One of the outcomes of the recent COP27 meeting in Sharm el Sheikh was the emphasis on the role that agriculture has to play in moving towards net zero. Fulfilling that role will demand innovation in the sector (‘agritech’ as it is often known), and IP protection will play a crucial part in that innovation.
Two initiatives in particular were announced at the meeting:
These complement existing initiatives such as the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, a joint US-UAE initiative which has raised over $8 billion in investment in “climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation” for 2021-25.
Examples of agritech innovation
The developments at COP27 highlight the important role that new technologies – such as gene editing, robotics, remote monitoring, vertical farming and artificial intelligence – have to play in improving yields, optimising conditions and reducing waste in agriculture.
For example, the UK company Gardin provides a remote optical phenotyping product that uses sensors and machine learning-based analytics to monitor plants in vertical farms and greenhouses. It alerts growers to problems such as drought, disease or heat stress so they can take any action necessary. The technology was recently featured on an episode of BBC Click and was named one of Oxford’s ‘hottest startups’ by Wired UK.
Another UK agritech pioneer is Small Robot Company, whose three robots (Tom, Dick and Harry) monitor, treat and plant crops autonomously. Its AI engine gives farmers ‘Per Plant intelligence’ and creates treatment maps to advise farmers on the best action to take. It was one of 10 British agritech startups highlighted in an article in The Grocer earlier this year, which noted that initiatives including four new agritech centres are making the UK a leader in the sector. Indeed, agri-science is one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ recently identified by the UK government.
However, other countries are also seeing lots of interesting innovation. A recent WIPO Magazine article, for example, profiled Beewise, an Israeli start-up that uses AI, computer vision and robotics to monitor beehives and take actions such as feeding them or providing medicine in real time. Its mission is “to save bees”.
Agritech has an especially important role to play in Africa, given the growing population and the impact of climate change on agricultural land. According to one recent report, six agritech companies in Africa raised a total of $113.9 million in the first six months of this year. That compares to a total of just $48.5 million in the whole of 2019.
Another innovation that is attracting increasing interest is precision fermentation using hydrogen or methanol, which has the potential to shrink the footprint of food production and reduce food miles. This will especially benefit countries that are most vulnerable to food insecurity, as argued in a recent article in The Guardian. A new campaign relating to precision fermentation, Reboot Food, was launched at COP27.
IP issues to consider
One notable point about agritech is the diverse range of technologies that are involved. Agritech companies are developing products and processes using biotechnology and chemistry, as well as robotics, sensors, mobile apps and artificial intelligence and other software-related inventions, for example. Many of these innovations define inventions that are potentially protectable using patents. Other forms of IP rights may also apply to the new products and processes, or related innovations including packaging and branding, including plant variety rights, copyright, registered designs or trade secrets.
Patents help companies to raise financing and to negotiate licensing agreements to commercialise new technologies. They also facilitate collaboration between companies by promoting sharing of ideas, which is particularly important for agritech.
According to a study by McKinsey published in September 2020, more than 40,000 patents related to agritech were granted in the previous decade. The study found that China accounted for 45% of granted patents worldwide, well ahead of the US in second place with 11%; though US patents were found to be more relevant based on the number of citations.
As the study notes, analysis of granted patents can be invaluable in identifying emerging trends, opportunities and potential targets. Companies involved in the agritech sector, and especially startups, are well advised to conduct research on relevant patents at an early stage – something that patent attorneys can advise on. This is particularly important given the rapidly increasing and developing innovation in this area.
The results of such an analysis may be surprising. For example, the McKinsey study found an emerging trend in agricultural patenting in 2019 relating to ‘slag’, which was being used in various ways to address challenges in sustainability.
Performing such patent mapping may help to assess freedom-to-operate and can also inform researchers and IP managers regarding which innovations may be protectable within those they may be developing.
Another important consideration is where to file: the relevant markets for agritech development may depend on many factors, including climate, soil, local resources, available infrastructure and consumer demand. A typical patent filing strategy may focus on protecting expected markets for an invention and, unlike many other industry sectors, agritech inventions may be as important in emerging markets as in developed ones. Whichever jurisdictions patent applications are considered for, it is important to work with a local attorney who can advise on prosecution before the local IP office and the availability of enforcement measures. At Keltie, we have considerable experience working with trusted colleagues worldwide to develop effective global IP strategies.
With a growing population, dwindling resources and the threat that climate change poses to existing agricultural practices, agritech innovation is essential. The worldwide food production system is responsible for over a third of global emissions, so innovation in this sector is arguably even more important than it is in transport or heavy industry. In turn, effective IP protection strategies will be vital in ensuring that new agritech technologies are developed and rolled out to deliver where they are needed.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske
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