Is technology an idol or a monster? Food innovators don’t see it as a binary choice.
Written by Andrea Tolu
The first time I heard the term “Green Revolution,” I immediately associated it with a massive introduction of policies for cleaner water, more trees, and organic agriculture. As someone who was raised in the 80s, I may be excused for the mistake: at the time, “green” was already a synonym with environmentally friendly.
In fact, the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s was something quite different: the first systematic attempt to increase food production in developing countries using first-world technologies like high-yield cultivars from cross-breeding, nitrogen fertilizers, monocultures, and large-scale irrigation techniques. Quite a different use of the word “green.”
For its supporters, the Green Revolution largely succeeded in feeding billions of starving people. On the other side, its critics claimed it replaced starvation with malnutrition, killed biodiversity and pushed thousands of farmers into poverty, much to the advantage of ag corporations.
A recent book by Charles C. Mann called The Wizard and the Prophet tells the story of these opposing movements through the biographies of the two scientists who started them: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Borlaug was the wizard who believed in technology as a tool to enable us to go beyond the Earth’s natural limits; Vogt – the prophet – claimed that the long-term consequences of upsetting nature’s balance would far outgrow any short-term gains.
The Green Revolution ended fifty years ago, but the main issues it meant to solve remain. If anything, things got more complicated. A 2018 study published by FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) draws a dismal picture of the state of food security: world hunger is increasing, and obesity is no longer just a first-world problem. All that, while the world population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050.
Like before, a similar wizard-vs-prophet split still seems to be present in the agrifood-tech world today. On one side there are tech-based startups applying a certain type of technology – like blockchain or robots – to the food system. On the other, food-based startups are finding new ways to make the supply chain shorter, produce new foods (like insect proteins), or old food in a more sustainable way (like juices from wonky fruits and vegetables).
Which one is driving innovation in food today? And do these two sides exist, anyway?
“I don’t see it as just these two opposing sides,” says Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder and president of Food Tank, a non-profit organization with the mission of reforming the food system. “I think there’s a lot of overlap. If you divide into one versus the other, you lose some of that nuance.”
A lot of this overlap has to do with how far innovation in the food system has come in the last 50 years.
Genetic engineering and fertilizers are no longer the only way to increase production. Farmers can now collect massive amounts of data about crops with smart sensors on the ground and drones from above, for example.
More importantly, increasing production is no longer the one and only challenge: the focus has shifted to the food supply chain as a whole, from field to fork. “I think we are already producing enough food to feed the population, but by far we just don’t distribute it effectively,” says Sarah Nolet, founder and CEO of Agthentic, a consulting firm for startups, investors, and corporations.
To regain control over a broken supply chain the most important tool is data. In its journey from seed to plate, food generates an incredible amount of it. For example, the growing conditions of crops, what fertilizers were used, when it was harvested, and how it was stored and processed. The problem is, a lot of this data is not collected, gets lost or when it is available it’s not always possible to verify its accuracy.
These issues are very similar to those of the financial world, which is why blockchain technology started to be applied to food: “The very decentralized nature of the food supply chain and the need to have a record that everyone can share and rely upon without a central party, was the core as to why we thought blockchain could work,” says blockchain veteran Raja Ramachandran, co-founder and CEO of Ripe.io. His startup integrates blockchain with IoT sensors to collect real-time data about food, and then make it available and transparent to farmers, suppliers and consumers.
Seattle-based Smartcatch provides a similar solution for fisheries. Unlike farmers, fishermen have little control over their harvest. Very often they have to throw away fish that cannot be sold because it’s still juvenile, it doesn’t sell in the market, or should not be caught. That’s a huge source of seafood depletion for the ocean and a financial loss for them. Smartcatch developed a digital monitoring system that allows the crew to see what fish ended up in the trawl net, and a pre-catch release system that remotely opens and closes both ends of the net to block entrance or let unwanted fish to escape. As the fish enters the distribution chain, all the data is sent to a blockchain platform.
The blockchain-plus-IoT combination of Smartcatch and Ripe.io can finally allow us to know everything about a specific food from the moment it’s harvested, or possibly even before that. However, the food supply chain is not just about food. In fact, the “supply” part is made of people who buy and sell that food. From field to consumers, it’s an intricate web of intermediaries: buyers who don’t know if the produce (or fish) is really what they paid for, and farmers struggling with long payment terms, chronic lack of liquidity and difficult access to financing.
Again, these issues often boil down to lack of transparency and trust. To solve that, Australian startup Agridigital developed a blockchain-based commodity management platform where farmers, storage operators and buyers can share all of the information about the produce they exchange and the financial details of transactions. In the next months, Agridigital will also launch a separate blockchain protocol that can work with different applications.The startup’s vision, explains Project Lead Bridie Ohlsson, is to “recreate those models of the past when you had your trusted grocer, and you knew where your food came from. That level of trust has completely disappeared in our global supply chain.”
