20 AI and Tech for Good Opportunities in Food & Agriculture

[UPDATE] A couple months after we published this article, we not only decided to look exclusively at Food and Agriculture but also to narrow our focus even more by defining the following first mission for Purple Orange Ventures: “Remove animals from the global food system”. For more details, see my 2 last posts: Our Mission Is To Remove Animals From The Global Food System And Here Is Why and Towards an Animal-Free Food System: 7 Tech Innovation Areas and 100+ Startups. If you are a mission-driven founder leveraging technology to remove animals from the global food system, apply for funding here!

A few weeks ago, I explained why I decided to focus on AI for good at Purple Orange Ventures. Mapping the areas where AI for good could be applied, I decided to start by exploring opportunities in Food/Agriculture. In this post, I would like to share some of my findings so far.

I will first review the definitions of Agriculture and Foodtech. Then, I will expose the main challenges facing the Food System today and the potential solutions to these. Finally, I will explore 20 AI and other tech solutions in Food/Agriculture.

What is Agriculture and Foodtech ?

To clarify what we mean when we talk about Agtech and Foodtech, here are couple useful definitions to start with:

“Foodtech can be described as the intersection between food and technology; the application of technology to improve agriculture and food production, the supply chain and the distribution channel.” [1]

“Agriculture is the art and science of growing plants and other crops and the raising of animals for food, other human needs, or economic gain.” [2]

Agtech can be defined as “tech products making agriculture more efficient, precise and productive.” [3]

What challenges is the Food System facing today?

The population is growing exponentially and the increasing GDP per capita drives global demand for resource-intensive foods

The current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. From 2017 to 2050, it is expected that half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just 9 countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia (ordered by their expected contribution to total growth).[4]

As people get richer through economic development, they start to eat more processed foods, meat and dairy which are more resource intensive to produce and can have a higher environmental impact than other food types such as plant based foods. This shift is expected to be especially significant in China and India.

Considering the growing population and changing diets, it is estimated that the world will need to produce 69% more food calories in 2050 than we did in 2006 in order to feed 9.8 billion people! [5]

Source: https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/article/64808/food-security-riaz-bhunnoo/

The environmental damages caused by agriculture are huge: global warming, high use of water, pollution and loss of biodiversity

The current food’s environmental impact is massive. Jonathan Foley, the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, explains the main key environmental challenges posed by Agriculture very well:

“Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined — largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock.

Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe.

Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.” [6]

In addition, climate change is expected to affect crop yields and water stress.

It is therefore clear that we cannot just produce more food as we as have in the past to cope with population growth and changing diets.

How can we solve this?

Solution 1: Grow more on existing lands and use resources more efficiently

Grow more on existing lands and particularly on small farms in low-and lower-middle-income countries

Converting new lands to agricultural lands sounds to be the logical solution to increase food supply but this is not a viable solution as this would severely increase the environmental damages caused by agriculture.

As most of the big farms are already fairly efficient because of economies of scale, extra yield potential is likely to be the biggest on small farms. Small farmers are also far more relevant in terms of food security and economic development in low-and lower-middle-income countries.

Here are some interesting statistics about the role of small farms in emerging countries:

  • About 84% of farms are smaller than 2 ha, while they operate about 12% of farmland globally. [8]
  • In low- and lower-middle-income countries, which are mainly countries of East Asia and the Pacific (excluding China), South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, about 70–80% of farms are smaller than 2 ha and operate about 30–40% of the land. This is a far greater share of farmland than the share that smaller farms have in higher-income countries. [8]
  • It is estimated that all farms smaller than 2 ha support financially roughly 1.5 billion people and produce over 70% of the food calories for the 5.7 billion people living in Africa and Asia.[9]

Adopt more sustainable farming practices to use resources more efficiently

As mentioned before, the current environmental harm caused by agriculture is massive. As we need to dramatically increase food supply in the next decades, it is therefore critical to switch to more sustainable farming practices as soon as possible.

As large farms have a bigger impact on agriculture sustainability as they operate most of the farmland globally, they should be the first target for more sustainable farming practices.

