January 22, 2016

Guest Commentary: Technology Can Feed the World

By Dave Donnan, Partner and Global Food and Beverage Practice Leader, Oleg Kozyrenko, Manager, and Prakash Chandrasekar, Principal, A.T. Kearney

Over the next 35 years, as the projected world population reaches 9.6 billion, the demand for agricultural products will continue to increase, driven by population growth, rising disposable income within the growing middle class, demand for renewable fuels, and increasing substitution of petrochemical derivatives with “natural” ingredients and materials. At the current rate of improvement, yields of corn, rice, wheat and soy, the four crops that account for about two thirds of globally harvested food calories, will fall short of the needed 2.4 percent annual yield improvement required to double crop production by 2050. In fact, in about a quarter to one-third of today’s most important cropland areas, many of them in the top crop producing nations, yields are no longer improving. To further exacerbate this situation, constraints on land and water availability will continue to increase globally. To meet increased food demand as well as provide food security to almost a billion people who are chronically undernourished, global agriculture must do more than improve fertilization and farming practices—it must drive a step increase in agricultural productivity.

The tech industry, which has forever changed the world’s relationship to technology, media, telecommunications, and alternative energy, is now innovating in agriculture. Venture capital funding of food and agriculture-related startups has increased dramatically from $400 million in 2010 to an estimated $4.2 billion in 2015, and are supporting dynamic, new approaches in the areas of digital, biotech, and process innovation.

Digital Innovation capitalizes on the latest advancements in hardware and software to create a radically new system of farming relying on computing power and connectivity. Soil sensors are measuring how much moisture is in the ground. Startups are using drones to collect data and imagery to provide actionable crop analytics. FarmLink’s advanced analytics puts sophisticated industry data at farmers’ fingertips, allowing growers to validate their practices and decisions, and better plan future investments to maximize yields. In 2013, Monsanto moved into the digital agriculture space by acquiring a farming data solution provider, Climate Corp., for $930 million.

Biotech Innovation incorporates scientific techniques to improve plants, animals, and microorganisms. It includes a broad array of solutions, ranging from genetically engineered plants and animals, improved tools such as CRISPR (a radically improved genome editing technique with vast potential in ecology and conservation), and microbial technologies targeting bacteria. Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn has been designed to withstand dwindling water supplies. Fresh Del Monte produce has engineered a pink pineapple that includes lycopene, an antioxidant compound with cancer fighting properties. Several companies in Silicon Valley are working on development of plant and fermentation-derived meat, egg, and dairy replacements.

Process Innovation introduces new farming techniques to address constraints on farmers’ productivity and environmental sustainability. Vertical farming combined with hydroponics/aquaponics allows agriculture to flourish in areas without soil. Drip irrigation technology uses sub-surface low-pressure piping to deliver water directly to crop roots, resulting in both better yields and preservation of water resources. Reflecting the pertinence of this practice for developing countries, Israeli water sector giant Netafim won a $60 million drip-irrigation system installation project which will positively affect 22 rural communities in India, a country where only 32 percent of all farmland is irrigated. Perennial agriculture (currently in development) may improve crop yields by allowing multiple harvests per plant.

Among these technology innovations, three digital innovations—Sensors, Drones, and Big Data Analytics—have the potential to make the greatest impact on agribusiness in the near future. These three technologies are at the confluence of software and hardware advancements and they often exist in a symbiotic relationship. For example, within the emerging precision agriculture farming eco-system, drones carrying multiple sensors—or Unmanned Aerial Systems, such as those developed by Minneapolis-based Sentera, will collect real-time information in the field, which can be analyzed by powerful cloud-based applications to create immediate actionable recommendations for farmers. These new technologies hold the keys to increasing yields and providing food security for the world.

While improving developed countries’ agriculture is important, improving the developing world’s agricultural efficiency is critical. Any future tech innovation must be tailored not only for the developed world, but to the needs and capabilities of the rural population in developing countries. Innovators are leveraging the fact that more people in India have access to mobile phones than to running water. As an example, SmartAgri is using India’s mobile networks to provide farmers with easy to understand, actionable information based on analysis of useful soil data collected via sensors.

The step increase in agricultural productivity that is required to feed a growing population with shrinking resources requires a concerted effort from agribusiness companies as well as the technology and venture capital community. Furthermore, in order to address concerns over data ownership, data privacy, safety of biotech food, and the sustainability of new farming methods, government regulators and NGOs need to be actively involved. As with climate change, only a collective effort from several constituencies can solve the looming crisis of food security. It will take an accelerated focus of government working with industry to meet the future needs of our global population.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA