Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Ben Cloud Of Biodel AG Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine

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Education. When I met officials and executives from the USDA, DOE, and National Labs, I immediately realized that I should have gone on to get a PhD. I am definitely more business oriented than technical, but I could have done both. I realized how much I like biology and soil science.

As a part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Cloud, Chief Executive Officer of Biodel AG.

Agribusiness Entrepreneur Across Applications.

We believe agriculture is the best and most economical option for sequestering large volumes of CO2 and other GHG’s from our atmosphere. We love agriculture and want to be part of the greater solutions to sustainability and climate impact. We want positive outcomes for our communities and families. We have the tools to economically succeed.

Thank you so much for doing this with us!Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Arizona. My parents’ families were farmers in Yuma and Chandler, AZ. I attended high school in Chandler and was very active in FFA. I attended the University of Arizona majoring in AG Business. Farmed for 35 years growing cotton, grain, alfalfa, and medjool dates in Arizona and S. California. I have also had other business interests, primarily in real estate, and AG related technology.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Today we find our world facing the greatest challenge a civilization can imagine — survival. The challenge is the exponential accumulation of GHGs in our atmosphere. Most people do not realize how serous a threat this is to our climate and our world. However, governments are now taking this seriously and with the US rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, solutions are being implemented. Restoring AG Lands as a carbon sink as opposed to a carbon emitter offers the most economical solution with the greatest capacity to return us to pre-industrial GHG levels.

The focus of Biodel AG Inc is to assist AG Landowners to transition to regenerative practices to stabilize production costs and restore depleted soils. The net result is it benefits the AG enterprise and contributes to rebalancing our atmosphere thru carbon sequestration. Our expectation is the market for carbon credits will rise rapidly as predicted by some economists. In addition to government incentive programs. In the USA today, approximately 5% of acreage is regenerative (generally organic farms). Biodel AG is focused on the 95% of conventionally operated AG Lands, much of which will transition to regenerative going forward.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I became aware of the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere in 2001 while touring the Murray-Darling region of Australia. They were having serious issues, much like we are seeing today with the collapse of the Colorado River in the USA. An Australian government climatologist stated to our group, “what you Yank’s don’t understand is that when you experience a 1▫ C difference in temperature at your latitudes, we experience a 4▫C difference in Australia.” This opened my eyes to the seriousness of the accumulation of GHG’s in our atmosphere. He further spoke about the impact of conventional farming practices and growing desertification occurring worldwide.

The drought conditions in Australia are a real predictor of what is happening in the USA today. As I began to understand the challenges we are facing and discussed them with my colleagues, I became a real outcast from my climate denying friends for even mentioning the obvious. So yes, I feel very passionate about the climate change issue and the essential role of agriculture in solving the problem.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

With awareness of the worsening imbalance of GHG’s in our atmosphere, I began to look at solutions. At first, I focused on renewable fuels, but then I learned about microalgae and cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria was especially interesting as NASA had credited cyanobacteria for creating our atmosphere some 3.5 billion years ago due to their ability to survive extreme environments and convert CO2 into oxygen. The USDA and DOE were providing substantial grants to explore the potential of algae biomass as an alternative feedstock for fuels and chemicals and looking for the most practical method for large scale production. With my experience in agriculture and especially the use of drip irrigation systems, I saw an opportunity to apply AG methods and technologies (GPS guidance, pump stations, plastics, crop protection, and more) to this opportunity.

I co-founded Phyco BioSciences to explore the commercial potential of growing algae/cyanobacteria commercially. We operated a large pilot facility from 2007–2012 with the objective of identifying what strains were suited for our production system and what markets could be served. Almost immediately we shifted from algae strains to cyanobacteria strains that were more suitable to our environmental challenges. The conclusion after 5 years of operation was 1) our commercial scale production system worked very well and offered large scale production potential at a low cost. 2) the highest and best use was as a soil amendment/reclamation product, and a high protein animal feed supplement. Phyco developed a combination of proprietary cyanobacteria strains we call Cyanoblend™. However, at the time, we concluded that the market had yet to develop so the risk was too high to proceed with commercialization.

The trigger to commercialize cyanoblend™ as a soil amendment/reclamation product was the expectation that the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement and Congress would appropriate funds to rebalance our atmosphere. Further, the realization that AG Lands could play a major role in the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. With the market clearly in view, Biodel AG licensed the Cyanoblend™ formulation from Phyco BioSciences and trademarked the name Sequester®.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I have always been entrepreneurial and have started and/or co-founded a number of businesses over the last 40 years. I learned early on that I would rather have a part of a well-managed and profitable enterprise than to be the sole owner of a marginal enterprise. At Biodel AG we have been blessed with a highly experienced and knowledgeable Board of Directors and team. We run a lean operation. That is the key, in my opinion. Keep it lean and take solid steps forward.