Riaz Bhunnoo, Director of the Global Food Security, explained this in more detail in this article:

“If diets continue as they are, by 2050 we will need 120% more water and 42% more cropland, we will have lost 14% of forests, and be generating 77% more greenhouse gases. However, agriculture already uses 70% of all fresh water and there is, by good approximation, no new land for agriculture. In fact, land area for agriculture is more likely to shrink due to urbanisation and rising sea levels, but also because we will need land for negative emissions technologies such as bioenergy, carbon capture and storage to meet the Paris Agreement target of a 1.5°C temperature rise. This agreement also requires net global emissions to reach zero by 2040–2060. This implies sustainable intensification of agriculture on existing land — producing as much as we can in the most sustainable way.” [7]

Solution 2: Shift diets to less animal source foods

But closing yield gaps alone will not be sufficient. Indeed, we also need to work on the demand side.

Compared to other type of foods, meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots are more resource intensive to produce. As a result, only 55% of the world’s crop calories feed people directly; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36%) or turned into biofuels and industrial products (roughly 9%). For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk or 22 calories of eggs or 12 of chicken or 10 of pork or 3 of beef. [6]

These type of foods also have a higher environmental impact. In fact, livestock emit methane, require land clearing and fertilisers that release large quantities of carbon and convert huge quantities of fresh water in wastewater. An estimated 14.5% of the planet’s global warming emissions come from the keeping and eating of livestock i.e. more than from the entire transport sector [10] and 8% of global human water usage is estimated to be consumed by livestock [11].

Source: http://www.vegetarismus.ch/info/eoeko.htm

Additionally, animal source foods raise major ethical questions in respect to animal welfare.

Production of these foods is also responsible for the significant rise in drug-resistant pathogen strains due to the uncontrolled use of antibiotics. Reports indicate that 60% of human diseases and 75% of the emerging human diseases have origins in animal transmission [11].

Cleaner alternatives to animal based products are therefore a key priority for a more sustainable and efficient food system. As most of people in developing countries can only afford animal based products since recently, it is unlikely that they will start to eat less of these in the short term. It therefore makes more sense to focus first on countries that have already meat-rich diets.

Solution 3: Reduce waste

An estimated 25% of the world’s food calories and up to 50% of total food weight are wasted and represent some $750 billion in value [12].

Depending on the geography, food waste happens at different places in the supply chain. In rich countries, most of the waste occurs in homes, restaurants or supermarkets and could be avoided with better waste management measures and smaller portions. In poor countries, waste tends to originate from poor storage and losses during the transportation between the farmer and the market. [6]

How can AI and other technologies help?

#1 Data intelligence to enable the financial inclusion of smallholder farmers in low-and lower-middle-income countries

As mentioned before, small farmers in low-and lower-middle-income countries are likely to play a big role regarding food security.

However, these small farmers often have insufficient or no access to affordable financial instruments, which impede their productivity.

The total amount of debt financing available to smallholder farmers in the developing world is approximately $9bn. This amount meets less than 3% of the estimated total smallholder financing demand, which is estimated to be $450bn globally. [13]

The main reason for this gap is that it is usually too expensive and risky for financial institutions to serve small farmers and build a sustainable business out of it. In fact, lending to farmers is very challenging as it requires different tools than the ones used in urban areas and is perceived as high risk due to unpredictable weather changes, diseases, low returns, weak value chains and poor markets. [14]

Several financial innovations based on data intelligence are starting to reduce these risks and costs such as alternative credit scoring solutions using agricultural data and index based insurance.

Alternative credit scoring solutions using agricultural data

In emerging economies, lenders usually physically visit farmers and use fairly manual tools to evaluate the risk of farmers. In addition, lenders often require farmers to provide a collateral and a traditional credit score. This results in high labour costs, subjective credit scoring with high risk leading to expensive loans and exclusion of many farmers, especially the unbanked ones.

