at a 8-12% drop in food production from countries in the EU. But they’ll still need to meet the increased food demand, so where will they import this food from? Well, it’s likely to come from Brazil. Brazil is the most ecologically diverse country in the world. So, we’re going to reduce our food production in the EU to switch to organic, but we’re going to need more food so we’re going to import it from Brazil. But how will Brazil scale up their food production? Well they will need more land and to get more land they will be taking down more of the rainforest. When you take these repercussions into account, is the ideology of moving to organic worth the ecological impact?
We absolutely loved chatting to Rob about his views on the industry and his experiences over his career when it comes to innovation. For more information on Rob visit to his website and head over to Amazon to order his books.