Another key point when working in the crop protection industry is it is highly regulated and takes considerable time to bring new products and chemistry to market. For Biodel AG and Sequester, the development work is done and we are ready for an accelerated marketing effort as the opportunity for carbon sequestration is emerging rapidly.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I was CEO of Phyco BioSciences, I joined with two other individuals who were active in renewable energy and also in the emerging algae biomass industry. We decided to organize a conference of algae industry professionals, especially the researchers in the field of “phycology,” the study of seaweed and algae. We expected to have around 150 participants total and it was to be held in San Francisco in 2007. So, I was making phone calls to invite industry people to participate when I received a call from DARPA, the military research group. The Colonel I spoke with told me that he heard of the conference, and he had $100 Million in Grants to offer and wanted to speak. So, of course the answer was yes! With that announcement from DARPA, we tripled the size of our conference as the military contractors swarmed to obtain the DARPA grants. From this conference came the Algae Biomass Organization (AlgaeBiomass.org) and significant research and development in the world of microalgae and cyanobacteria.

I found myself interacting with USDA and DOE officials, National Labs, and Executives of Large Military Contractors which I found to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am highly impressed with the quality of people focused on solving the environmental challenges and the defense of our country.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

We shipped a few pallets of our Isoprenoid Amino Complex (IAC), a plant extract that was our initial discovery for Biodel AG, to a customer in California in the hot summer. It took several days longer than expected to be delivered and as a naturally derived product it has some bacteria in the mix. Well, the bacteria grew as it bounced and shaked over the road for a week with high temperatures. We received a call from the customer that each and every jug of material has swelled and or ruptured leaking product all over. What a mess. I can laugh about it now, but not then.

What we learned was dealing with naturally derived extracts requires a greater focus on process and quality control than most synthetic chemicals. When formulating such products, the challenge is to find the right combination of solutions without degrading the efficacy of the product.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have been blessed with a number of mentors and cheerleaders over the years. One brief story is about Wayne Akin. He was the President of Western Farm Management Company base4d in Phoenix. While in high school I used to have show calves for the State Fair and National Livestock Show. My senior year, Wayne Akin purchased my steer for the Salt River Project. I only met him briefly. But, when I was done with college, he actually called and asked me to come visit at his office. He was in his 80’s, stood 6’7” tall, and was the kindest man I have ever known. He was practically a legend in Arizona agriculture as his firm made many insurance company loans and brokered AG real estate and managed farms and ranches for institutional land owners. He asked me to consider working for the parent company that had acquired his firm called the Victorio Company. They owned over 1 million acres of ranchland in the Western US and also 1,000’s of farmland acres as well. I felt I should take the opportunity and truly enjoyed spending time with him and learning about a much larger world than I had grown up in, to that point in time. I spent 2 years reporting to the President of the Company and did the detail work of analysis and execution of acquisition plans and initial improvements. Of course, when the opportunity to farm on my own came up, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. But, the experiences of that 2-years has served me well my entire career.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

It has been amazing to observe the movement in climate awareness and government action over the past 20 years. Even though there is a lot of back and forth, the general trend is positive, in my opinion. We must deal with the exponential growth in carbon accumulation in our atmosphere. Further, I believe it will fundamentally change and improve our agricultural practices to bring sustainability back to our food supply and the realization that we can, in fact, manage our atmosphere and climate. I believe we will enjoy an amazing period of growth and financial stability by shifting to a post carbon economy. After my consciousness experience in Australia, I saw the very real possibility that our society will collapse because we simply cannot move fast enough to prevent it in the face of rapid climate change. That is a very real threat to society and where politicians have to act. But as history has shown us, it will be a fight until the sting of climate change is so clear that we must engage fully, similar to how we entered World War II. I suggest this is happening. The following is required to succeed:

  1. Government must Act Consistently. The USA must lead the way to achieve the Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050, or sooner as committed with the Paris Accord. When I hear politicians say we can’t afford to shift from fossil fuels, or that it will wreck the economy, I see no historical economic case for their conclusions. Throughout history, every time our society has faced a shift in energy sources (wood to coal, coal to oil, etc.) it has sparked tremendous growth resulting in an expanding middle class and improved quality of life. The question of whether our society survives, or not, is squarely on the shoulders of our ability to choose political leaders who will deal with the underlying driver of change away from fossil fuels — GHG accumulation in our atmosphere. One thing I know for sure is that if and when our society fully engages to rebalance our atmosphere, it can be done and all the world will benefit from it.
  2. Industry must Lead the Way, and It Is. The transition to electric vehicles will reduce considerably the amount of GHGs accumulating in our atmosphere and buy us some time. It is heartening to see our industry leaders adopt new energy strategies in advance of exhausting the supply of fossil fuel sources. It is a difficult challenge that requires government intervention because it is contrary to economic profit motives in our capitalist system. But, we need additional technology and strategies to solve the problem and nothing beats the profit motive to solve large problems.
  3. Cleaning Up the Mess. Simply reducing and eliminating GHG emissions is only part of the solution. We must restore the earth’s ability to recycle GHGs back into the ground. This is where AG Lands have a significant capability and therefore an opportunity. Normally oceans, forests, and AG Lands are the primary carbon sinks, but our emissions are simply too great as confirmed by the exponential growth in CO2 that has increased from 280 ppm (pre-industrial) to 420 ppm (summer 2022). Intensively farmed land (means inputs are applied) have the ability to sequester the legacy GHG in our atmosphere by shifting to regenerative practices. It will take the next 75 years to accomplish, but it can be done.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