Alternative credit scoring solutions aim to (i) reduce labour costs by collecting alternative data specific to agriculture alongside a range of traditional data in an affordable manner eg. satellite data (ii) use this data to provide a better credit scoring based on machine learning to reduce the risk of default and (iii) allow unbanked farmers to get a credit score based on predictive alternative data.

Some agriculture specific alternative credit solutions are serving existing lenders like Harvesting but others leverage existing touchpoints with the farmers like Tarfin who uses retailers as a distribution channel for input financing. Others aim to reach farmers directly and provide additional services bundled with credit such as agronomy insights, an input marketplace with input financing and a crop buying platform with invoice financing like Ricult and Tulaa.

Index based insurance

Similarly to lenders, it is too costly for most insurers to serve small farmers.

“Unlike traditional insurance which assesses loses on a case by case basis and makes payouts based on individual client’s loss realizations, index-based insurance offers policyholders a payout based on the external indicator which triggers a payment to all insured clients within a geographically defined space”. [15]

Index based insurance therefore considerably reduce the cost of in-person visits for insurance claims and are particularly well suited for Agriculture.

So far I came across 2 main types of index based insurances targeting farmers in low-and lower-middle-income countries: weather-index insurances like Oko and yield-index insurances like Pula that both use remote sensing data to create the index.

#2 Microbiome of soils and plants to improve crops traits without the use of chemicals

Similar to our human microbiome, millions of microbes inhabit plants and influence plant growth and health through its collective metabolic activities and host interactions. [16]

This has has been known by scientist since the 1800s but microbial research went on hold with the development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. [17]

As we now are aware of the environmental damages caused by the use of chemicals in agriculture (pest, weed resistance, run-off waste, water pollution, topsoil depletion, etc.), microbial research resurfaces and could potentially provide a much better alternative. In fact, microbiomes could potentially boost plants growth, increase yields, increase resistance to drought, disease and pests, and reduce farmers’ reliance on fertilizers and pesticides.

The contemporary advances in DNA sequencing technologies, big data analytics and cloud computing are contributing greatly to the development of microbial research. A paper published by Yu Cao et al. explains that the most recent DNA technologies “have not only enabled finer characterization of bacterial genomes but also provided deeper taxonomic identification of complex microbiomes which in its genomic essence is the combined genetic material of the microorganisms inhabiting an environment”. [18]

Different approaches are taken to leverage plant microbiomes and Davide Bulgarelli, principal investigator at the University of Dundee in the U.K, describes the two main current approaches:

“One strategy many companies are pursuing is a form of plant probiotic, which consists of preparations of beneficial microbes to be mixed with seeds at sowing and again once the seedlings germinate. Another approach is to use plant breeding to select for varieties that have enhanced symbiosis with the microbiota.” [19]

As mentioned by Brett Morris, microbiomes represent a large opportunity but is also very competitive. Some well funded startups in the space include Indigo Agriculture (funding of $359M) and Agbiome (funding of $136.5M).

Brett from TechAccel points out 3 main opportunities in the space [20]:

  • Novel biological technologies with secured intellectual property
  • Delivery vehicles that can be applied industry-wide
  • Companies that are collecting microbiome-related data and creating predictive analytics like Agbiome

#3 Gene editing for plant breeding to improve crops traits without inserting foreign DNA

Gene Editing is a tool used to rearrange or delete sequences of the genome of an organism.

As opposed to GMOs, no foreign genes are introduced to the organism.

Gene editing is considered to be better than genetic modification as it is more precise, cost and time effective compared to other breeding methods. Additionally, genetically edited crops are expected to be better accepted by consumers as they might view them as more natural.

Similarly to microbiomes, gene editing can be used to create more tolerant crops with higher yields and could potentially reduce the need for chemical pesticides.

On the technology side, CRISPR-Cas9 is currently the leading gene editing tools and other alternatives include eMage (eukaryotic multiplex genome engineering), ZNF (Zinc Finger Proteins), TALEN (Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases). [21]

As for microbiome, big data analytics and cloud computing is playing a big role here and used to inform the gene editing process and accelerate the finding of an ideal genetic signature.

