To many imaginations, agritech is where the unstoppable innovation of Silicon Valley meets the grand challenge of feeding the world’s next billion people. Agritech is viewed as the nearly-in-our-grasp future where the struggles of the world’s poorest farmers are vastly improved through technology; where those most remote pockets of stubborn poverty can be reach with satellites, apps, and big-data fueled logistics that finally—finally!—solve the hunger and economic problems that have plagued so many for so long. Agritech will ease the daily burden of American farmers; bring consumers the foods of the future; and act as a living laboratory where the solutions to the world’s environmental, development, and hunger problems can be solved.
But it’s not quite that simple, or all so sensational.
The reality of the agritech sector writ large is far more likely to be geared towards incremental boosts to farmers’ yields and profits than the hype about world-changing drones and apps may lead you to believe. At its essence, agritech is a way to disrupt business-as-usual, and can do so wherever there is an inefficiency—big or small—anywhere along the agricultural production chain: on the farm, in the supply chain, or at the consumer level. It’s a field in which agribusinesses and venture capital firms invested $25 billion in 2015—but it’s a relatively risk-averse area of innovation, with more practical, day-to-day applications than many think.
On the farm, agritech has improved nearly every facet of daily farm business. Bio-agritech, like improved seeds, improved farm chemicals, genetics, and seeds, has increased the intrinsic yield capacity of the plants and animals grown and raised by farmers. Data-enabled agriculture, like on-farm sensors, GPS in tractors, and improved weather and water forecasting and reporting make the daily operations of farmers more informed and precise, and farm management software has helped to streamline the economic side of operating a farm business. But the most talked about technologies, like big data and drone imaging, aren’t exactly day-to-day on-farm tools yet. They exist, but they still take a backseat on-farm to business software, improved seed varieties, and more low-tech precision agriculture like guiding system for tractors.
Within the supply chain, advancements in crop storage, packaging, food safety, traceability, and logistics have led the bulk of innovations. Fleet optimization helps processing and shipping companies reduce waste, food loss, spoilage, and even their carbon footprint. Food safety is improved through better testing models, better storage and packaging, and better traceability. These advancements impact agriculture the world over, from technologies to help combat aflatoxin contamination in sub-Saharan Africa, to robust traceability that can give global consumers security in an increasingly globalized food system.
At the consumer level, agritech is anything that disrupts business as usual. Direct-to-consumer delivery platforms that cut out the middleman—grocers, or supply chains, or processers—are disruptive. Technologies that cater to consumer preferences and tastes at the expense of traditional agriculture—cellular agriculture or high-tech veggie burgers that cut the animal agriculture sector out of the burger business—are disruptive. But you can’t just build an app and expect commercial success that turns the industry on its head. Many of these start-ups struggle to keep up with their own success, and some don’t quite deliver on their own hype—yet. But give it time: there is plenty of consumer appetite for new technologies, and where there’s a market, they’ll be innovation.
Lastly, there are those agritech innovations that are solutions in search of a problem: those agritechs that don’t have a current market niche to disrupt, or a clear, or an obvious path-to-scale ahead of them. But what they lack in market disruption, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. Emerging fields like alternative agribusiness models, food alternatives and substitutes, and alternative farming methods like indoor and hydroponic farming—there’s plenty of enthusiasm, and some very successful companies, but nothing quite disruptive. Even indoor farming, which by many metrics is a success, wouldn’t be described as a threat to traditional produce farms. But someday: if California drought worsens, and the expense to build indoor farms in the Great Lake states—with their nearly unlimited water supplies—becomes cheaper? It could be a serious disruptive development.
Agritech holds enormous progress for the world, and for food, and for agriculture. For many farmers, processors, and consumers, the improvements today’s technologies have had on their business and their eating habits are many and tangible. But large numbers of these technologies, and many of the most lauded agritechnologies, remain more hype than action: apps aren’t quite here to upend the food system business model, and drones aren’t replacing farmers tending their fields. Basic questions about agritech remain: just because we can invent robotic tractors that reduce the manpower needed to run farms—should we? Would that hasten rural America’s population loss? Do we want that? Outstanding questions aside, investments in agritech continue to grow year-over-year, and as agribusiness, farmers, and consumer continue to be enthralled with what’s possible, it’s safe to say it’s a bright and exciting future for the food on your plate.