Updated: Jul 7
Meet Alison Sunstrum, our 5th feature in our Women in Agriculture series.
With many global challenges ahead of us, from feeding a growing population to fighting climate change, the agriculture industry can be found right at the centre of it all.
“There's a lot of challenges, and to actually respond to those challenges, it will take some disruptive change—and we'll only find that change through technology,” says Alison Sunstrum, CEO and founder of CNSRV-X (Conserve-X).
In 2019, Sunstrum founded the agriculture technology business CNSRV-X. It is a company focused on technological research and development within the agriculture sector, particularly in the carbon space.
Currently, Sunstrum is exploring ways to reward producers and farmers for their sustainable practices—things that many farmers are already doing.
“Farmers are stewards of the land. [They] don't look in terms of just one generation; good farmers preserve their land for the next generation,” Sunstrum says.
Blockchain technology is one emerging technology that Sunstrum is researching as a means for rewarding a farmer’s sustainable operations. While often associated with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain is a type of distributed ledger technology, a peer-to-peer electronic way of undertaking financial transactions. This means trading partners can deal directly with each other.
As financial transactions are integral to value chains and food systems, blockchain technology is now being investigated for many uses in agriculture. Think about it like an accounting ledger— where production information is stored and supply chain participants can view information. Once data is recorded in a blockchain, it is saved in “blocks of data,” which trace the route a certain product took, from the producer, through logistic partners, to the processor, and lastly, the consumer. It records and tracks the history of the product. When combined with other technologies, such as sensors, the blockchain can include powerful information about a product’s quality or other attributes. Instead of storing the information in one main database, the product information is distributed and shared on multiple nodes or computers in the network.1 Because the data is stored across many computers, it is difficult to tamper with the data and requires the consensus of all participants in the network to do so.
There are many types of blockchain technologies and use in agriculture is still new territory.
“There are lots of challenges with the way the technology can be deployed, but there is much potential,” Sunstrum says.
“If [a farmer] does something that a consumer wants, blockchain might be the way that [they] could get rewarded for that practice,” says Sunstrum. “And that's what I'm really working on: how can farmers be rewarded for conservation practices, sustainability, improved animal welfare, and [the] everyday stewardships that they're doing?”
Another way Sunstrum wants to explore the use of blockchain and other advanced technology in agriculture is within smallholder farms in developing countries. Women make up about half of the agriculture workforce in developing countries—countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, and Albania, women contribute the majority of labour on smallholder farms.
However, women’s contribution to agriculture hits a wall when they are restricted by land rights, a lack of access to capital, and exclusion from agriculture policy and decision making. With the implementation of smart phones, blockchain, and other emerging technology, Sunstrum believes a solution can be found.
“I'm convinced that in domains where women don't have access to capital or to markets, perhaps just owning a smart phone can empower women to wider market participation,” Sunstrum says.
“Maybe this is how [smallholder] farmers could connect themselves into a direct consumer marketplace or into alternative or value-added market spaces—so I think it's highly exciting,” Sunstrum says.
Sunstrum herself is no stranger to the world of innovative technology. As the former CEO and co-founder of GrowSafe Systems, she witnessed firsthand its capability to transform industries.
GrowSafe developed a method using RFID (radio frequency identification) and connected sensors to improve the profitability of livestock producers. By measuring how much an animal ate, compared to how much it should eat for its expected growth and maintenance, researchers using GrowSafe technology identified a genetic selection trait known as Residual Feed Intake. By selecting animals for Residual Feed Intake, seedstock producers could reduce feed costs. Animals that utilize feed efficiently also reduce methane and other greenhouse gases.
With her intuitive knack for agtech, Sunstrum continues to find new ways to apply technology in the industry while maintaining economic and environmental sustainability. As more start-up agtech companies pop up, Sunstrum is excited to see what the incoming generation has in store.
“When I exited GrowSafe systems, I thought about what I could do to help the next crop of entrepreneurs,” Sunstrum says.
From her experience at GrowSafe Systems, Sunstrum understands the barriers Canadian entrepreneurs face when attempting to scale globally. She joined Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a not-for-profit accelerator that aids start-ups, increasing their probability of success. Start-ups in the program receive mentorship, access to world class scientists, MBA students, and opportunities to raise capital.
“At CDL Rockies I have had the opportunity to mentor some stand out companies like Olds-based Ceres Solutions (www.ceres-ab.com) that upcycles spent brewers’ grains to grow gourmet mushrooms and uses the substrate to produce a high-quality livestock feed.”
Synergia Biotech, a spinoff from the University of Calgary, is another example. This not-for-profit company invented an energy efficient and innovative bio-process to create a natural blue pigment that can be used in the food beverage health and wellness space.
Along with her mentorship work with CDL, Sunstrum is a huge advocate for advancing women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics), especially in the agriculture industry.
As an angel investor and member of the 51, a women-led financial group of investors and entrepreneurs, Sunstrum is dedicated to helping women-led businesses in North America access capital within their own start-up ventures.
“We need to understand the importance of women participating actively across the board. We need true adoption within our agricultural institutions, our corporations, and our support organizations,” Sunstrum says.
“We need to have equal representation of women. It's time.”
Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Today, Alison Sunstrum is focused on supporting diverse entrepreneurs transforming agriculture and agrifood, using science and technology. As a Founding Partner and Fellow in the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL Rockies) Ag Stream, she is very proud that the 3rd cohort is under way and growing in participation from excellent mentors, scientists and corporate sponsors.
Recently, she also launched a new Mindfuel scholarship, “The Rockies Opportunities”, to encourage and assist rural students entering the agriculture industry. Specifically, the Scholarship is aimed at ending the gender gap in STEM. Students who identify as women, two-spirit, transgender, and non-binary are encouraged to apply. “I am just closing the loop, going from a founder to a funder,” says Sunstrum. Last year, Sunstrum and general partners Shelley Kuipers, Judy Fairburn, and principal Yuan Shi launched The51 Food and AgTech Fund. The Fund provides financing to female founders and diverse, high-performing teams that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I am investing in those innovators creating profitable, sustainable food systems and solutions—all while minimizing agriculture’s impact on the environment. These are mission-driven, unique individuals, and helping them along their journey is so rewarding”, says Sunstrum.