Farmers are on the front lines of climate change as growing seasons and destructive weather events that threaten their crops become increasingly unpredictable. They need tools to cope with and mitigate growing climate challenges. The Grow-NY Food and Agriculture competition seeks to uplift food and agriculture technology innovators around the world and establish New York state as a hub for technologies that support farmers as well as sustain our food supply. Startups can apply until July 1 for the chance of winning the $1 million top prize that Grow-NY will award in November.
Food and agricultural innovators concerned about these issues are encouraged to apply.
Limits to climate mitigation efforts in agriculture
In a first-of-its-kind report, A Call for Innovation: New York’s Agrifood System made clear the increasingly urgent needs farmers have related to climate change and the barriers facing them in meeting those needs. Published by Cornell University last year, the findings are just as relevant, if not more so, a year later.
The vast majority of farmers interviewed for the report discussed increasingly erratic weather as a threat to their crop yields; specifically heavier rainfalls and longer drought periods each year.
These observations were supported by The National Climate Assessment and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose analyses supported projections of increasing heavy precipitation in the Northeast and its possible negative effects on agricultural production in the region.
Between 1958 and 2012, the Northeast saw a 70% increase in the amount of heavy rainfall, more than anywhere else in the US, according to the EPA. Farmers need early warning systems to more accurately predict destructive weather events like frost, heavy rain, and hail that threaten the health of their crops.
Climate scientists have also pointed to drought and heat stress as possible threats to agriculture in NY, and the Northeast in general, in the coming decades.
As droughts potentially reduce yields for hay, corn, and other silage crops, farmers are concerned about potential changes to the availability and price of these crops used for livestock feed. They may also be required to invest in expensive new irrigation equipment and possibly, in some regions, put a strain on existing water supplies and watersheds to be able to meet the water requirements of all of their farms.
Long-term climate mitigation approaches for agriculture have been proposed from indoor farming, controlled environment agriculture methods (e.g. hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics) and regenerative agriculture methods (e.g. cover cropping and no-till farming) to organic farming, methane reduction, and even robotics. However, in practice, farmers are a long way from being able to implement these strategies for a variety of reasons including questionable returns on investment and effectiveness of these new methods, and prohibitively high costs.
For example, there is an emerging body of criticism in the climate change advocacy community that soil carbon sequestration (a regenerative agriculture method) alone may not in fact be enough to reduce net greenhouse emissions. Instead, it must be combined with the complete array of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide mitigation techniques and be held up to rigorous standards and properly incentivized.
More importantly, techniques like utilizing robotics or establishing indoor farming systems require what farmers consider insurmountably high costs and energy demands — and the former requires an additional investment in education and labor costs required to service and maintain new high-tech machinery.
Overwhelmingly, farmers felt under pressure to focus on the immediate threats to their crop production introduced by the changing climate. They said they need more support in making decisions around long-term capital investments to improve their effectiveness in fighting climate change. Ultimately, their greatest challenge is economic survival.
Small farms and other food and agriculture businesses know what it takes to fight and mitigate climate change, but need the capital to shift from prioritizing staying afloat, to directing their resources toward climate goals.
This is a gap that grants and competitions like the Grow-NY food and agriculture competition seek to fill.
Investing in agtech innovators
With five annual competitions offering $1 million top prizes, New York’s venture competition landscape is remarkably generous and productive. What sets the global Grow-NY food and agriculture startup competition apart is its home base at Cornell University. Being located within a land grant university that is additionally an R1 research institution, a top-three agriculture school, and a top 15 business school, Grow-NY finalists have a unique chance to develop their companies within an environment fostering breakthrough science resulting in real-world solutions.
Recently renewed and funded by New York state for another three-year competition cycle, Grow-NY functions as a 15-month accelerator that down-selects from 20 finalists to seven winners after an initial three-month period spent connecting the cohort to the business development resources most suited to supporting their unique innovations and regional economic development.
New businesses contribute a disproportionately high number of new jobs to existing economies, which is the motivation behind New York’s venture competitions, which strive to attract innovation. Some target existing industry sectors such as optics, photonics, and imaging, like the Luminate Accelerator. Others focus on geographical zones, as Buffalo’s 43North Accelerator does. Like the latter, Grow-NY strives to draw new technology from around the world into the agrifood system spanning Upstate New York.
“In addition to dedicated mentorship, Grow-NY offers profound and productive networking with Upstate NY’s industry leaders, researchers, state agencies, and the organizations that cater to startups,” says Grow-NY program director Jenn Smith. “There is a bespoke approach to networking for each of our finalists. Our goal is to offer so much help and such rich, productive connectivity that whether your startup wins $1M, $500K, $250k, or finishes without a cash prize, you leave after three months with an easy liftoff to operating in New York, the Northeast, and North America ahead of you.”
The future of food
By situating the Grow-NY program within Cornell, New York encourages startups to participate in efforts focused on developing the food and farms of the future to address the changes and challenges of our time, foremost being the climate crisis.
The live pitch for this year’s competition’s cash prizes takes place alongside a symposium of panel conversations and fireside chats that draws its inspiration from Cornell’s 2030 Project, a climate initiative that will transform food systems, innovate energy solutions, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote environmental justice and shape economic and policy decisions.
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