Indiana is playing a leading role in the Ag Tech revolution. Three trends are among those driving that movement; increased focus on animal wellbeing, the emergence of new technologies that recognize sustainability as a business driver and the evolution of precision farming. These trends are creating a period of transition in the animal health business, but as is often the case, times of transition and challenge give rise to great periods of innovation.
Indiana’s thriving innovation ecosystem is being driven by a healthy talent pool, emerging technological capabilities and the ideas stemming from those as well as growing sources of capital. The state’s network of educational institutions offering programs relevant to ag tech innovation and the quality of those programs is helping Indiana lead the way in new ideas, diverse new talent and better outcomes for agriculture around the world. Pair that with a vibrant life sciences sector and an investment community starting to see the potential for technology in animal ag, and you have the ingredients for accelerating innovation and healthier, happier animals.
Our state’s history in agriculture provides a vital link between the knowledge acquired over generations of farming and the application of novel and exciting technologies that are emerging to lead us into the 21st century. The concept of sustainability has been at the core of farming since its very inception but this ideal has taken on new meaning as the task of feeding the world’s growing population is juxtaposed against the need to preserve our resources and nature’s diversity for future generations. With that comes a host of new needs and new business opportunities.
Nature and its vast array of biological systems provide an incredibly deep well of potential solutions for scientists to harness when seeking to address the challenges of modern agriculture. For example, new tools and computational capabilities have allowed us to better understand how microbes interact with their environment, their hosts and each other. That understanding allows us to select naturally occurring microbes that have unique properties to outcompete disease causing pathogens and reduce the risk of infection in farmed animals. Natural, microbial based solutions are emerging to reduce intestinal disease as well as food borne pathogens that pose a risk to human health, such as Salmonella or E Coli. The elegance of these mechanisms that have evolved in nature is teaching us how to prevent and control infection in ways we hadn’t considered previously.
Scientists are also using the incredible power of the immune system to enhance animal wellbeing. The ages old battle between host and pathogen has seen strategies emerge on both sides that, when properly understood, can be manipulated to ensure the animal stays healthy even in the face of constant challenges. For example, some pathogens have developed mechanisms to hide their presence from the host animal so that they go undetected and can cause infection. Rather than use drugs to treat the subsequent infection, we can now “uncloak” the pathogen and allow the animal’s natural defenses to attack it and prevent any significant infection.
At the same time, new monitors, sensors and data handling capabilities give modern farming operations unprecedented access to information that can be used to improve their management practices, feeding programs and prevent disease. In the past, good animal husbandry was equal parts art and science, heavily dependent on observation skills and years of experience. Now, electronic sensors with the ability to capture sound and smell prints, or monitor animal activity can give indications of the health of a flock or herd and allow for early intervention in the event patterns are detected that are associated with disease. Increasing availability of these tools to monitor health in real time and predict health outcomes will allow farmers to proactively manage emerging threats. Precision agriculture is paving the way to more sustainable and profitable farming practices.
It’s an exciting time to be in animal agriculture. We find ourselves at the conflux of two movements. One, the critical societal need to feed the worlds growing population while preserving resources for generations to come; and the other, the emergence of technology to truly understand biological systems and their underlying mechanisms. That convergence is sure to see a growing wave of world changing innovation.
Marc de Beer was born in South Africa and completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of Stellenbosch before immigrating to the United States and completing a PhD in Animal Nutrition at the University of Arkansas. Marc then joined Aviagen, the global leader in poultry genetics and managed their global nutrition team before joining DSM and ultimately managing their North American business. Most recently Marc has been working to establish and grow a global nutritional health business within Elanco Animal Health.