Some of the well funded startups in the space include Precision Bioscience ($135.7M), Cibus ($27M), Caribou Bioscience ($74.6M) and Calyxt ($61.4M). On the genetic discovery side, Benson Hill Biosystems ($34.7M) is currently the leader in agriculture and partners with seed companies in the use of its bioinformatic and machine learning-enhanced platform to discover traits and find products.

As row crops are very competitive and mostly owned by the agriculture giants, opportunities for startups in this space are expected to be around value-niche crops and computational biology discovery platforms similar to Benson Hill Biosystems.

#4 Precision agriculture and automation solutions to close yield gaps and prevent environmental damages

Precision agriculture can be defined as “everything that makes the practice of farming more accurate and controlled when it comes to the growing of crops and raising livestock. A key component of this farm management approach is the use of information technology and a wide array of items such as GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, variable rate technology, GPS-based soil sampling, automated hardware, telematics, and software.“ [22]

In other words, precision agriculture describes any solution that allows automated data collection and decision making to optimize agricultural inputs and returns.

As mentioned before, most of the big farms and fields are already very efficient and extra yield potential is likely to be the biggest on small farms. Also, increase productivity of small farms in low-and lower-middle-income countries are far more critical to food security. However, big farms use more resources and have a bigger global negative impact on the environment.

From a potential impact perspective, I see therefore two main interesting categories in precision agriculture: (i) affordable solutions suitable for small farms in low- and lower-middle-income countries to close yield gaps and (ii) solutions targeted at large farms preventing environmental damages.

Affordable solutions suitable for small farms in low- and lower-middle-income countries to close yield gaps

A way to make agriculture automation solutions affordable for small farmers is to deploy these solutions through smart business models like providing a free simple app to small farmers and monetise the data collected with bigger farms like Plantix by Peat or offer products as a service to limit high upfront cost. Offering products as a service can also help to accelerate adoption as farmers do not have to develop the expertise to use the product but can instead just buy something they know eg. buying the absence of weeds. [23]

Solutions targeted at large farms preventing environmental damages

These include smart irrigation solutions to reduce the use of water, precise application of pesticide to prevent herbicide-resistant weeds and animal/human health hazards and solutions for a better application of fertilizer to prevent runoff.

The critical thing here is to show clear ROI for the farmer beyond sustainability eg. Blue River Technology that developed a technology to precisely spray herbicides only where needed claims to lower herbicide costs by 90%. Beyond that, it also needs to stay simple on the surface and make the life of farmers easiers.

Precision agriculture and automation in agriculture is a very crowded space and it is hard to differentiate solutions, especially at the early stage. We therefore decided to stay away from precision agriculture solutions that do not have commercial traction yet or an innovative business model to target small farms in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

#5 Asset marketplace providing high quality productive assets to small-scale farmers

These marketplaces can either provide rental services, establish a p2p sharing network between farmers or offer used assets for sale to increase access to high quality assets to small farmers. A good example is EM3 AgriServices that provides farm services for the entire cultivation cycle, on a pay-per-use basis.

#6 Solutions reducing trade intermediating between small farmers and buyers to reduce inefficiencies and increase the profit of farmers

These can take various forms from local/regional marketplaces connecting buyers and sellers locally like Twiga Foods to blockchain-based commodity trading for developing markets like Binkabi.

#7 Small scale farmer networks so farmers can learn from each other and increase their productivity

Small farmers in Africa are usually digitally unconnected, which limits peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. A successful company in the space called Wefarm aims to change that by connecting farmer through their mobile phones via sms. Today, Wefarm has connected over 800,000 farmers in Kenya and Uganda, and has answered 1.1M questions.

#8 Bio-pesticides, Bio-fertilizers & stimulants to replace chemicals inputs in agriculture

“Bio-pesticides, Bio-fertilizers & stimulants are naturally occurring substances or microorganisms applied to seeds, plant surfaces, of soil that control pests and diseases, enhance plant growth/ health/productivity or increase the availability of nutrients by non-toxic means” [20]

An interesting company in the space is Crop Enhancement that uses materials science to help farmers reduce or even eliminate use of toxic pesticides on their farms.

#9 Indoor farming to increase food production without using more lands

“Indoor farming is a method of growing crops or plants, usually on a large scale, entirely indoors. This method of farming often implements growing methods such as hydroponics and utilizes artificial lights to provide plants with the nutrients and light levels required for growth.[24]

Some of the main advantages of indoor farming include [25]:

  • Year-round crop production
  • Protection from unpredictable weather
  • Elimination of the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides
  • Water conservation and recycling
  • Reduction of the land needed for food production that could promote the regrowth of trees which are effective in CO2 sequestration
  • If built in cities, lower fuel consumption that is used in transporting the crops to the consumers

However indoor farming still have major shortcomings [25]:

  • High energy consumption. Only about 10% of the energy utilized in food production is attributable to transportation so indoor farming could even lead to a negative net environmental impact. Also, as direct sunlight is free, the extra expenditure on energy for indoor farming versus other growing methods make it hard in terms of financial feasibility.
  • High build-out cost. Up-front costs for an indoor cultivation facility are very high compared to growing outdoor or in a greenhouse.
  • Non viable solution as it cannot be deployed on a large enough scale to supply any significant percentage of our food needs. Indeed, it is estimated that turning 1.6% of cultivated land into a functioning indoor or vertical farming operation would demand the relative floor space of around 105,000 Empire State Buildings. [26]

Looking at this, I don’t see the potential for scalable tech solutions with a large social and environmental impact potential in indoor farming in the short term.

#10 Analysis of historical food waste data and demand forecasting solutions for better food quantity planning

Predict demand better and measure historical food waste can help restaurants and hotels to better plan the quantity of food to prepare. This would allow them to increase their food profit margin while reducing food waste.

Some startups in the space include Winnow, a food waste meter technology for restaurants and Kitro, a smart bin to identify, manage and monitor the sources and quantities of food waste.

#11 Data intelligence for better food inspection to decrease or eliminate claims that are a major source of food waste and improve early warning systems for post-harvest plant disease and pest outbreaks

Fresh products are inspected to see if they fit specifications at every step of the supply chain. The inspection process is usually fairly manual and therefore time consuming and subjective. Automated food inspection process via machine learning could significantly reduce errors and ultimately reduce food waste as less shipments would be refused and wasted. Different data can be used to feed the machine learning models and include images taken by a mobile phone (AgShift), hyperspectral images (Impact Vision) and sensor data.

Better data collection and analysis could also significantly improve early warning systems for post-harvest plant disease and pest outbreaks. Data that could be used for such systems include satellites,hyperspectral images and sensors. An example of such solution is Agroshield by Saillog that notifies subscribers after crop diseases and pests were detected on nearby farms.

#12 Dynamic pricing of food that is about to get spoiled

An example of a startup in the space is Wasteless that helps retailers to dynamically price and sell products based on their freshness.

Other solutions to efficiently manage food that is about to get spoiled include

  • Marketplaces connecting buyers and farmers, hotels, restaurants and grocery stores who want to sell near expiring goods, surplus or imperfect products at a discount like Full Harvest
  • Automatic tracking of unsold inventory allowing effective decisions leading to the most optimal financial outcomes and less food waste like Spoiler Alert. Options for unsold inventory include discounted sales, donations and organic waste. Financial benefits include tax deduction for donations, lower waste disposal fees and incremental revenue achieved through liquidation market. [27]

#13 Traceability technologies to increase accountability and incentivize food supply chain participants to reduce inefficiencies in their operations.

As supply chains of small farmers often lack transparency, it is often hard to attribute the losses to the actor responsible for it. As a result, inefficiencies causing waste remain. Adopting traceability technologies like Virtual City could change that.

