Having visited South By Southwest last year, this session was arguably the most striking and unique of any I attended in 2017.
Not only was the burning passion of the panelists clear through their composed discussion, but many of the topics they addressed were novel to me. This panel discussed the importance of investment in agricultural development, primarily through technology and transparency. Agricultural developments and advancements should not be lagging behind those of the oil and gas industry.
Technology, transparency, as well as ethical alignment with actions and values have become an integral foundation of successful companies. Mainstream agriculture has been lagging behind for decades.
It seems as if most folk haven’t cared about agriculture since pa’ sold the family farm. Humanities ability to sustain itself and do so in a more socially, environmentally, and ethically responsible way is crucial to our survival as a species and advancement as a society.
Each panelist from this session comes from the small segment of agriculture that abides by these necessary practices, but each represents a very different space within that segment. Mr. David Rosenberg is the Co-Founder of AeroFarms a clean-tech company that focuses on urban vertical farms. They are specifically based in Newark NJ. Ms. Sue McClosky is an ethically responsible dairy farmer.
She and her husband run Fair Oaks Farms, a 37,000 cow dairy farm and provides FairLife nutrition products for Coca-Cola
Both of the above speakers and their businesses are dedicated to ethical, sustainable, and responsible agriculture.
Mr. Brian Frank formally acted as a product strategist in web, mobile, and social spheres for companies such as Adobe and Twitter. He is currently the General Partner of Food for Thought Worldwide a venture capital fund focused on hardware, software, and biotech products for the trillion-dollar Food System.
Ms. Melissa Abbott is the VP of Culinary Insights at a market research firm focused on developing strategies for clients in the food and beverage industry.
The discussion opened up with some statistics for context. 65 % of consumer companies earn customers’ trust by being transparent about their products. 68% of consumers want to know that companies they support provide high standard of animal welfare. 55% want to know how products are made, and this has been climbing up in the last few years. Despite these insights, the vast majority of companies in the agriculture industry do not apply any practices reflected in current consumer preferences.
The farm Ms. McCloskey operates has been utilizing practices reflective of the above consumer insights since long before the research was conducted. In addition to housing 37,000 dairy cows, the farm is also the largest agritourism dairy farm in the country.
They greet busloads of eager tourists everyday to show them their operations. She aims to help society understand and embrace having to have these sometimes difficult conversations about agriculture. There’s nothing like having eyes on farms, seeing is believing
The vertical farms Mr. Rosenberg operates utilize no soil or sun, but have 30 times the productivity of traditional farms. To achieve this impressive output AeroFarms studies what different varieties of plants want, to optimize their growth, taste, texture, and vitamin density.
Their inputs are sun, air, and water. Surprisingly vertical aeroponic farms use 95% less water than do traditional farms. The difficulty in explaining the technology and science behind their processes leads them to focus on people, and marketing to them.
They are able to optimize kale to reduce its bitterness and off-putting texture. Mr. Rosenburg has observed that if kids don’t grow up eating nutritionally, they likely wont as adults. To combat this, he works with local schools in the disadvantaged community of North Ironbound in Newark New Jersey. He advocates putting good food in people’s way, dubbed stealth health.
Technology in food is not strictly limited to Genetically Modified Organisms, it involves making use of a lot of scientific measures to optimize the results of generating food. Had Monsanto named GMO’s Save the World From Starvation Seeds, there may be considerably less concern about them.
Scientific research has suggested, as objective science can never make outright conclusions, that GMO’s are not harmful. The future of farming will involve a ton of science, research and screen-time. This growth in tech driven agriculture may bring the kids of farming communities back, rather than them darting off to college to never return. Data analysis, ethical practice, and regression models may lead to an explosion in understanding the optimal conditions and inputs to maximize plant growth, nutrition, taste, and efficiency.
Mr. Frank is one of the few Venture Capitalists focuses on the food industry. One of the companies he works with specializes in VR tours of farms, utilizing the “seeing is believing” concept to drive consumer interest in agricultural advances. The system of food production is one of the most underserved in terms of focus, yet produces one of the greatist necessities for human survival. The commercialization of technology in agriculture will soon become a huge sector.
The current state of consumer interest and exposure to agriculture tech, necessitates that companies in this space target hardcore evangelists. Most companies in this sector plan to keep plugging away at advancing their industry and the general publics’ awareness of it, until it becomes the mainstream.
There are a lot of potential reasons for the reluctance of the agriculture industry and society to embrace or even acknowledge agricultural technology, other than GMOs.
Regardless of this, there exists a small subset of devoted advocates and practitioners whose commitment and advances may land them in future textbooks for the disruption and progress they contributed to. Investment, involvement, education, and acceptance of agricultural tech and sustainable practices by the general population is required to advance both the field, the economy, and society.
The stunning productivity, potential, and alignment with current consumer trends sets Agri-Tech up to be the basis for the modernization of agricultural infrastructure. Change is progress and the agricultural industry is as hungry for change, as humanity will be without its integration with technology.