Tech investors and food for thought

High tech investors are viewing agriculture through a different lens

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By Susan Crowell / editor@farmanddairy.com
Commentary

Last week, I shared information about cultured meat, or beef and chicken that is being grown from animal cells in the lab, instead of on the hoof on the farm. It’s just one of the sci fi-sounding, futuristic technologies that is becoming real world, even if it’s in a world that’s far removed from ours.

We know how technology is impacting our farm production: robotic milkers, drones, and new ways to marry climate and weather information with on-the-ground crop production. For example, Strider is a big data platform that basically lets farmers monitor pest populations and weed activity in their fields. Farmers can access heat maps that tell them what’s going on, and where, and the dollar impact.

But new technology is being introduced beyond the farm that will impact all links in the food chain. And lab-produced meat isn’t the only focus for food businesses in the startup world. Techies and entrepreneurs are all looking at how and what we eat.

The interest comes from high tech startups, because everyone is searching for the next big Microsoft or Facebook. Everybody eats, they figure, so the market potential is huge, right?

They call it “food tech,” and one source estimates venture capitalists put $103 million into agriculture technology in one 12-month period in 2013 alone. Another $350 million went into food companies. In 2016, approximately $3.23 billion was invested in ag tech by 670 unique investors, according to Wells Fargo.

“Food is the new technological frontier.”

The ranks include “angel investor” and Code.org cofounder Ali Partovi, whose current passion is sustainable food and agriculture. In late 2014, at the New York Time’s Food for Tomorrow conference, Partovi said Silicon Valley is not about the wanton application of technology, but about having the “imagination, the optimism and the audacity to think that if a new technique is superior, then it can replace the old technique, it can scale, and it can change the world.”

Partovi, among a growing group of investors eyeing opportunities within the food and agriculture sector, is a general partner in Farmland LP, a real estate fund that buys cropland and converts it to sustainable, organic practices.

Then it uses what Partovi calls a “multiple producer rotation” to manage the farm — an expert in sheep production, an expert in forages, an expert in asparagus or berries all rotate throughout the Farmland system of “farms” to focus and provide management in their areas of expertise. In this world, gone are the days when a farmer is a generalist and master of all trades. The fund has at least $50 million in farmland under management.

Food for thought, eh?

The phrase “farm to fork” is more than an eat-local slogan, it’s become a food innovation push by those who recognize global challenges like population, resources, weather, health and social dynamics are intertwined with agricultural production, distribution and eating.

It’s precision agriculture and robotics and urban farming. It’s 3D food printers and waste reduction and super foods. It’s also food delivery options, smart labels, logistics. Traceability, nutraceutics and marketing.

There’s a Global Food Innovation Summit being held May 8-11 in Italy, with keynote remarks by former President Barack Obama, and MIT now offers a short course, “Agriculture, Innovation and the Environment, that showcases ag technologies.

As one oft-refenced quote says, “Food is the new technological frontier.”

It can also be as small — but huge — as a detachable cold storage unit on a bicycle-type vehicle called Fruiti-Cycle that aids farmers in sub-Suharan Africa, where post-harvest handling is a major problem, with losses often as great as 50 percent. With this motorized tricycle, which can also be pedaled manually, produce can be stored and transported in a refrigerated unit.

Other examples that have crossed my desk recently:

  • AgFunderNews reported April 13, “Freight Farms, a startup growing lettuce inside shipping containers, has raised $5.7 million in an $8 million round, according to an SEC filing.”
  • Agrisoma Biosciences, which develops and sells Carinata seed as a feedstock for biojet fuels, has raised $15.4 million. “Its mission is to replace the use of food crops for biofuel production.”
  • Earlier this year, the architecture firm Sasaki unveiled plans for a 100-hectare (247-acre) vertical urban farm amid Shanghai skyscrapers. The project incorporates hydroponic and aquaponic systems, and vertical growing walls.

People are viewing agriculture through a different lens. It might not be a bad idea of us to take a peek, too, every once in a while.

 

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