The biggest challenge for these solutions is to find a client that understands the value. Tom Schulz, founder and CEO of Fresh Surety explains “For farmers, many of these technologies are forcing him to be more careful about what he ships, and if we’re successful, it will mean him shipping less, and potentially making less money. Distributors don’t want to be responsible for the quality and safety of the produce they’re transporting, and grocers are still able to make money even if spoiled food goes to waste because it’s built into their pricing.” [28]

#14 Farm to fork digital marketplaces to prevent waste and energy consumption during transports

By directly connecting farmers and end buyers locally, waste happening due to inefficient supply chains can be avoided.

The eat-local movement mostly drives the emergence of such models in richer countries while the potential for more efficient and timely supply chain is the main factor for adoption in emerging countries.

Platforms targeting emerging countries like M-Farm might be therefore more impactful.

Some startups in the space in developed countries include Farmigo that uses a just-in-time model, where producers only harvest food that has already been ordered on Farmigo or La Ruche qui dit Oui that allow users to group themselves to buy directly from their local farmers.

#15 Upcycling food and agricultural waste into valuable products for food production

Valuable products from food and agricultural waste that can be reused in food production include:

#16 Innovative packaging or other post-harvest treatments to increase shelf life

Some of packaging or other post-harvest treatments increasing shelf life include:

  • 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) technologies that inhibits the production of ethylene, a natural plant-ripening hormone like Hazel Technologies
  • Irradiation technologies to destroy organisms responsible for spoilage and foodborne illness and inhibit sprouting.
  • Dehydratation technologies to dry excess or damaged crops
  • Biodegradable coatings applied to the surface of crops like Apeel Sciences

#17 Better storage and transportation solutions to avoid spoilage between the farm and the market in poor countries

Better storage and transportation solutions to avoid spoilage between the farm and the market in poor countries include:

  • Innovative models to bring post-harvest infrastructure (processing, cold storage and packaging) closer to farms in rural areas and reduce waste happening during the transport of goods to warehouses and processing plants like
  • modular factories allowing for the assembly and disassembly of prefabricated components in small factories depending on needs like InspiraFarms.
  • mobile units that travel around rural areas offering fee-based services to farmers like ColdPICK [29]
  • Battery and solar technologies to support energy-intensive operations such as cold storage and processing like Aquion Energy [29]
  • Compartmentalized reefer containers that allow for multiple crop types to be stored and transported in their optimal environment like ColdEx [29]
  • Affordable and electricity-free crop storage solutions that use the evaporation of water to cool the storage container like Evaptainers [29]

#18 Alternative proteins as a more sustainable source of protein for both human and animal consumption.

The main alternatives to animal-based food products include:

  • Cellular agriculture products that use animal cells to culture a biological replica of animal based products in a laboratory like Memphis Meat. The high price of lab grown products and other tech challenges still remain to bring this to market but Memphis Meats believes it will be able to send the first products to market by 2021.[30]
  • Plant-based proteins like Beyond Meat.
  • Insect-based proteins like Protix. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), “insects have a high food conversion rate, e.g., crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.” [31] Insects also require very little land or energy to produce, and they can be produced all year round. [31] However most of insect farming operations are not scalable yet and it may take some more time and R&D investments before they can compete with existing sources of proteins.
  • Single-cell proteins such as algae-based proteins. Algae is a potential low-carbon source of protein that can be consumed at each and every link of the food chain. The growth potential is currently limited by production and processing capacity but new Cultivation Technologies like Zivo Bioscience start to make algae commercially viable. According to a report by Credence Research, the global algae products market was valued at approximately $30 million in 2015 and is projected to reach approximately $45 billion by 2023. [32] The CEO of ZIVO Bioscience initially believe that opportunities will be in low-volume/high-value market verticals such as supplements, vegan food ingredients, health drink ingredients.[32]

[UPDATE] A couple months after we published this article, we not only decided to look exclusively at Food and Agriculture but also to narrow our focus even more by defining the following first mission for Purple Orange Ventures: “Remove animals from the global food system”. You can therefore find a much more detailed analysis of this topic in my 2 last posts: Our Mission Is To Remove Animals From The Global Food System And Here Is Why and Towards an Animal-Free Food System: 7 Tech Innovation Areas and 100+ Startups.