One customer comes to mind who farms 4,000+ acres of conventional and organic crops, primarily cotton, wheat, potatoes, and beans. He began treating his acreage with our Sequester product (cyanobacteria based) three years ago. It has dramatically changed his farming enterprise. The first year he began noticing that his irrigation intervals were getting further and further apart, meaning he was applying less water. When he added up the total applied water he found he had used 30% less water overall. That is a savings of over $75/acre for this particular enterprise. Also, his annual soil analysis and comparison with other years indicated his sodium level (soil salts) had dropped by 40% in a single crop year while his Soil Organic Matter levels had increased significantly. He now is using 40% less water than 3-years ago, his salinity has dropped by 80% and no longer accumulating, and he is using 65% less applied fertilizer to grow the same crops with higher average yields. His savings, net of the Sequester application is over $250 per acre, while his yields and income is higher. These are significant changes by simply shifting to regenerative inputs and practices.

The key is to restore soil health and function. Healthy soil performs four essential functions: 1) cycle water; 2) cycle nutrients; 3) cycle salts; and 4 cycle carbon. If carbon is declining year over year, it means the soils microbial biomass is degraded and less functional. The soils microbes (microbial biomass) are the key to restoring soil health and functions. Regenerative inputs and practices are all about restoring and protecting soil health and functions, which means protecting the soils’ microbial biomass.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Education. When I met officials and executives from the USDA, DOE, and National Labs, I immediately realized that I should have gone on to get a PhD. I am definitely more business oriented than technical, but I could have done both. I realized how much I like biology and soil science.
  2. International Exposure. I didn’t realize how insular our society is until I was exposed to other countries and cultures.
  3. Fragility. When I realized how fragile our world truly is from a biological perspective, it changed my viewpoint. Without plants we perish. It is plants that capture the sun’s energy to create all organic matter, including ourselves. Allowing carbon to concentrate in our atmosphere has interfered with the basic trophic levels required for life on earth. The trophic levels are 1) Producer (plants); 2) Consumer (man and animals); and 3) Decomposers — microbes. Conventional agricultural practices have devastated the essential role of Decomposers which interferes with the ability of our AG Lands to sequester or recycle carbon back out of the atmosphere. We are going to pay a heavy price for this mistake, the question is how much?
  4. Additionality. In biology, there is a synergistic relationship between plants and microbes. When multiple plant types are grown together, the overall performance is much higher than with a single plant type. This refers to the benefits of multi-cropping as opposed to growing monocultures. Even though we may grow a monoculture cash crop, when we plant highly diverse multi-species cover crops between the cash crops the benefits are significant. Additionality has to do with the greater diversity of microbes from the multi-species plants in the soil.
  5. Our capabilities are greater than we know. I have found that many of the climate deniers I know, and there are many, cannot get their head around the notion that we can in fact reverse climate change. I am fortunate to have the experiences I did, especially in the algae biomass world and learning from the scientists that lead the DOD, DOE, and USDA, along with the National Labs. For these guys, planetary scale is normal. I learned that we are truly capable of managing our environment with a few changes. But I also learned that the consequences of doing nothing will be devastating.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Get educated and get the basics right. If one understands basic biology, everything else tends to fall into line. People often refer to perpetual motion machines as if they are impossible, but we are living on one. As long as plants have the ability to capture sunlight thru photosynthesis while working synergistically with diverse microbes, the earth will literally go on forever. The key cycles of carbon, water, mineralization, and nutrients can go on forever. Life on earth is truly sustainable. But, the great lesson we have now learned is that when we interfere with the ability of our environment to recycle carbon back into the ground, we rapidly consume the finite resources on our plant and doom mankind to a violent ending. We must work with the natural order of things, and when we do we will prosper.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two: 1. Awareness, Honesty, and Responsibility in all things. 2. Seek to be the greatest version of the grandest vision about who you are.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Christine Legarde, the EU Finance Minister. I find her to be an amazing individual. She is an outstanding economist and has the vision for shifting our world back to sustainability and prosperity.

How can our readers follow you online?

Email: bcloud@biodelag.com

LinkedIN: www.linkedin.com/in/ben.cloud-7245b810/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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