Foreign Influence Podcast Ep019

Covid-19 Resignation • AgTech Startups & Sustainable Food

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Becoming Resigned to the Covid-19 Coronavirus

Recently, on our latest episode, like pretty much everybody worldwide at this point, we couldn’t get away from the covid-19 coronavirus. Since we published, Italy has implemented a lockdown on 60 million people (matching China’s lockdown of Hubei Province, where this all started), markets collapsed (partly from coronavirus, but also from an oil war), the United States is ramping up its response, and if a visit from President Xi Jinping is any indication, China might be seeing a turning point.

If you’re looking for a summary way to track what’s going on in Europe, Nikolaj has begun a separate newsletter and website. For the big picture, we recommend the dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, which is also the source of Nikolaj’s data.

The coronavirus could end up being a geopolitical test. Chinese officials tried to ignore and downplay the outbreak at first, and that’s likely the reason it got so out of control. But thanks to severe restrictions on its people, China claims that that it’s bringing its outbreak under control. So much so, that President Xi felt he could take a “victory lap”:

Now western democracies and their citizens are facing similar restrictions. We’ll see if it’s possible for non-authoritarian regimes to pull off similar results.

At this moment, both Nikolaj and I are resigned to significant spread of the novel coronavirus covid-19. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be a disaster. Individuals and societies, by adopting the correct measures, can “flatten the curve”, as the medical community is now calling it. The objective is avoid overwhelming any given hospital system. That way not only coronavirus patients, but “ordinary” sick people and accident victims can get needed care. Basically, what we’re say is:

Among other interventions, of course - social distancing, event cancellations, school closures, quarantines as necessary, etc. And for heaven’s sake, do try to resist the allure of Smurfdom!

But Let’s Talk About Something Positive - AgTech!

While covid-19 seems likely to define global events for a while, much of life will go on, of course. That includes technological development. Everyday we hear about various techs. InfoTech, FinTech, BioTech, AI, etc. All of these fields are reshaping human life. But hey, bottom line, we all gotta eat. Which means we need agriculture. And that’s a space seeing tech developments as well.

For our last episode, we talked with the Naveen Sikka, the ceo of TerViva, when he was passing through Singapore on a tour of Asia to meet potential new investors. TerViva is working to develop a new food crop out of an ancient tree. The pongamia tree has been part of the human experience for thousands of years and goes by many names in many different cultures. It’s hardy, grows in poor soil, and produces a lot of oil-rich bean pods. But it does not taste good. At all. So mainly it’s been used to create lamp oil, in soap-making, or more recently, as a possible source of biodiesel. But TerViva has come up with a way to process the oil so that it’s more palatable and can used in place of other cooking oils and food products. The company has been test-piloting in various locations around the world, including the US state of Florida, where an incurable disease is wiping out the state’s signature orange crop. (I guess we couldn’t escape plagues, after all…) Sounds like a sounder approach than other AgTech interventions out there.

Check out the interview for more insight into the AgTech space, how new crops can help feed a growing population in the face of climate change, how Sikka says consumers have moved on from GMO, and more.

Thanks for reading and listening!

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Bill & Nikolaj