Thursday, September 10, 2015

Food Foolish Files #4: Can AgTech Really Save the World?

Earlier this week, a Silicon Valley investor wrote an excellent article entitled “The Next Food Frontier: How AgTech Can Save the World.”  (See here.)

In it, he discussed some of the problems facing Big Agriculture in America.  For example, corn farmers in Iowa are feeling the effects of increased costs for seeds, fertilizer and herbicides.  Environmental costs are also growing, especially greenhouse gas emissions.
The solution, we’re told, lies in low cost sensors, improved computational capabilities and advanced machine learning techniques.  “The advancements,” the author wrote, “are enabling farming to be run as efficiently as a Silicon Valley tech company—with precision, data-driven decisions and automation.”

Some of you may have gulped hard thinking the standard of excellence for efficiency is a “Silicon Valley tech company,” but we get the point.  Efficiency can and should be improved on corn farms in Iowa.  Precision farming is one good solution.

Others problems the article noted are a decrease in yields, and improving options for more health conscious Americans.  Solutions include genetically engineered microbes for improving seeds and soil, computational biology, tissue engineering, and automation.  From this we can create things like biofabricated meats to replace traditional, often inefficient animal-based proteins.

Again, all promising and cool ideas.  (Though when it comes to cutting into a big slab of biofabricated beef—you first.)

“Technology is the answer,” the author concludes.

As I said, it's a thoughtful article and features a number of real companies working on real problems.  It's not a surprise, of course, that a Silicon Valley investor would conclude that technology was the answer--in TechCrunch's hyperbolic, clickbait title--to saving the world.   

But we also might just chew on that for a moment.  Could it be that Silicon Valley’s vision is far too U.S.-centric, far too BigAg-based, far too driven by the sexy technology at hand, far too influenced by the valley next door--and because of this, likely to have only a limited impact on the problem of global hunger?

As Einstein said (or not, as the case may be), if he had an hour to save the world, he'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem.  I propose we spend just 90 seconds reframing how we might save the world, or at least try to feed it.

A Modest Proposal: Silicon Valley Should Think Much, Much Bigger

Improving the efficiency of American farmers--the most productive farmers in the history of the world--is not a bad thing to do.  But in the grand scheme of solving world hunger, it’s a little like increasing Clayton Kershaw’s fastball from 98 to 101 mph to help the Dodgers win the pennant. 

Women smallhold farmers in Kenya
Instead, here’s a quick, top-line “Situation Analysis” of the problem of global hunger as we saw it in Food Foolish (see here):
  • There are 575 million farms in the world.  Almost 500 million are very small family farms.  Almost none of them look like a giant, mechanized corn farm in Iowa, or, for that matter, anything like the 2.2 million connected, electrified, modern farms in the United States.  In other words, Silicon Valley needs to cast its gaze far beyond Iowa if it wants to actually see the problem, much less have true impact.
  • There are 7.3 billion people in the world and we expect over 9 billion by 2050.  Currently, more than 800 million are perpetually undernourished.  More than 2 billion are malnourished.  The problem is immediate and largely unrelated to better yields of corn headed for cattlefeed and ethanol plants.
  • There are already enough calories produced by global agriculture to feed the world.
  • But, about 1/3 of all food produced never makes it into a human stomach.  Globally, food waste totals 1.3 billion metric tons annually creating 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas.  In developing countries it’s often lost in the field.  In rapidly developing countries it’s lost in transit and in storage.  And in developed countries it’s purchased and then thrown into the garbage.
There are enough well defined "food waste" problems around the world to keep a Silicon Valley technologist busy for a generation.

An Alternative Outlook

Silicon Valley's focus on BigAg will inevitably and substantially improve BigAg, just as the author suggests.  And in so doing, a bunch of investors will make a bunch of money.  That's a lock.

But the rest of the world—the hungry, hurting world—is all about SmallAg.  There are smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa whose yields are no better than those of Roman farmers at the time of Christ.  There are farmers in India who lose up to 50 percent of the produce they grow due to lack of transport and refrigeration.

There are farmers practicing agroecology whose most practical technological tools are rocks to help channel water in makeshift irrigation systems.

In fact, here is a fundamental lesson of Food Foolish: The global objective is NOT to feed the world.  That’s a 20th-century, first-world conceit. 

The global objective is to help the world feed itself. 

There is a huge difference in the approach between these two world views.  It's why Einstein suggested we define problems before we try to solve them.

Four Strategic Initiatives

In rough order of importance--at least the way I interpreted our Food Foolish research and interviews—here are a set of global priorities to help solve hunger:
  1. Solve poverty.  “Hunger is poverty, poverty is hunger.”  We heard that everywhere.  Smart urbanization is one powerful, proven strategy to ending poverty.  One estimate suggests that in the generation before 2005, urbanization lifted a half-billion people from poverty.  Currently, 180,000 people move to a city every single day.  By 2025, cities will produce 86% of global GDP.  I would submit that Silicon Valley will feed more people sustainably by focusing its considerable powers on issues of brilliant global urbanization than it ever will by improving large scale, monoculture, precision farming.  Millions and maybe billions more.
  2. Educate women.  As young girls are educated, everything in a country improves—including nutrition and GDP.  Might Silicon Valley have some ideas here, even if they're not technological in nature?
  3. Invest in ecosystems and infrastructure.  Farmers in developing countries need roads, trucks, electricity, refrigeration, irrigation pumps, telephones and decent terminal markets.  They need affordable seeds that will grow when planted and fertilizer that’s not cut with sand.  They need credit and market access.  (For example, in Food Foolish we profile the incredible work being done by Babban Gona.  See here.)  Sometimes farmers need simple metal silos to protect their crops from weather and pests.  They need transistor radios to hear weather forecasts.  (What's a transistor radio, you ask?  See here!)  These are, generally speaking, 20th-century technologies in need of rethinking, upgrade and (dare I say) disruption.  What does 21st-century infrastructure look like?  Can Silicon Valley help?
  4. Reduce food waste.  
Of course, reducing food waste is our focus in Food Foolish.  When we reduce food waste, everything gets better: hungry people eat; carbon emissions decline; cities prosper; water, land, and biodiversity are preserved; and there’s less conflict around the globe.

Some Signs of Activity

Food waste is a huge, global problem where brilliant people and cutting edge technology can have a profound impact.  If just a fraction of the energy being expended in Silicon Valley to improve precision farming and protein alternatives could be channeled to reducing food waste, it would be a global win.

There are signs of activity, but they’re small.  For example, there are apps that help route excess food around cities to help feed the hungry.  There are apps that help coordinate gleaning so that crops are not wasted in the field.  In Food Foolish we feature India's technologically advanced Targeted Public Distribution System, the “BigAg” farming of insects (a superb and efficient source of protein), and the increasing role of anaerobic digestion facilities (here's just one example).

The last time I was in Palo Alto I heard that “Salinas Valley and Silicon Valley have finally met.”  That’s a fantastic start.  And, yes, we'll have computational data, GPS and drones aplenty at that fruitful intersection.  But the challenge for Silicon Valley now is to go out and meet Global Agriculture.  Address real hunger and malnutrition.  And when it does, it’ll run smack into Food Waste.

And then maybe AgTech really can save the world.