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.