This extended application of blockchain is an example of how agricultural technology today can address the issue of farmers’ livelihoods which, according to the Prophets, the Green Revolution only made worse.
Agtech can adapt to existing farming models, rather than imposing new ones. Cricket One – a startup from Vietnam that grows crickets and transforms them into flour for animal feed and human food – is a good example of a business model centered around local farmers. “Most technologies right now come from developed countries and require a centralized farming model to be implemented,” says Cricket One co-founder Bicky Nguyen. “In Vietnam, however, we don’t have that luxury. Our agriculture is based on micro-farming, where many individual farmers own a small piece of land, which they pass down to their children. If we want to develop our economy, we need to have a solution for them.”
Cricket One builds self-contained breeding units and gives them to farmers, who grow the insects and sell them back to the startup. These units are distributed in rural areas so that farmers won’t have to go too far from their homes to operate them. The startup also developed a system to get cricket feed from leftovers of cassava (one of the main crops in Vietnam), which would otherwise go to waste.
This awareness about the social sustainability of the food system was a recurring theme with the founders and experts I spoke to.
“Synchronizing the first and the third world is an ongoing issue,” says Ramachandran. “Third world countries don’t necessarily have money for new technology, so new solutions must be very low-cost. In the end, I think people in developing countries have to feel empowered that they could make money and that what they’re doing is meaningful in their lives.”
“The impact of new technologies should be measured on how culturally appropriate and affordable for farmers they are. And whether they are regenerative rather than extractive,” says Nierenberg of Foodtank.
In spite of their shared views, however, food- and tech-based startups are not the same. First of all, they operate in different markets: food companies develop products for consumers while agtech is for farmers or other people in the supply chain.
Farmers and consumers think very differently.
Farmers are skeptical by nature. “They have seen a lot of seasons, crops and ideas come and go, so they’re naturally pretty skeptical when it comes to new technology. I think it’s the responsibility of agtech providers to prove otherwise,” says Stu Adam, CEO of Agronomeye a startup that builds drones equipped with mass spectrometry sensors that capture crop data from above in real time.
Disruption –the most used word in startup lingo – may not go down well with farmers, not when it comes to their daily operations. “You don’t get onto a fishing boat and say: ‘hey let me experiment with something’,” says Rob Terry, Smartcatch CTO and founder. “You need to have something working that’s highly durable and is going to integrate into their workflow.”
This skepticism raises the bar, but also creates a simpler dynamic: farmers and fishermen are in the driver’s seat, so agtech startups must work with them if they want to have an impact.
With consumers, however, it’s more complicated. They have more power than ever but are still influenced by brands, even though their trust in them is at an all-time low.
Between these two sides – consumers and brands – many food-tech startups are finding their place.
“Food corporations have always tried to create products that everyone wanted, but that’s become very difficult now because consumers want novelty and are more sophisticated,” says Alessio Dantino CEO of Forwardfooding, a collaborative platform that connects startups to the corporate world. “With their old approach, big companies cannot close all the gaps in the market, so startups have more possibilities to fill them.”
Some of these demands are already strong, like non-dairy milks from soy, almonds, and peas. Others, for example alternative proteins (like plant-based or lab-grown meat or insect proteins) are developing slowly but steadily.
The other big difference between foodies and techies is their type of investors. “Private funds are more familiar with technology, so when they invest in food, they tend to support technology startups, while food manufacturers invest in food companies,” says Dantino.
In spite of these differences, the wizard-vs-prophet model clearly doesn’t apply to agrifood-tech innovators. Quite remarkably, they’re all holistic thinkers, regardless of their background and business model. They see their solution as part of a complex system where there’s no silver bullet and all pieces must connect to one another.
Technological progress is at the very base of this mentality shift from either/or to both/and. In a way, the Wizards of the Green Revolution were system thinkers too: the domesticated high-yield varieties of wheat and rice had been created to work specifically with certain fertilizers and vice versa. But they were acting within the realm of what technology made possible at the time.
For agrifood innovators of today, technology is neither an idol nor a monster. Rather, it’s the big enabler that will make it possible to transition towards more sustainable lifestyles. Lab-grown and plant-based meat, or insect protein won’t make animal farming a thing of the past. But if technology is good enough to produce alternative proteins sustainably (both economically and environmentally) and sell them at an affordable price, it will encourage more and more people to consume less meat.
Our demands as consumers are of course still a powerful drive for new technologies. But the opposite is also true: innovation does change our way of thinking and living. It happened with the internet, and it’s happening with food at an even faster pace