#19 Personalised nutrition and functional food ingredients that could reduce health problems

“Obesity and the chronic diseases often connected with being overweight, such as diabetes, used to be thought of as problems for high-income countries. In fact, they’ve become global issues, with 2.1 billion people — nearly 30 percent of the world’s population — considered either obese or overweight. And according to the International Diabetes Federation, four out of every five people with diabetes now live in developing countries.” [33]

Following basic healthy diet and lifestyle recommendations would solve most of our diet problems but some food technologies like personalised nutrition and functional ingredients could contribute to the reduction of health issues related to food.

Personalised nutrition can be defined as “developing unique nutrition guidelines for each individual; precision nutrition seeks to develop effective approaches based on the combination of an individual’s genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.” [34]

“Functional foods can be considered to be those whole, fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that provide health benefits beyond the provision of essential nutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals), when they are consumed at efficacious levels as part of a varied diet on a regular basis” [35]

It is still not clear at this stage if these technologies have the potential to improve nutrition and health at scale. Their potential impact in the short term is therefore limited but it may change in the future.

#20 Edible/biodegradable packaging as an alternative to plastic

The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from approximately five million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 230 million tonnes today and it is estimated that 37% of plastics are used for packaging [35]. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally is recycled, while 40% ends up in landfill and a third in ecosystems. [36]

One potential solution to reduce/replace plastics is the adoption of edible/biodegradable packaging like Tipa, Loliware or Evoware. The space is still very early and challenges remain regarding the amount of natural resources needed to produce these biodegradable packaging, their cost and limited applications due to their inferior physical characteristics.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of all AI and other tech for good opportunities in Food and Agriculture so we would love to hear from you if you think we missed some important ones.

Many thanks to Gary Lin and Jens Brückmann for reviewing this post and their valuable input.


[1] http://digital-me-up.com/2016/11/27/foodtech

[2] https://www.cropsreview.com/what-is-agriculture.html

[3] https://www.agroop.net/en/blog/2018/01/22/what-is-agtech-learn-about-the-movement-thats-changing-agriculture/

[4] https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html

[5] http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/12/global-food-challenge-explained-18-graphics

[6] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/

[7] https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/article/64808/food-security-riaz-bhunnoo/


[9] https://impactalpha.com/technology-ventures-aim-to-tackle-challenges-of-the-worlds-small-farmers-too/


[11] https://tifac.org.in/images/pdf/pub/Cellular%20Agriculture.pdf

[12] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/food-security-and-why-it-matters/

[13] https://oneacrefund.org/blog/bridging-microfinance-gap-smallholder-farmers/

[14] http://juhudikilimo.com/empowering-agribusiness-entrepreneurs-kenya

[15] https://ibli.ilri.org/faqs/


[17] http://www.southwestfarmpress.com/management/microbes-may-be-new-gold-rush-agriculture

[18] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5627019/

[19] https://www.the-scientist.com/features/how-manipulating-the-plant-microbiome-could-improve-agriculture-30124


[21] http://techaccel.net/2018/07/the-five-biggest-startup-opportunities-in-agtech-today

[22] https://agfundernews.com/what-is-precision-agriculture.html


[24] https://www.maximumyield.com/definition/2151/indoor-farming

[25] https://www.cropsreview.com/vertical-farms.html

[26] https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/future-of-food-vertical-farming/

[27] https://agfundernews.com/using-data-unlock-opportunity-food-waste.html

[28] https://agfundernews.com/the-challenges-9-traceability-and-food-safety-technology-startups-face.html



[31] https://agfundernews.com/funding-insect-startups-slow-start-despite-demand.html

[32] https://agfundernews.com/algae-mainstream-food-ingredient.html


[34] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nbu.12238

[35] https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/article/215/edible-biodegradable-packaging-for-food/

[36] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42646025

Savina van der Straten

Written by

Impact Investor @Purple Orange Ventures, previously @Point Nine Capital

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