Why AgTech Matters to All of Us, Now
2015 has been a year of tremendous growth in AgTech, both in terms of the technology and the companies that create them. We (the AgTech nerds of the world) are right to be proud of the advances made in our little corner of the world, but our success isn’t achieved in a vacuum. As this year draws to a close, I’ve tried to place the work we do every day into its global context, the context of conflicts, victories, humanity and inhumanity we see everyday on the nightly news and our Twitter feeds. I love what I do, but I’ve been forced to ask, does AgTech really matter?
My search for answers led me to the internet. AgTechnologists turn perpetually towards the “70% more food by 2050” statistic, and set for ourselves the goal of feeding 9 billion people in the world by mid-century. But what about today? What goals might we set for ourselves in 2016? The attention of the world was captured in 2015 by terrorism, the refugee crisis in Europe, severe weather and climate change, and the ongoing struggles against racial and economic inequality. At first blush, AgTech has no answers for these problems. But for posterity, let’s take a closer look.
From Charlie Hebdo and Paris to San Bernardino, ISIS is the boogey man of the Western conscious. Though this latest incarnation of anti-Western extremism in the Middle East has turned our social technologies against us, their rise was not so different from that of their predecessors. We know that famine and starvation contribute to the instability that leads to the rise of terrorism. Food instability in the Middle East arises because water, healthy soils, meaningful information about weather and markets, and other vital resources are scarce.
As AgTechnologist Norman Borlaug said, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs.”
The refugee crisis in Europe shares many of the root issues of terror in the Middle East, but the link to agriculture is even stronger. According to research done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Syrian Civil War was driven by “severe social crisis” that came to a head after mass migrations out of rural areas due to four long years of drought led to a general collapse of Syrian agriculture.
Now, AgTech doesn’t have a magic wand that will make these resources abundant, but we do have the ingenuity to make the existing resources more meaningful. Take, for example, our friends at SWIIM and CropX, who are pioneering technologies to use and allocate water effectively so that rural and urban populations are well served. Companies like TerViva are commercializing crops that grow effectively even in poor soils. The teams at aWhere and Descartes Labs are making serious strides in weather prediction, and companies like OnFarm and Farmers Business Network are helping make farm data meaningful to growers. We’re not soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, but the work we do everyday goes towards addressing the root cause of extremism. It makes sense really. Like our growers, when something’s wrong, we intuitively look to the roots.
As the Paris Climate Conference drew to a close this month and much of the US and the world is either drowning beneath extreme floods or parched by extreme drought, climate change is fresh on our minds. Agriculture is often fingered as a climate culprit, so we, as lovers of farmer and field, have made protecting the environment our overt strategy.
I don’t know of a single AgTech company that does not think of itself as climate-minded (like our growers, we care about the wellbeing of the Earth and environment more than most), but there are a few technologies that stand out for their innovativeness and futurosity. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are looking to make a dent in the carbon emission produced by livestock by making synthetic meat (and Modern Meadow does the same for leather!). As 40% of all food produced in the US goes to waste, companies like California Safe Soils and FiberStar Bio are saving this organic material from clogging landfills and turning it into nourishment for deteriorating soils. We are uniquely positioned to address climate issues that have been created or perpetuated by the current agricultural system, and it is our responsibility both to the growers we serve and the ordinary humans who co-habit our planet to leverage our technology.
Racial and economic inequality in America is, unfortunately, not a recent phenomenon, but 2015 was a year when these issues could no longer be overlooked. What role could AgTech possibly have in addressing these systemic injustices? For one, poor communities tend to be characterized by food deserts (lack of restaurants, groceries stores, etc.), which means poor families tend to have limited access to whole foods and good nutrition. So companies like Edenworks and Freight Farms are bringing sustainable agriculture to urban centers. Even when healthy food is available, it’s expensive, so companies like Kuli Kuli and Exo are revolutionizing our use of alternative nutrient sources (in this case, Moringa and cricket flour, respectively). This issue might be the hardest for AgTech to address, but it hasn’t stopped us from trying to do what we do best; level the field, cultivate change, and create the best possible conditions for growth.
The short of it is, yes, AgTech matters. Will we, as AgTechnologists, single-handedly save the world anytime soon? Probably not. But we are the pioneers at the frontier of an industry that has defined human civilization for 8,000 years. In that way, redefining agriculture is redefining something fundamental about ourselves. Changing the way we grow our food to make it, as Michael Pollan says, “Good to eat and good to think,” feels like a meaningful goal to strive for, not in 5 years or 30 years, but today. All of this makes me even more proud of our growth this year, we’ve come a long way, and though we still have many rivers yet to cross before we can put hunger behind us, I’m ready to show up to my AgTech job on Monday morning, and be part of making 2016 even better.